Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl Preview

(FORT WORTH, TEX.) – By the end of today, either Houston (7-5, 5-3 in AAC) or Pittsburgh (6-4, 4-4 in ACC) will be hoisting the championship trophy from the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl.

The Armed Forces Bowl trophy, which is molded from decommissioned parts from the battlefield of every branch of the Armed Forces weighs over 60 lbs, and usually takes two people to hoist.

Both teams made a late season push, winning two of their last three games to become bowl eligible. For the Cougars of Houston, their season’s foundation has been founded on their defense, which is currently ranked 11th in the Nation in Scoring Defense (19.5 ppg), 19th in the nation in Total Defense, and sixth in the Nation in interceptions (19).

On the other side of the field, the Pitt Panthers feature two sophomore offensive threats in sophomore running back James Conner, and receiver Tyler Boyd. Conner was named the ACC Player of the Year, finishing the 2014 season as the Nation’s fifth leading rusher, with 1,675 yards on the ground. Boyd was the first player in ACC history to have more than 1,000 yards receiving both as a freshman and a sophomore. Boyd also received All-ACC honors as well.

Between the coaches, it will be a true matter of tactics, as both coaches are coaching in a bowl game as an interim head coach. Houston’s interim Head Coach, and Defensive Coordinator David Gibbs wins the experience battle with over 20 years of experience, going back to 1993, when Gibbs was the Defensive Backs coach at Colorado.

For Joe Rudolph, who serves split duties as the Offensive Coordinator, and the Tight Ends coach, will also be the team’s head coach. Rudolph began his coaching career as a strength coordinator with Ohio State in 2006.

Both coaches are aware of their opponent’s strengths, and have had almost a month to prepare for their opponent. Gibbs has already confirmed his fears for the matchup against the Panthers. “I’m scared to death. These guys ‑‑ I have coached a lot of football at a lot of different levels, you know, from top to bottom, you know, starting with our offense, got a great running back, everybody knows, great wide receiver,” Gibbs said.

Rudolph knows the arduous task that he will face against the Cougars top-ranked defense. Although the Panthers have the youngest team in Panther history (81 underclassmen; 53 freshmen, 28 sophomores), Rudolph is confident in his team. “That’s the challenge for this bowl and you know and I think that’s where you lean on the closeness of this team in their relationships and you know feel great about that, feel great about their prep,” Rudolph said.

Story of the Game 

– The Cougar defense has forced a turnover in 34 of their last 35 games, and has forced multiple turnovers in 28 of their last 33 games. They currently lead the NCAA with 43 turnovers. The Cougars are also returning 28 starters, and every stat leader from 2013 is returning with the exception of kicker Richie Leone, who lead the team in Punting and Field Goals. The Cougars are ranked in the top 23 of three defensive categories, including Scoring Defense (19.5 – 11th), Total Defense (334.6 – 19th), and Interceptions (19 – sixth).

– Pittsburgh comes into the Armed Forces Bowl with three starters on the offensive line from 2013. Senior Matt Rotheram has 27 career starts, and received All-ACC Honorable Mention last season. Senior TJ Clemmings recently made the transition from the defensive line to the offensive line, and has started all 13 games at right tackle this season. Sophomore guard Dorian Johnson lettered as a true freshman, and played in 12 games at both both tackle and guard last season.

Keys to Victory

Houston – The Cougars have lived off of the big play all season. Their 18 offensive plays of 40 yards or longer currently leads the American Conference. Players like sophomore quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (64-yard TD run vs. Memphis), and senior receiver Markeith Ambles (89 yard receiving TD) will have to play at that explosive level that they are capable of.

– The matchup for the Cougar defensive backs against Boyd is going to be the telling story of this game. If junior defensive back Adrian McDonald has a solid game, the Cougars will be in great shape to win this game. McDonald has five interceptions, two passes deflected, three forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries on the season at strong safety.

– The Nation’s best, when it comes to turnovers has to continue to do what they have done all season – force turnovers. With the weather conditions cold and raining, the Cougars should be able to focus on Conner, and stop Conner, and the Pitt high-powered ground game.

Pittsburgh – As good as Pitt has been this season, they have also been effective throwing the ball, however, only one receiver outside of Boyd has more than 200 yards receiving. The Panthers are going to have to find opportunities to get players outside of Conner and Boyd involved. junior tight end J.P. Holtz has three receiving touchdowns on the season.

– The Panthers have to set the tone early against the Cougars. In five of the six Panthers wins this season, the team managed to score in the first quarter. Houston has scored in the first quarter in all but two games (UTSA, Memphis). The Panthers can not afford to play cat-and-mouse in this game. If they hope to win, they must dominate from the jump, and keep time of possession in their favor.

– The run game is going to be important for Conner and the Panthers. If Conner can get into a rhythm early, this team should be able to dictate the pace of the game. Sophomore quarterback Chad Voytik, and freshman running back Chris James are going to have their opportunities as well. These three combine for 2,709 of the Panthers’ 3,303 yards on the ground, averaging over five yards per carry.

Prediction: I give the Panthers a slight edge because of the weather, and their rushing attack, but this game could go any way. 33-28 in favor of Pittsburgh.