A cat fight ensues at the Armed Forces Bowl on Friday, as the Houston Cougars stay close to home to challenge the Pittsburgh Panthers at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
The Cougars, who are appearing in the postseason for the second year in a row, finished in a tie for fourth place in the American Athletic Conference standings with a mark of 5-3. The team split four non-league bouts along the way as well, and while the two victories versus Grambling State and UNLV were certainly lopsided, they were far from impressive.
Even though the Cougars made it to a bowl, head coach Tony Levine was still relieved of his duties on Dec. 8 after three years at the helm. After naming David Gibbs as the interim head coach, Houston brought in Tom Herman, the 2014 Frank Broyles Award winner as Ohio State's Offensive Coordinator, to lead the team moving forward.
"This is a tremendous opportunity for my family and I to come back to Houston and lead one of the top programs in the country," said Herman who has spent more than a decade of his career coaching in the state of Texas. "I am looking forward to working with one of the top athletic directors in the country as well as Chancellor Khator in a partnership that will make the city of Houston and the great state of Texas proud."
Meanwhile, the Panthers were lucky to break even through 12 games in the ACC. The squad ripped off three straight victories to open the 2014 campaign, but then won just once over the next seven outings before registering back-to-back triumphs over Syracuse and Miami in closing out the regular season.
Despite the mediocre showing, Pittsburgh head coach Paul Chryst was courted by Wisconsin and took over the Badgers on Dec. 17 following the departure of Gary Andersen for Oregon State. With Chryst out of the picture, the Panthers are now under the direction of former Michigan State assistant Pat Narduzzi.
"Our goal was not only to find the best football coach but also a person who would uphold the values and mission of the University of Pittsburgh. In Pat Narduzzi we have found that person," said Pitt's Acting Athletic Director Dr. Randy Juhl when introducing Narduzzi on Dec. 26.
The Panthers began their bowl journey back in 1928 with a 7-6 loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Overall, the program sports a 13-17 record after winning the 2013 Little Caesars Bowl versus Bowling Green, 30-27.
As for the Cougars, they own a 9-12-1 mark in bowl games, but have won only twice in the last 12 tests dating back to 1981. Last year the program, which split two appearances in the Armed Forces Bowl in 2008 and 2009 against Air Force, bowed to Vanderbilt, 41-24.
This is just the third all-time meeting between these two programs, with each having recorded a victory previously. The most recent clash took place in Texas back in 1997, with the visitors claiming a 35-24 triumph.
For Houston, the passing attack was average at best this season as Greg Ward Jr. and John O'Korn handled the majority of the snaps, combining for 15 touchdowns and just as many interceptions, as the Cougars generated 226.6 ypg through the air. Ward managed to connect on 67.8 percent of his attempts and was in the lineup more often than not, yet the team still struggled in that department.
Deontay Greenberry, a starter in all 12 games, was easily the most productive receiver as he caught 68 passes, more than twice as many as his closest teammate, and turned them into 756 yards and four TDs, the same number of scores tallied by Markeith Ambles with his 29 receptions.
On the ground, Kenneth Farrow churned out a team-best 934 yards and scored 12 times as he averaged almost six yards per carry. The team as a whole recorded 26 rushing TDs as it helped generate 29.3 ppg, ranking the Cougars 59th nationally.
The defense was a much bigger story for Houston, ranking 11th in the country with only 19.5 ppg allowed and 19th in total defense with 334.6 ypg surrendered. Leading the charge for the squad was Efrem Oliphant with a staggering 130 tackles, of which 8.5 were for a loss and 3.5 were listed as sacks. A bit further down the chart was Adrian McDonald (66 tackles) with his five interceptions, three forced fumbles and three recoveries as the Cougars forced a total of 30 turnovers in order to finish on the plus side of the ledger.
The offense for the Panthers started off well enough with a 62-0 romp over FCS foe Delaware in the season opener, followed by a combined 72 points versus Boston College and FIU on the road. As a result, Pittsburgh ranks 46th nationally with 31.7 ppg, thanks mostly to the efforts running back James Conner who produced not only 1,675 yards on 277 carries, but also landed in the end zone a staggering 24 times as he averaged six yards per attempt.
The third Pittsburgh running back to be named a First-Team All-American over the last half-century, Conner was also tabbed as the ACC's Offensive Player of the Year and the league's overall Player of the Year.
"I'm incredibly honored that the American Football Coaches Association would select me for this tremendous recognition," Conner said. "Again, this gives me the opportunity to thank my own coaches and teammates. This honor is as much theirs as it is mine. I love Pitt, I love my team and I'm really excited about what we can achieve moving forward. The sky is the limit for this program and were going to work hard every day to make our university proud."
Conner buoyed a rushing attack that generated 251.3 ypg and registered 32 TDs in an effort to take some of the pressure off quarterback Chad Voytik, who completed 62.7 percent of his passes for 2,011 yards and 15 scores, against seven interceptions.
While Conner was carrying the load coming out of the backfield, Tyler Boyd made a name for himself further down the field as a receiver with 69 catches, 51 more than his closest teammate, resulting in 1,149 yards and eight TDs. Boyd also handled kickoff and punt returns, averaging 28.7 yards per kickoff return on 13 opportunities.
Like Houston, the Panthers also dialed up the pressure on defense as they limited foes to only 349.3 ypg (26th nationally) and permitted just 192.7 ypg through the air (19th). Anthony Gonzalez was the leading tackler with 74 stops, but making a significant impact on only 13 total tackles was Rori Blair with a team-high four sacks.