FORT WORTH, Texas (AP)—There was a surreal atmosphere and somewhat empty feeling when Air Force and Houston played earlier this season.
With Hurricane Ike approaching the Texas coast in September, the game was moved from Houston north to the SMU campus. Then kickoff was switched from mid-afternoon to midmorning and played in windy and rainy conditions in a near-empty stadium.
“It was just every different possibility, every different circumstance that could happen before a game happened,” Houston quarterback Case Keenum said.
“Nobody saw the game anyway,” coach Kevin Sumlin said.
Houston (7-5), which hasn’t won a bowl game in 28 years, and Air Force get another chance to play in the Dallas-Fort Worth area Wednesday, this time in the Armed Forces Bowl on the TCU campus. The weather forecast calls for sunny skies and more than 40,000 tickets have been sold for the game.
“It was like a JV high school game with the amount of people there,” Air Force tight end Travis Dekker recalled.
Air Force (8-4) didn’t complete a pass in the first-ever meeting between the teams Sept. 13, but held on for a 31-28 victory after building an early 24-point lead against an understandably distracted Houston team.
Instead of returning to hurricane-ravaged Houston, the Cougars stayed in the Dallas area another week before going to Colorado State. After another three-point loss, the Cougars then went 6-2 the rest of the season and scored at least 41 points in all but one of those games.
Now the Cougars are trying to avoid a record they don’t want to share with Notre Dame.
With the Irish ending their NCAA-record bowl losing streak at nine in last week’s Hawaii Bowl, Houston now has the longest run of postseason futility with eight consecutive bowl losses.
“For our seniors, it’s about your legacy, who you are, what you did. … They can be the team, the senior class, that erases that, which is huge,” Sumlin said. “For the young guys, it’s the first game of next year and how you kick off next season.”
Sumlin is bothered every time he is reminded of that nearly three-decade postseason drought.
“That’s not a good thing to be remembered by,” said linebacker Phillip Hunt, whose final college game comes in his hometown. “Me as a senior, I just want to change that and build a new winning tradition and a new legacy around here, and get something started for the young guys.”
This is Houston’s fifth bowl trip in six seasons and fourth in a row—both matching school records. But the Cougars’ last postseason victory came in the 1980 Garden State Bowl.
Air Force is playing in its second consecutive Armed Forces Bowl. The Falcons lost to California last year, and ended this regular season last month at the same stadium, losing 44-10 to TCU.
Not only will the atmosphere be different this time, Air Force and Houston are changed since then.
“You’re talking apples and oranges,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “They’re a completely different team and in a lot of ways we are too. That’s kind of a natural growth and evolution of any squad, but especially with these two teams.”
The Cougars were still adjusting to first-year coach Sumlin, finding their way and dealing with the disruption caused by the hurricane that created a nearly six-week gap between games on their own campus.
Led by sophomore Keenum, who has 13 consecutive 300-yard passing games and at least 480 in each of the last two, the Cougars are second nationally with 414 passing yards a game. In the regular season-ending 56-42 loss to crosstown rival Rice, Houston had three 100-yard receivers for the first time in 16 years.
Air Force is a young squad, especially at the skill positions.
Midway through the season Tim Jefferson became on the fourth freshman starting quarterback in Air Force history and went 5-2. Freshman running back Asher Clark ran for 508 yards the last seven games and the Falcons finished fifth among FBS teams with 269 rushing yards a game.
“It was a group that in mid-August, fortunately we didn’t have to play games then,” Calhoun said. “We didn’t have a single returning starter at the skill positions. In a lot of ways, we’re still continuing to grow. … Once they start shaving, we’ll be a better football team next year.”