Never a Problem with Houston in Town

By Troy Phillips

Close your eyes, flip through the six or so history/ records pages of a Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl game program and put a finger anywhere.

Did you land on something having to do with the University of Houston? You probably should have.

Naturally, the Cougars are splashed all over that section and have significantly more ink dedicated to them for today’s return trip to the 16th Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl at TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium. With a record fifth appearance in this bowl, Houston (8-4) is set to face No. 22 Army (10-2) at 2:30 p.m. Either team can collect an LMAFB-record third championship trophy.

Houston probably furnished the bowl a top-2 or -3 highlight on the day after New Year’s Day 2015. The Cougars had an interim coach in David Gibbs against Pittsburgh on a gloomy, damp day at Amon Carter. (Soon-to-be coach Tom Herman was waiting in the wings.)

For Houston, the first three quarters were anything but spectacular. Pitt led 31-6, and the Cougars pulled within 31-13. In the final four minutes, things became intensely real. Houston recovered two onside kicks, Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. threw three TD passes, and Gibbs pulled the figurative slot lever. With 56 seconds remaining, and UH having missed an extra point in the first half, Ward hit Deontay Greenberry for the winning 2-point conversion. Houston 35, Pitt 34.

“That was a great comeback,” LMAFB executive director Brant Ringler said. “What an ending. Very lucky for us.”

What happens today is anyone’s guess. Houston coach Major Applewhite – a familiar, somewhat mythical name in the University of Texas quarterback lineage, has an offense that can move chains against anyone. UH ranks sixth in the FBS in total offense at 528 yards per game. Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles joined the staff this season and made an obvious impact.

Army, the No. 2 rushing offense in the FBS, will try to find traction against a Houston defense that allowed nearly 200 yards a game on the ground. Army held the ball nearly 40 minutes a game this season – No. 1 in FBS in time of possession. Each season in the American Athletic Conference, Houston faces Navy, Army’s triple-option reflection.

“It’s a similar style,” Applewhite said. “You get ready for that one kind of game every year and don’t follow up with one like it, at least for a long time. To play two of them in one season is a challenge.”

Houston beat Navy, 49-36, and linebacker Austin Robinson had 21 tackles.

“He had a phenomenal game against this style,” Applewhite said. “There will be some retention (vs. the triple-option), how fast they operate in the offense, the (possession) time constraints, in terms of the type of team. But it’s two different teams with two sets of personnel.”

In years after four of its Armed Forces Bowl berths, Houston has trended upward, twice winning 10 games and twice 13. It also had to replace three head coaches in that time, including Herman, when others came calling.

Houston athletics, though, continues to position itself for the next merry-go-round known as college conference realignment. As television contracts continue shaving off years, UH has opened $120 million on-campus TDECU Stadium in 2014 and this month the $60 million Fertitta Center for basketball and volleyball.

Briles and offensive line coach Randy Clements received three-year contract extensions, and Applewhite is on a national search for a defensive coordinator. Before there was Central Florida crashing the Power 5 party the past two seasons, there was Houston doing the same in 2016. Before that chapter can be written, this one against Army needs to be completed.

“We’re expecting to compete at the highest levels,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman said. “We’ve made a significant commitment as we build for next year and later. We look ahead and try to get into the best position.”

Maybe a third Armed Forces Bowl title is the first step.

Fort Worth-based freelance writer Troy Phillips has covered 11 of the past 12 Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowls.