This year’s edition of the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl takes place on Saturday afternoon. The 8-4 Houston Cougars will be facing off with the 10-2 Army Knights in a game with a projected total of 60.5 points. The Cougars have their work cut out for them versus a stout Army squad, and the task is even harder since the team will be down two key players.
QB D’Eriq King was lost for the year last month with a knee injury, while star defensive tackle Ed Oliver has opted to sit out the game to focus on the upcoming NFL Draft. Army has had one of its finest seasons in recent memory, as the team’s triple-option offense has been running at optimal efficiency for much of the year.
Let’s take a closer look at this contest, starting with the way the oddsmakers see things playing out.
Houston vs. Army, 3:30 PM EST, Sat. December 22, ESPN
Houston vs. Army pick:
Houston opened up the season with a pair of victories over Rice and Arizona, but they came up short in Week 3 versus in-state rival Texas Tech. The Cougars kicked it into gear after the loss and embarked on a five-game winning streak. However, the team ran into some difficulty over the closing stretch and dropped three of their final four games.
After a season-opening loss to Duke, Army won its next two before falling again to Oklahoma, a program which was then ranked #5 in the nation. The Knights would not lose again. The team enters this contest riding an eight-game winning streak, a span that started with a 42-13 victory over Buffalo. Most recently, Army took down traditional rival Navy in their annual meeting by a score of 17-10.
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Houston’s late-season struggles began with a 45-31 loss to SMU. That was followed by another defeat to Temple, but the Cougars were able to right the ship and cruise to a 48-17 victory over Tulane the following week. For the final week of the regular season, they faced off with a tough Memphis team and fell 52-31. The task was made even tougher by the fact that King went down the prior week.
Army’s impressive 10-win season includes six victories of 10 points or more, including a 52-3 thrashing of San Jose State. The team has demonstrated that it’s able to pull out close games as well, as evidenced by a 31-30 squeaker over Miami-Ohio in the middle of the year. Army’s 2018 season has been so impressive that it actually caught the attention of pollsters, as the team appeared in the Top 25 this year.
Looking at the numbers above, we can see that Houston has a prolific offense and can be exposed on defense. On offense, keep in mind that the team will be down King. Freshman Clayton Tune took over after he went down to injury, and he’s expected to get the start once again. While the Cougars can still produce, it’s a hit nonetheless.
For Army, it’s all about the run game. The team is anemic through the air, but quite frankly, the run game is so strong that it doesn’t matter all that much. The Knights are much stronger defensively than the Cougars to boot, and they could give young signal caller Tune some fits. Houston gets the edge on pass rush, while Army has the stronger offensive line on an overall basis.
Turnovers and penalties are in the same ballpark. This is an intriguing tilt of two contrasting styles, and oddsmakers point to it being a close one.
These two squads last met in the regular season back in 2004 – a 35-21 victory for Houston – so we’re better off digging into recent bowl history for more relevant nuggets of information. Houston has gone bowling in each of the past five years and posted a record of 2-3 over that span. Last year, the team faced off with Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl and went down to defeat by a margin of 33-27.
Army has made it to a bowl game in each of the last two years and won them both. Back in 2016, the Knights faced off with North Texas in the First Responders Bowl and walked off the field with a 38-31 victory. Last year, Army also appeared in the Armed Forces Bowl, taking down San Diego State by a final tally of 42-35.
The 2016 Armed Forces Bowl was also a close affair, as Louisiana Tech defeated Navy 48-45. The 2015 edition was a bit more lopsided, as Cal rolled over Air Force 55-36. Houston also appeared in this bowl game following the 2014 season, a 35-34 victory over Pitt.
Oddsmakers are giving Army a 4.5-point edge, and they certainly look to be the more well-rounded squad, lack of passing game aside. For Houston, the question comes down to whether or not the rest of the squad can step their game up in the absence of two of their best players. Such a situation could be a bit deflating for team morale, but it could also serve as a source of motivation when handled correctly.
In the end, this year’s Army team looks to be too strong for a Cougars team that will be operating at less than full capacity. We could see a close game through three quarters, but Army should pull away in the end.
We’ll take Army minus the points.