Air Force and Houston set to meet again

Air Force News Service

FORT WORTH, Texas — Houston coach Kevin Sumlin had a simple answer when asked Sunday if his Cougars were able to concentrate fully the first time they met Air Force this season.

“No,” the first-year coach said after a practice at TCU — the Cougars’ second-to-last before their rematch with the Falcons today in the Armed Forces Bowl.

The teams’ Sept. 13 meeting, originally scheduled to be played at the Cougars’ home stadium, was moved to Dallas just three days before the game because Hurricane Ike was moving through the Gulf of Mexico toward Houston.

The Falcons won the game, 31-28. But it would be understandable if the Cougars’ minds were elsewhere. The hurricane was pounding Houston and the surrounding areas, and 54 of the team’s players live within a 100-mile radius of the city.

In the back of everyone’s head in the first meeting with them, it was a factor,” said senior tight end Mark Hafner, who is from Waller, Texas, which is less than an hour northwest of Houston.

“Living in a hotel for a week? And watching the hurricane on the news and guys couldn’t get a hold of their parents and the hurricane going through the same time during pregame?” Sumlin said. “It was extremely disruptive. And as much as I wanted to discount it, you’d be very insensitive not to know that some of our guys couldn’t get a hold of their parents, couldn’t get a hold of their brothers and sisters.”

The Cougars certainly are having a less-stressful week of preparation for the bowl. But that’s not the only difference from the first time they met the Falcons. Houston has nine different starters and, perhaps more importantly, is better adjusted to new coaches and new schemes.

Sumlin brought in Dana Holgorsen as his offensive coordinator and changed the offense to a wide-open attack modeled after what is run at Texas Tech, where Holgorsen had spent the previous eight seasons (including 2007, when he was the Red Raiders’ offensive coordinator). In addition, Houston switched from a 3-4 defensive front to a 4-3 and changed some special teams concepts.

That Houston has become more comfortable in its new schemes is apparent in its record. After stumbling to a 1-3 start, The Cougars won six of their last eight regular-season games — including a 41-24 victory over then-No. 23 East Carolina and a 70-30 thumping of then-No. 25 Tulsa.

But it’s also evident in watching the Cougars on tape, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said.

“You just see their execution’s much better, their guys play even more swift,” Calhoun said. “And they don’t cut guys loose at all in any of their pass protections in the last six games of the year.”

“They’re a lot better team,” Air Force senior outside linebacker Hunter Altman said. “They’ve kind of come into the team they wanted to be before, when they played us.”