Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl to feature two interim Head Coaches

(FORT WORTH, TEX) –  The game that will break a tie between between two programs will be up to the interim head coaches, as the Pitt Panthers (6-6) prepare to host the Houston Cougars (7-5) in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium on Friday, Jan 2 at Noon.

This will be the third game between the two schools in over 17 seasons, dating back to 1997, when the Cougars were defeated at home 24-35 at the hands of the Panthers. Houston won the previous year 42-35 on the road as well. In a game with such high implications for two teams that managed to become bowl eligible in 2014, neither coach will be around to finish their season with the team.

Paul Chryst left Pittsburgh (6-6) after three seasons to take over his alma mater, Wisconsin. The school then hired Pat Narduzzi as coach on Christmas Eve after he spent the past eight years as the defensive coordinator at Michigan StateJoe Rudolph, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator, has been named interim coach for this contest. He is proud of the way the team has handled the adversity of losing a head coach this season.

“Anytime there’s uncertainty within a group, you know, you have an opportunity there to maybe ‑‑ you have to make good choices. Probably the thing I’ve been most proud of is watching this group make those choices, you know, and continue to work hard and not compromise on their effort and their preparation,” Rudolph said. ” They’ve been a joy to work with, and seeing through years working with the group and seeing ownership that these guys have in the team is something that you stand proud with. I’m excited for them.”

Houston (7-5) fired coach Tony Levine on Dec. 8. Levine went 21-17 in three-plus seasons and signed a new five-year contract in May, though a second straight 5-3 mark in American Athletic Conference play sealed his fate. Defensive coordinator David Gibbs has been named interim coach for this bowl. Gibbs expects to stay on as the defensive coordinator for new coach Tom Herman. Although he is glad that the team has earned a bowl game, he is scared to death of their opponent.

“I told our media the other day, their offensive line is the best one I’ve seen in my two years at Houston,” Gibbs said.  “You know, a big, strong, physical football team, on offense, you know, they control the ball, control the clock; on defense, you know, you hate to say it as a defensive guy, but they’re well‑coached, they play hard, they’re physical.”

Gibbs and Rudolph are just two of five interim head coaches that are coaching in the postseason. Others include Dave Baldwin at Colorado State, who lost 45-10 at the hands of the Utah Utes, in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Baldwin was recently hired to become the offensive coordinator at Oregon State.

Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, will lead Florida against East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 3. Even University of Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, who will be coach the Badgers in their upcoming Outback Bowl vs Auburn on New Year’s Day joined in on the fun. Alvarez served as A.D. and football coach from 2004-05.

Houston could quite possibly be the biggest surprise from this group, winning seven football games the same season that their head coach gets dismissed. Nonetheless, the Cougars are in the Armed Forces Bowl Bowl for the fourth time in eight years, and the proximity to campus is something that has Gibbs excited about the opportunity.

“This will be a very exciting setting for the game, to be on National TV, and we’re four hours away from home,” Gibbs said. “We should have a good alumni base at the game, and I think that gets the kids more pumped up.”

Panthers sophomore running back James Conner has been on an absolute roll this year. Even with a hip injury late in the season, Conner is the nation’s fourth-leading rusher with 1,675 yards. He ranks second nationally in rushing touchdowns (24), fifth in scoring (12.0 points per game) and sixth in rushing yards per game (139.6 avg.). Conner has 24 touchdowns (all by rush) for 144 points, breaking the legendary Tony Dorsett’s school season records for rush TDs (22), total TDs (23) and points (140) that was set during Dorsett’s Heisman campaign. Conner also broke the ACC season rushing TDs record (21, Virginia Tech’s Ryan Williams, 2009) and total TDs mark (22, VT’s Williams, 2009). With over 60 days between their last game, and the Armed Forces Bowl, Conner knows that the team has been focused.

“I believe that we’re ready. We’ve had a little time off, but we knew that we had a game on January 2nd,” Conner said. “Everyone has been doing their job, and working out, and we want to keep that momentum going. We will be ready.”

Houston’s defense will be up for the challenge, allowing just 19.5 points per game for the nation’s 11th-best mark. This group, that goes by the ‘Third Ward Defense,’ is a unit that takes pride in covering the entire field, and the leader of this unit, senior linebacker Efrem Oliphant is currently ranked tenth in the nation, averaging 10.9 tackles per game. Oliphant played in all 12 regular season games, and earned All Conference honors for the second time in his career at Houston. Oliphant has been preparing for the challenge, and believes that the team is ready.

“They are going to run the ball. They are an aggressive football team, and they have some big guys up front,” Oliphant said. “They will try to run all over the field, but the most important thing for us, is that we are all doing our job, being where we need to be and playing hard.”