Tempo the Key in This Battle of Opposites

By Anthony Andro

There are no secrets about what the Houston Cougars and Army West Point Black Knights want to do in Saturday’s Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl. Who wins the 16th annual game at Amon G. Carter Stadium will be determined by who does it best.

Houston (8-4) has won by moving at a lightning-quick pace under head coach Major Applewhite. The Cougars rank dead last nationally in time of possession, holding the ball just 25 minutes a game. But the Cougars have made magic happen when they do have the ball, as they rank fourth in the country in scoring offense (46.4 points) and sixth in total offense (528.6 yards).

The Black Knights (10-2) take a completely different path to the same results. No team holds the ball more than Army West Point, which leads the country in time of possession at 38 minutes, 51 seconds. But Army West Point does its damage on the ground, ranking second nationally in rushing yards. The end result is similar as the Black Knights score nearly 40 points a game.

So whichever team can play the game at its tempo will have the best chance at winning.

 “It’s just something you’re not familiar with,” Applewhite said of facing the Black Knights. “There’s a training process you have to go on through the spring and fall camp and throughout the season on some of your dead days to get ready for that. Obviously we’re going to face it every year in our division against Navy (in the AAC) but there are different variations and small nuances. It’s a game-day deal where the speed of it cannot be replicated. It’s very difficult to prepare for.”

Applewhite also knows what his team can do offensively even without quarterback D’Eriq King, who accounted for 50 touchdowns before a knee injury ended his season. True freshman Clayton Tune gets the start, and he’s coming off a three-touchdown game in a loss to Tulane.

“Our tempo, the way we want to play, in terms of playing fast and obviously putting great players in position to make plays,” Applewhite said. “It’s about trying to find the right player on the right defender, not wasting downs. If you can’t snap it, flip it, pass it, hand it to someone who can score you’re wasting time. Let’s get the right players on the wrong players. Our quarterbacks have done a good job this year of taking care of the football.”

For the Cougars to do what they want offensively they are going to have to possess the ball some. The Black Knights don’t plan on letting that happen. Army West Point is seeking its ninth-straight win and hasn’t lost a game since its 28-21 overtime setback to playoff-bound Oklahoma.

Six Army West Point players have run for at least 200 yards this season with senior fullback Darnell Woolfolk leading the way with 885 yards and 14 touchdowns. Quarterback Kelvin Hopkins has also run for 847 yards and thrown for another 956.

Woolfork is eager to see which team can establish its will.

“They have a great offense,” Woolfork said. “That’s why they don’t hold the ball too long because they’re scoring so fast. Our strength is holding the ball as long as we can. We just have to run our offense. I have great faith in our defense to make a few stops. If we can do that I think we’ll be happy with the results. We have to cap drives off with touchdowns.”

The Cougars will do their best to make sure that doesn’t happen. Houston beat Navy 49-36 earlier this year in its only other matchup against a triple-option team but gave up more than 300 yards on the ground in that game. The Cougars will also be without All-America defensive lineman Ed Oliver, who is skipping the game to prepare for the NFL Draft.

Houston linebacker Austin Robinson is confident his team will do what it takes to win.

“Our offense does a great job of putting points on the board,” Robinson said. “Our job is to stop people. Whatever we face defensive wise in this game we’ll be prepared.”