In the past football off season, we have appeared on other peoples’ podcasts or radio shows regularly. We have gotten one question with surprising frequency and it’s “what was your reaction to your team’s performance in the Armed Forces Bowl” or some close variation of that wording.
Inevitably, they’re surprised to learn that for both of us it was the same: apathy. It was a sign of how sideways the 2018 season had gone and how everyone involved (players included) just wanted the year to end.
So far, most of the games covered in this countdown were Cougar wins or in one case: a loss before I became a fan of the team.
This game will be the first one where I experience the 'joy' of re-living a terrible loss. Bizarrely enough though, this game led to a seismic positive change for Cougar football.
Leading into the Game:
Going into the last month of the 2018 regular season Cougar fans had plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
After a defensive collapse up at Texas Tech in week 3, the Coogs rattled off 5 straight wins. The highlight of this run was the last of those wins: a 57-36 win against at the time undefeated and ranked USF.
But there were some cracks in the foundation, mainly on the defensive side of the ball. Even more so than previous years, any success this Cougar defense had hinged on Ed Oliver being on the field. Against Navy, Oliver absorbed an uncalled chop block to the knee and did not play the rest of the game or the following one against USF.
It was clear that this injury wasn’t a ‘short term fix’ and the Cougar defense had no choice, but to try and figure out life without a generational talent like Oliver. Over the course of the season there were also season ending injuries to defensive linemen: Isaiah Chambers, Peyton Turner and Jerard Carter that forced the staff into playing true freshmen and former walk-ons.
Even more bad news came during the one Cougar win over this late season stretch: a surprising ‘Senior Night’ blowout win over Tulane. At the end of the 2nd quarter on a scoring play King hobbled off the field and we found out later tore his right knee meniscus, ending his 2018 season.
Oliver wasn’t back until the regular season finale at Memphis and while he did his darndest to keep the Coogs in that game, he left hurt again at halftime and without Oliver the Coogs were powerless to stop their opponent.
In the last 5 regular season game the Cougar defense allowed 41.8 points per game. So, it surprised nobody when Mark D’Onofrio was relieved of his defensive coordinator duties after Memphis became the 3rd team that season to score 50+ points against his group. Linebackers coach Dan Carrell would be the interim DC for the bowl game.
On the other side of the ball, the opposite type of coaching movement was happening. Despite signing 3-year extensions that gave them handsome raises, Cougar offensive coordinator/QBs coach Kendal Briles and offensive line coach/run game coordinator Randy Clements were credibly connected to assistant coach openings at Florida State.
While nothing was announced before the game, there was enough smoke indicating mutual interest and probably an imminent deal between the 2 coaches and FSU.
The Coogs reward at the end of this frustrating season was the Armed Forces Bowl in Ft. Worth against a team on the exact opposite trajectory: the Army Black Knights.
Army came into the bowl game off 8 straight wins, including their 3rd straight win over Navy and holding the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy for another year.
Black Knights head coach Jeff Monken was doing something nobody had done in decades: win football games at West Point. Monken was previously head coach at FCS power Georgia Southern and was a longtime assistant of Paul Johnson: the Flexbone offense savant that turned around Navy.
As option offenses go the Black Knights ran a particularly physical, inside run focused variant. The focal points of the offense were fullback Darnell Woolfolk and quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr who each ended up finishing the year with 200+ carries each. In the rare times Army elected to pass (on average, 7.5 times per game) Hopkins was effective enough throwing the ball that opponents had to respect the occasional deep ball.
This was a nightmare match up for a Cougar defense that hemorrhaged rushing yards down the stretch and was particularly vulnerable to an interior run game. Oliver made it clear he was calling it a career (he had officially declared this before the 2018 season).
Finally, the Black Knights were playing for a program-best 11th win if they could get past the Cougars. This game would end up breaking its fair share of records.
If you’re reading this, you know how this game went and thus I’ll try not to focus more than necessary on the gory details.
My personal experience with this game in real time was minimal. I ended up going on a somewhat impromptu date to a vineyard in the Hill Country and didn’t have good enough service to frequently check the score.
By the time I had the service (and interest) to check the score, UH had just scored with 12:04 left in the 2nd quarter on a 3-yard TD pass from fill-in QB Clayton Tune to Romello Brooker. This good news was tempered by the fact that this score only cut the Black Knights’ lead to 21-7.
That didn’t do anything to change the momentum of this game and in the next 4:40 of game time the Black Knights scored 2 more touchdowns, both on runs by Hopkins Jr.
At this point in less than 20 minutes of game time the Black Knights scored 35 points, an amount they had only surpassed in 4 of their 12 regular season games. Their offense was designed to be as deliberate as possible, prioritizing long time-consuming drives over gaudy point totals. And yet, the Black Knights WERE NOT EVEN DONE IN THE FIRST HALF.
On their 6th possession of the game the Black Knights scored their 6th TD on an 11-yard run by slot back Article Hobbs IV with 51 seconds left in the half. I remember getting home and while still feeling the effects of Hill Country wine watching the Coogs go down 42-7 and being unable to do anything but laugh. The game was already an absurd blowout and it wasn’t even halftime.
Even though this game’s 2nd half would meet any definition of ‘garbage time’ the Black Knights still couldn’t help but score 28 more points.
Whether it was caused bad personnel match ups, bad scheme or a team that mentally checked out of the season a month prior (it was probably a combo of the 3) the result was a 70-14 Cougar loss.
Army possessed the ball 11 times in this game and scored a touchdown 10 of those times. Their 70 points tied West Virginia’s 2012 Orange Bowl performance (ironic, given the collision course UH was on with the architect of WVU’s offense that year) for most points scored in a bowl game. Their 56-point margin of victory also tied the all-time bowl record.
Their QB Hopkins Jr tied the Army single-game rushing TD record with his 5 rushes into the end zone that day. As a team the Black Knights finished with 507 rushing yards and if you watched this game that number probably seems low.
It was a no good, very bad day for Houston Cougar football.
The scale of this defeat turned the whispers about job security around head coach Major Applewhite into a roar.
After an uninspiring 15-11 record in 2+ years and the humiliation of the Armed Forces Bowl defeat, there was no longer an appetite from any stakeholder for a 3rd year of Applewhite leading the program. Just over a week after the bowl loss, UH made a poorly kept secret official and fired Applewhite.
By this point it had also become a poorly kept secret that there was mutual interest UH leadership and West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen. If you believe some reports, there was interest and communication between the parties even before the Armed Forces Bowl.
The timing on Applewhite’s dismissal and these negotiations were somewhat tactical, as Holgorsen’s WVU buyout dropped precipitously on January 1st of the soon to be new year.
Unlike 2016 when Holgorsen’s name was thrown around during the early days of that coaching search, his imminent arrival with a contract that would pay him more than WVU ever paid (along with a huge dollar amount for assistants) was being reported by every outlet.
On January 1st Holgorsen’s arrival was announced via a tweet from the Cougar Football official Twitter account where he sipped a Red Bull and asked the fan base if they wanted to go win some games.
That is why is Army’s demolition of Cougar football in a pre-Christmas bowl game made a select list of significant games.
Hiring Holgorsen may have been something school leadership did regardless of this game’s outcome. But the way in which Cougar football was defeated on that Saturday afternoon made it impossible for anything but large-scale change to happen.