FORT WORTH, Texas — With Asher Clark and Jared Tew grinding out yards and Air Force controlling the ball for more than 41 minutes, there were few chances for Case Keenum and Houston's potent offense.
Then when Keenum got on the field in the Armed Forces Bowl, he was often under pressure or getting picked off – or both.
Air Force's top-ranked pass defense had six interceptions and Clark and Tew each ran for more than 100 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Falcons to a 47-20 victory on Thursday.
"The front three kind of got in his head, kind of got into him," said safety Chris Thomas, who had two interceptions along with his 12 tackles. "When he was on the run like that, we feel like we had the advantage."
After the Falcons (8-5) went ahead on Clark's 36-yard TD to cap the opening drive of the game, Keenum's first pass attempt deflected off his falling receiver and was grabbed by Anthony Wright, who had three interceptions. That set up Tew's 6-yard TD run for a 14-0 lead.
When it was over, Keenum had thrown a career-high six picks and was 24 of 41 for a season-low 222 yards for the Cougars (10-4). Before throwing three interceptions with five TDs and a school-record 56 completions in a loss to East Carolina in the Conference USA championship game last month, Keenum had only six picks the first 12 games this season.
"Give Air Force all the credit and I'll take all the blame," Keenum said, opening an 78-second postgame statement before walking off without taking questions. "I'm going to learn from this. You know, I'm a winner and I'm a competitor. ... We're going to take this into the offseason and we're going to use it as motivation. Look for the Cougars to do something special next year because there's a lot of guys in this locker room who have got a lot of determination. "
The junior quarterback who played his 40th career game had previously said he plans to be back next season, when the Cougars return nine offensive starters, including three 1,000-yard receivers. Keenum finished this season with a nation-leading 5,671 yards with 44 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
"I'm not going to make any kind of generalization based on the overall numbers in the past two games for him," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He's a damn good player. Has been, and will continue to be. ... He wasn't sharp today. We weren't sharp today at all."
Air Force ran for 402 yards and Tim Jefferson was effective through the air, hitting 10 of 14 passes for 161 yards.
"We felt that if we just kept doing what we do and the plays were called right, they couldn't stop us," said Tew, who finished with 26 carries for 173 yards. He had a 71-yard TD run with 3:32 left in the game after Keenum's fifth interception.
Clark ran 17 times for 129 yards for the Falcons, who had lost in the Armed Forces Bowl the past two seasons, including 34-28 to Houston a year ago. Air Force had lost three straight postseason games.
Houston's bowl win last year capped Sumlin's debut season and snapped an eight-game postseason losing streak that had spanned 28 years. This time, the Cougars missed out on their first 11-win season since 1979.
After Houston was held without a touchdown before halftime, Tyron Carrier returned the opening kickoff of the second half 79 yards for his fourth TD this season. He took the ball near the left sideline, then ran to the middle of the field before shooting through a gap and running untouched to get the Cougars within 24-13.
Air Force immediately responded with its first kickoff return for a touchdown since 1985. Jonathan Warzeka fielded the ball and stepped back into the end zone before running 100 yards. Five Houston players got their hands on him, but couldn't get him down.
According to STATS, it was only the sixth major college game since 1996 with kickoff return touchdowns on consecutive plays. None of them had been in a bowl game.
After the kickoff returns, Keenum threw a 10-yard TD to Patrick Edwards to make it 31-20. That gave Keenum a TD pass in 30 consecutive games , but this was the first time in that streak that he had more picks than scores.
Houston managed only 331 total yards after coming in with a nation-best 581 yards per game and averaging 44 points.
When Jefferson slipped down trying to run on third-and-goal from the 2 with 17 seconds and no timeouts left just before halftime, he quickly got the offense off the field and the kicking team got out in time for Erik Soderberg's 27-yard field goal.
"Just overall, we played terrific football today. If you want to break it down into the three phases, one by one, we really were outstanding," coach Troy Calhoun said. "Yet even above that, just the unity, the kind of team chemistry, the spirit that's part of these guys."