Air Force and Houston are striking up quite a rivalry. Not only is Thursday morning's Armed Forces Bowl a rematch between the two squads, it's their third meeting in less than a year-and-a-half.
Not bad for two teams from different conferences.
The first game on Sept. 28, 2008 was moved from Houston to Dallas because of Hurricane Ike. Air Force rallied for a 31-28 win at SMU's Ford Stadium. The Cougars took the second meeting in the 2008 Armed Forces Bowl, 34-28.
The rubber match figures to be equally entertaining, pitting Houston's top-ranked passing attack, led by junior quarterback Case Keenum, against Air Force's top-ranked pass defense. Adding to the colorful matchup, both teams agreed to wear their colored jerseys, with the Falcons (7-5) donning their Air Force blues and Houston (10-3) opting for their Cougar reds.
Here are five keys to watch:
1. Keenum vs. Air Force defense
The Houston quarterback was a Heisman Trophy candidate for much of the season, completing 468 of 659 passes for 5,449 yards, 43 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. He averaged 419.2 yards a game, giving the Cougars the most potent passing attack in the land.
But Keenum knows the Air Force defense doesn't fool around. In last year's Armed Forces Bowl, the Falcons limited Keenum to 252 passing yards. They led the nation in pass defense this season, giving up just 148.7 yards a game, and ranked ninth, one spot behind Texas, in scoring defense (15.3).
Houston coach Kevin Sumlin reminded his team that Air Force gave No. 4 TCU it's toughest test, falling 20-17, the Frogs' second-lowest point total of the season outside of a 14-10 win over Clemson on a rain-soaked afternoon.
2. WR James Cleveland vs. CB Reggie Rembert
Cleveland, a junior college transfer, burst onto the scene for Houston with 101 receptions for 1,182 yards, an average of 107.5 yards a game, and 14 touchdowns. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder's receiving yardage ranked sixth in the NCAA, and his 9.2 catches per game placed him second in the country.
Cleveland will likely see plenty of Rembert, the Air Force cornerback from Flower Mound. Rembert, the lone Air Force player selected to the All-Mountain West Conference first team, is second on the team with three interceptions.
Rembert has emerged as Air Force's biggest playmaker despite being its smallest player in stature. At 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, Rembert was consistently told he was too small to play Division I college football as he shined in high school. Air Force took a chance, and Rembert has paid them back ever since.
3. Air Force rush vs. Houston front seven
In nearly every scenario possible, you can bet that Air Force will run the football. Coach Troy Calhoun hasn't deviated far from the triple option instituted by Fisher DeBerry three decades ago. On first down, Air Force runs it 81 percent of the time. You have to go to third-and-7 to find a situation in which the Falcons run it less than 80 percent of the time (77 percent).
On third-and-1, 2, or 3, Air Force did not throw it once this season. However, even though opposing teams know what's coming, the Falcons dare defenses to stop them. The Falcons averaged 273.6 rushing yards per game, third-best in the nation, with Jared Tew (212 carries for 797 yards) and Asher Clark (134-736) handling most of the heavy lifting.
The Cougars struggled mightily to stop the run, giving up 213.5 yards a game and 5.0 yards at a time. They ranked 12th in Conference USA and 112th among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
4. Second-half attacks
The contrasting styles obviously produce two different types of teams. Houston averages 41.2 points a game compared to 28.2 for Air Force. Yet, the Falcons own the time-of-possession edge by more than four minutes, but average 10 fewer plays a game.
That means the Falcons aren't built for coming from behind. When Air Force trails after one quarter, it is 0-4. The Falcons are 0-2 when trailing at halftime. When they lead after three quarters, they're 7-1. Conversely, Houston is 2-1 when trailing at halftime and 3-3 when losing after three quarters.
The Cougars do the majority of their scoreboard damage in the second half. They are slow starters, averaging less than six points in the first quarter and 16.8 in the first half. But they turn it up to average 24.7 points in the final 30 minutes. Air Force averages 14.3 points in the second half.
It would figure that a disciplined Service Academy team doesn't do much to sabotage itself. The Falcons are incredibly prudent handling the football. They led the Mountain West Conference in turnover margin and ranked third in the nation. The Falcons turned it over just 11 times, leading to 36 points for the opposition.
Air Force remarkably lost just eight fumbles on 743 attempts, that's virtually one fumble every 93 carries. Houston is also stingy with the football, turning it over 20 times. Keenum threw just nine interceptions on 659 attempts, one every 73.2 pass attempts.
The longer Air Force can keep possession of the football and win the battle of field position, the better off they'll be against the quick-strike Cougars.