The rematch was a good one, and by day’s end, that crawl along the bottom of ESPN telecasts about the Houston Cougars' being 28-year bowl losers had changed to past tense.
“That bugged me to keep seeing that,” Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said.
Blowing scoring chances inside the 5-yard line bugged Sumlin, too, but a Cougars defense few knew existed skillfully decoded the Air Force triple option.
Houston (8-5) made a final six-minute stand after Air Force (8-5) narrowed the gap to three points, winning the sixth Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl 34-28 Wednesday at Amon G. Carter Stadium before a bowl-record crowd of 41,127.
UH ended an eight-bowl losing streak stretched over 28 years, a “legacy,” as Sumlin called it, for a senior class that inherited a new coaching staff after Art Briles’ departure to Baylor.
“They’re the group that ended it,” Sumlin said. “They can come back to games with pride. They played that way.” UH avenged September’s 31-28 loss to Air Force, a game Hurricane Ike banished from Houston to Dallas. Since then, Air Force has changed starting quarterbacks — senior Shea Smith to freshman Tim Jefferson. UH has made about 11 personnel changes due to injuries or performance.
“That’s a whole different team,” Sumlin said, echoing his mantra since learning he’d face Air Force again.
Different this time were some game-saving stops by Houston’s defense, none bigger than Air Force’s four-and-out with 2:34 remaining. Trailing by six, the Falcons had 3:18 to drive 64 yards.
They gained 2 on fullback Jared Tew’s first carry, and Jefferson followed with three incompletions. UH linebacker Cody Lubojasky batted away the fourth-down attempt.
“You’re down six and really in a position to win the game,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “You can’t rush it and come out of what you’ve been doing. We’ve got to get to that point where we perform at a different level in those situations.”
All things considered, the youth-heavy Falcons didn’t perform badly, holding UH quarterback Case Keenum to a season-low 252 yards passing. Keenum, the Bowl Subdivision’s leading passer (397 yards per game), still ran for two scores. Air Force did well checking UH receivers after the catch.
Mostly, it couldn’t check UH running back Bryce Beall, Keenum’s safety valve who ran for 135 yards and had four catches for 92 yards. Beall’s only scoring run put UH ahead 7-0 early.
Both offenses cranked up early, with Tew and Keenum trading short TD runs for a 14-7 UH lead. Two drives later, UH drove to the Air Force 1 after defensive end Phillip Hunt of Fort Worth Dunbar recovered a Falcons fumble.
That UH drive, resulting in a field goal for 17-7, ended with Beall getting stopped near the goal line on three short runs and Keenum unable to find receiver Mark Hafner in the end zone.
Jefferson’s keeper and a later 44-yard field goal by Ryan Harrison tied the game at 17-17. Harrison, from Keller, missed twice in the first half, from 28 and 55 yards — though he had to re-try from the latter distance after Houston’s last-second “ice” timeout negated a good kick.
“Every chance you have to get points, you’ve got to convert,” Calhoun said. “Especially on that [shorter] part of the field, it’s got to be at least three.”
Twice more in the game, UH drove inside Air Force’s 5 but didn’t score. First, Sumlin took the blame for UH running out the first half’s last eight seconds as Beall took a pass and was tackled at the Air Force 1.
Then in the third quarter, Beall appeared to score before losing the ball, but a replay-reversal ruled he fumbled over the goal line, giving Air Force the ball at its 20.
At this point, UH made a critical defensive stop. Trailing 24-20 after Keenum’s second TD run and another Harrison field goal, Air Force couldn’t capitalize on Beall’s turnover. Hunt’s sack of Jefferson on third-and-long — Hunt’s 34th of his career to set a new UH mark — ended the Falcons’ threat.
Keenum answered with a 13-yard TD pass to Andre Kohn for a 31-20 lead before Air Force’s Tew (149 yards) injected late drama with his second score.