What to watch for in the Armed Forces Bowl

Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire

At first glance, the Armed Forces Bowl appears to be a matchup between two desperate and fading teams, the American Athletic Conference’s Navy Midshipmen (9-4) and Conference USA’s Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (8-5).

Look again.

There’s plenty at stake.

Navy, despite losing two quarterbacks to season-ending injuries, can post back-to-back 10-victory seasons for the first time in program history. That’s quite an achievement after losing record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds, a four-year starter.

Louisiana Tech is shooting for its third-straight nine-victory season under Coach Skip Holtz — and its fourth nine-win team in the past five years.

Navy’s season has been a case study in perseverance.

The Midshipmen lost quarterback Tago Smith to an early injury. Senior Will Worth, pressed into action, responded with 1,198 rushing yards and 25 rushing touchdowns to lead the Football Bowl Subdivision. But Worth and slotback Toneo Gulley were injured on the same play in Navy’s 34-10 loss against Temple in the AAC Championship Game.

Both players missed the eagerly anticipated game against Army, which won 21-17 to break Navy’s 14-game stranglehold on the series rivalry.

Before the difficult finish, Navy defeated three of the AAC’s bowl teams — Houston (46-40), Memphis (42-28) and Tulsa (42-40) — along with a 28-27 victory against Notre Dame.

Meanwhile, Louisiana Tech rebounded from a 1-3 start and roared to a seven-game winning streak before losing against Southern Mississippi 39-24 in the regular-season finale, then falling against Western Kentucky 58-44 in the C-USA Championship Game.

Under-the-radar players

LOUISIANA TECH: Since when is a 1,000-yard rusher considered an “under the radar’’ player? Well, when you have a passing game with Louisiana Tech’s level of talent, it’s easy to be overlooked. But RB Jarred Craft (1,011 yards, nine touchdowns) could be a weapon that plays very big in this game.

NAVY: The Midshipmen uncovered a real find in freshman FS Alohi Gilman, a native of Hawaii, who ranks second on the team in tackles (62) with two fumble recoveries and five tackles for a loss.

Matchup to watch

LOUISIANA TECH: The Bulldogs’ passing game against Navy’s secondary. Fifth-year senior QB Ryan Higgins ranks third nationally with 4,208 yards. He has 37 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions. He’s sixth nationally in passing efficiency (166.6) and eighth in completions per game (25). Higgins has exceptional targets in WRs Trent Taylor (124 catches for 1,570 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Carlos Henderson (72 catches for 1,406 yards and 17 scores). Navy’s pass defense ranks 80th nationally, allowing 242.2 yards per game.

NAVY: The Midshipmen’s offensive line against Louisiana Tech’s defensive line. It’s going to require senior leadership from LT Blake Copeland, LG Adam West and C Maurice Morris to maintain Navy’s rushing standard (310.9 yards per game, ranking fourth nationally). The Bulldogs are 30th nationally against the run, allowing just 134.4 yards per game.

NFL Draft Profile

Wide Receiver Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech

Henderson is only a junior, but he’s a dynamite big-play receiver. Henderson is near the top of the country in yards per reception (19.5) and his production is very indicative of his play. Henderson has great short-area agility, explosive long speed and good separation skills working on deep patterns. Henderson catches the ball well and looks like the lite version of Corey Coleman from last season. The Bulldogs will face a stiff test against the Navy defense, but Henderson is poised for another big game after already putting up three games with 200+ receiving yards. The converse argument here is that Henderson needs more consistent output (also three games under 40 yards), but another big game may make him a name to watch. — Profile by Kyle Crabbs of FanRag Sports

Which coach needs the win more

LOUISIANA TECH: Bulldogs coach Skip Holtz has done an excellent job rehabilitating his career after being fired from the University of South Florida in 2012 after a 16-22 three-season tenure. The Bulldogs have become a fun-to-watch program. They have twice lost in the C-USA Championship Game, but Holtz is going for his third-straight bowl victory after defeating Illinois (35-18 in the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl) and Arkansas State (47-28 in the 2015 New Orleans Bowl).

NAVY: Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo has built a formidable program in nine seasons with a 77-41 mark, including a 20-6 record as an AAC member. Injuries have created a series of ridiculous challenges, but after losing in the AAC Championship Game and falling against Army, Niumatalolo’s Midshipmen desperately need this victory, which would be Navy’s fourth straight bowl win, extending the program record for postseason success.

The foremost goal each team needs to achieve

LOUISIANA TECH: Don’t reinvent the wheel. Simply let Higgins, Taylor and Henderson do their jobs. If the Bulldogs get off to an early lead, the run-dominant Midshipmen could be in big trouble as they try to rally.

GREENVILLE, NC - November 19: Navy Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo walks the sidelines during an NCAA football game between the East Carolina Pirates and the Navy Midshipmen on November 19, 2016 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, NC. Navy defeated ECU 66-31. (Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire)

Armed Forces Bowl hardship: Navy Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo knows he has a shorthanded team against Louisiana Tech. (Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire)

NAVY: The Midshipmen need to ride their running game (partially because Navy’s passing game ranks only 125th nationally with third-stringer Zach Abey throwing four interceptions and no touchdowns in two games since being forced into action). Much of that rushing strength was due to Worth’s standout play. When Worth was injured against Temple, the Midshipmen finished with just 168 yards rushing, then followed that up with only 112 against Army. Navy must rely on fullbacks Chris High (500 yards) and Shawn White (443).

Best reason to think each team will win

LOUISIANA TECH: Very few defenses have been able to stop — or slow down — the Bulldogs. Louisiana Tech can win a shootout, but it’s questionable whether Navy can even keep pace if the game takes that sort of turn.

NAVY: The Midshipmen come in on a physical and emotional low, no question about that, but there are always intangible forces in play with the service academies. Navy needs to summon all of that energy, getting maximum effort from its defense and a competent performance from Abey. It would be one of the more impressive wins in Navy’s recent history. The thought of what’s possible could serve as added motivation.

Fun Armed Forces Bowl fact

The Armed Forces Bowl is the only bowl game that honors all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. It’s also the only bowl game to have had all three service academies — Air Force (2007, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2015), Army (2010) and Navy (2013, 2016) — as participants.

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