Friday, January 09, 2009

Coogs win Armed Forces Bowl, end season with 8-5 record

I can't believe it's taken me over a week to get around to writing about the outcome of last week's Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, which I attended. The Coogs ended their 2008 campaign on a high note with a 34-28 victory over Air Force, gaining revenge on the Falcons for their hurricane-affected loss last September and snapping a bowl losing streak that reached back to the Carter administration.

Indeed, it had been 28 years since the last time Houston had last won a bowl, when they defeated Navy in the 1980 Garden State Bowl. Since that time the Coogs had gone 0-8 in postseason appearances and, with Notre Dame's victory over Hawaii on Christmas Eve, were in sole possession of the longest bowl losing streak in FBS, a distinction the long-suffering UH program simply did not need. Needless to say, breaking that streak was a huge monkey off of the program's back.

The game started out well, with Air Force fumbling the opening kick-off. The Coogs recovered and scored a touchdown only a minute and a half into the game. But then Air Force got the ball back and used their option offense to march down the field and score a touchdown of their own only two minutes later. At that point, it looked as if the Cougar defense was in for another long and helpless afternoon. But they began to make adjustments on subsequent Falcon possessions, even forcing another fumble later in the quarter, and the Cougar offense kept putting points on the board. The score was Houston 17, Air Force 7 at the end of the first quarter.

The second quarter was a bit frustrating to watch, as the UH offense began to sputter. Quarterback Case Keenum, who did not have his best game of the season in the bowl, made some poor decisions and bad throws that led to some three-and-outs, and it didn't help when Tyron Carrier fumbled away kickoff return of his own late in the quarter. Air Force crawled their way back and the score was tied at 17 apiece going into the half.

The Coogs started the third quarter with a touchdown. Air Force responded with a long, clock-chewing drive of their own but could only come away with a field goal. Early in the fourth quarter it appeared that the Coogs added another six points to their total with another Bryce Beall rush into the endzone, but the referees reviewed the play and somehow decided that, not only did Beall not score the touchdown, he fumbled the ball into the endzone for an Air Force touchback. I've since watched replays and simply don't understand how the refs came up with that call, but every time a play gets reviewed, the Cougars always seem to get screwed.

The defense stepped up following the phantom turnover and stopped Air Force, giving the Coogs good field position. This time Case Keenum hit Andre Kohn with a 13-yard touchdown pass that the refs could not overturn, and, with 10:28 left in the game, things were looking good for Houston with a 31-20 advantage. The Falcons were frustrated with another good stand by the Cougar defense, and when the Coogs got the ball back halfway through the fourth quarter it seemed that one more score would put the game away.

In true UH fashion, however, the Coogs decided to make things interesting. Case Keenum threw a pass to TE Mark Hafner, but the ball was deflected off of Hafner's shoulder pads and landed into the arms of Air Force defender Aaron Kirchoff. The interception led to a quick Air Force touchdown and two-point conversion to bring them within three points with 6:06 remaining. Houston's subsequent drive didn't really take a lot of time off the clock - there was no reason for Case Keenum to take snaps with 20 seconds remaining on the play clock - and only resulted in a field goal. It would be up to the defense to keep Air Force from reaching the endzone - and probable victory - in the final 3:24 of the game.

With little time remaining on the clock, only one remaining timeout, and a lot of field to cover, Air Force was forced into a passing situation. This can pose problem for a run-oriented offense like Air Force's, however - the Falcons only completed 8 of 18 passes that afternoon - and that, along with a Houston pass defense that stepped up to do its job - meant that the Falcon's final possession didn't even result in a first down. The Coogs got the ball back and ran out the clock to end the game and secure the victory.

So how would I characterize the 2008 University of Houston football campaign? I would call it a success.

No, an 8-win season is nothing particularly exceptional. No, the Cougars did not end the season with a top-25 ranking. No, the Cougars did not win the conference or even their division (the Rice game still sticks in my craw). But, when one considers the things that the Coogs did accomplish:
I think it's safe to say that the Coogs had a pretty good season - especially when one considers that this was done under the leadership of a rookie head coach and that the team had to cope with the disruption caused by Hurricane Ike. While there were certainly disappointments - the Colorado State, Marshall and (especially) Rice games quickly come to mind - I think the good clearly outweighs the bad. At the very least, unlike many previous years I'm not going into the offseason with a bad taste in my mouth about Cougar football.

The program definitely created for some momentum this past season. Will they be able to keep it going in 2009? Other bloggers are already thinking about the coming season. It's a bit early for me to start giving too much thought to something that's still eight months away; I want to see what the incoming recruiting class looks like and how the schedule shapes up first. I do know, however, that while the team returns a ton of skill on the offensive side of the ball, the squad is also losing (by my count) 17 seniors to graduation, including a significant portion of the offensive line and seven starters on defense. We'll just have to wait and see how the coaching staff addresses these losses. At the very least, I hope 2009 sees more consistency on defense, fewer turnovers on offense and no more slow starts that require miraculous, nail-biting second-half comebacks.

But that's all to worry about later in 2009. Right now, I'm going to sit back and enjoy the Coogs' accomplishments of 2008.

Check out Todd's account of the game here and a rundown of his gameday experience here. Good work, Todd!

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