The Army Black Knights will take on the Houston Cougars in the Armed Forces Bowl on Saturday looking for an impressive 11th win on the season. Houston started the season 7-1 and looked to be on track to play in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game before losing three of its last four to finish 8-4. The Black Knights, on the other hand, have won eight straight and will be loaded with confidence heading into this game.
Here are the three keys:
Have the better quarterback
Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. has flown under the radar on the national level because he isn’t a flashy option signal caller. He has rushed for 847 yards and 12 touchdowns, while adding 956 yards and six touchdowns through the air. What Hopkins does best is allow the offense to flow through him, getting his fullbacks and slot backs the ball to devastating effect. In an era where option quarterbacks keep the ball first, Hopkins is a little bit of a throwback.
Army should have the advantage at the quarterback position as Houston will be down to its third choice player at the position. Starter D’Eriq King was a candidate to be a Heisman Trophy finalist before injuring his knee late in the season. King has 50 total touchdowns to his name in 2018 and he would have been a dynamic rushing threat for Army to deal with.
With King out, Houston would look to turn to backup Quinten Dormady. Dormady, however, will be transferring to Central Michigan, so the starter for Houston on Saturday will be freshman Clayton Tune. Tune passed for 565 yards and seven touchdowns in relief this season, but he is a player that Army can pressure and take advantage of here.
Defense wins championships
Neither team comes into this with the same defensive play caller that they had at the start of the season. After allowing 488.5 total yards per game (124th) in the country, Houston defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio was canned by head coach Major Applewhite. Army was on the other end of the scale, with Jay Bateman being hired away by North Carolina to become their defensive coordinator after his unit finished in the top 20 in the country in both rushing and passing yards allowed per game.
What helped Bateman’s cause is that the Black Knights chew up so much clock on offense that the opposition teams have fewer possessions against Army with which to move the ball. This is completely opposite to Houston, a team that wants to score fast and has an up-tempo attack (even more so when they had a healthy King).
Interestingly the two teams allow almost the exact same yardage per play (Army 5.73, Houston 5.74) with the Black Knights just being so much better at clamping down when the opponents are closing in on scoring the ball. Army allowed just 17.4 points per game to Houston’s 34.4.
If Army brings the defense that most are expecting on Saturday then they should be able to stop Houston’s offense from getting going.
No Ed Oliver
The best player at the game on Saturday (assuming he shows up) will not be on the field. Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver is going to be a top 10 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and he is a one man wrecking crew on the Cougars defensive line.
Oliver is one of the few interior linemen in the last decade of college football that offensive coordinators have to game plan around, such is his impact. He spent the entire season facing double and triple teams on every play, along with battling a series of injuries, and he was still a dominant force over the first half of the season before a major fall out with his head coach.
Oliver would have been a huge problem for Army in the option game. His ability to penetrate the line would have shut down the fullback dive play as much as any individual this season, while his pursuit speed would also have caused issues for the slot backs.
Without Oliver in the lineup, Army will be able to take more liberties with the Houston defensive front.