With 3 minutes 18 seconds left in Wednesday’s Armed Forces Bowl, Air Force took over at its own 36-yard line trailing Houston by six.
A dramatic victory and the Falcons’ first postseason triumph since 2000 seemed within reach.
But after fullback Jared Tew gained two yards on first down, Air Force failed to connect on three straight passe
Seemingly before their potential game-winning drive had started, it was finished.
And so were the Falcons.
Houston gained one first down and then ran out the clock for a 34-28 victory in front of an announced crowd of 40,127 at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium.
“I was deeply upset that I couldn’t complete a pass on that series to get us down the field,” Air Force freshman quarterback Tim Jefferson said. “Coach (Troy) Calhoun told me all I needed to do was get first downs, keep getting first downs and we didn’t even move the ball.”
Houston avenged a 31-28 loss to Air Force on Sept. 13 in Dallas and finished the season 8-5. The Cougars also ended an eight-game losing streak in bowls, winning for the first time since Jan. 1, 1980.
Air Force, meanwhile, lost for the third straight time to finish the season 8-5. The defeat was Air Force’s third in its last three bowl games and its sixth in six games all-time at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
While the failed final possession stung, it was just one of many missed opportunities the Falcons were left to lament. Jefferson barely overthrew several deep passes, normally reliable kicker Ryan Harrison missed two of four field goal attempts and freshman cornerback Anthony Wright dropped an interception that would have given the Falcons the ball deep in Houston territory in the second quarter.
In addition, the Falcons lost two fumbles (including one on the game’s opening kickoff), leading to 10 Houston points; they turned only one of the Cougars’ three turnovers into scores; and they failed on a fourth down try near midfield.
“You just have to take advantage of every single opportunity,” Calhoun said. “And we didn’t do that today.”
Air Force did a relatively good job of holding the nation’s second-best passing offense in check. Houston, which averaged 414.1 passing yards in the regular season, had a season-low 252. But the Cougars picked up 163 on the ground, including 113 in the second half. Freshman running back Bryce Beall led Houston with 135 on 22 carries and caught four passes for 92 yards en route to team most valuable player honors.
The Falcons countered with Tew, who gained 149 of the Falcons’ 243 rushing yards on 27 carries and was named Air Force’s MVP.
Air Force trailed 17-7 after one quarter but rallied to tie the game in the second. The Falcons appeared to take the lead with less than a minute left in the first half when Harrison hit a field goal from 55 yards. But Houston had called timeout just before the play, forcing Harrison to try again – and he missed.
Houston then drove deep into Air Force territory but receiver Tyron Carrier was tackled in bounds at the 2 as time expired.
Air Force slipped another haymaker early in the fourth quarter. Houston was up 24-20 and had first-and-goal from the Falcons’ 1-yard line, but junior linebacker Justin Moore stripped Beall of the ball just before he crossed the goal line, and Chris Thomas recovered it in the end zone.
But as was the case too often, the Falcons couldn’t quite capitalize on a potentially major shift in momentum.
“I feel that we should have been able to grab the lead at some point in that game and we should have been able to hold on,” Jefferson said. “But we shot ourselves in the foot, and when you do that too many times, you can’t recover.”