Pittsburgh running backs James Conner faces a stiff test against Houston's rushing defense in the Armed Forces Bowl.
• Reasons to watch: Both Pittsburgh and Houston underwent major coaching changes in December, underlying two (opposite) schematic shifts for the programs. When Pittsburgh head coach Paul Chryst left for Wisconsin, the school went all-in on defense, hiring Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who helmed an elite Spartans defense for seven seasons. Houston fired four-year head coach Tony Levine after a 7-5 season that athletic director Mack Rhoades said did not live up to the program’s expectations. The Cougars hired Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman to lead a team that led the FBS in scoring offense in 2009 and 2011 (under now-Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin) but has since dropped to 62nd.
Neither Narduzzi nor Herman, however, will coach their respective new teams in the Armed Forces Bowl. The game will instead feature two interim coaches, throwing an element of the unknown into both squads. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph will coach the Panthers, while Houston defensive coordinator David Gibbs will do the same for the Cougars.
• Keep an eye on: Pittsburgh running back James Conner. The sophomore sensation has quietly established himself as one of the nation’s best rushers behind a deep, forceful Panthers offensive line. Conner ranks fifth nationally in rushing yards per game (139.6) and third nationally in rushing touchdowns (24) behind only Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Boise State’s Jay Ajayi. Houston boasts the 13th-best per-play rushing defense in the country, giving up only 4.01 yards per attempt. But don’t expect them to necessarily quash Conner; one of his best performances this year came against Boston College (36 rushes for 214 yards, 30-20 Pitt win), the 10th-best per-play rushing defense in the nation.
• Did you know: Houston’s defense only allows 19.5 points per game. That figure is good for 11th-best nationally and is indicative of one of Levine’s major accomplishments: Two seasons ago, the Cougars allowed 36 points per game and didn’t make the postseason.
Houston’s defense in bowl games has been a major problem. The Cougars are 2-10 in their last 12 bowl appearances and have allowed an average of 35.8 points per game during that span, including 41 points to Vanderbilt in last year’s BBVA Compass Bowl.
This will be Houston’s fourth appearance in the Armed Forces Bowl. It has won one of its previous appearances (against Air Force in 2008) and lost the other two (against Kansas in ‘05 and Air Force in ‘09).
• Final analysis: Anchored by senior linebacker Efrem Oliphant, Houston’s defense will need to stop Pittsburgh on third down, where the Panthers convert more than 46 percent of their attempts. Having the defensive-minded Gibbs at the helm will help with this, but it’s hard to escape the idea that this might be strange game; both programs have other things on their minds than the immediate task at hand.
Pitt is at its best when its offensive line is driving plays and Conner is freeing up quarterback Chad Voytik to pass in space. The sophomore passer has over 2,000 yards through the air this season and is the team’s second-leading rusher.
While Houston’s passing game has lagged at times this year under quarterbacks John O’Korn and Gabe Ward Jr., don’t be surprised if the Cougars’ running back tandem of Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson exploits Pittsburgh’s defense for some success.
• The Pick: Pittsburgh 27, Houston 20