FORT WORTH, Texas -- Kevin Sumlin inherited the nearly three-decade postseason winless drought when he became Houston's coach after last season.
Senior linebacker Phillip Hunt had to experience the postseason futility with the Cougars.
"That bugged me. I made a big deal of it to the seniors," Sumlin said. "For them not getting to the [Conference USA] championship game, losing the last regular season game, this was important for them to be remembered for something."
Such as giving Houston its first bowl victory since 1980, beating Air Force 34-28 in the Armed Forces Bowl on Wednesday to end an eight-game postseason losing streak.
"That wasn't a streak we were happy with," said Hunt, who in his fourth consecutive bowl finally got to celebrate. "It is good to set a winning tradition here. Hopefully our young guys will come along and keep it up."
Sophomore quarterback Case Keenum ran for two touchdowns, threw for another and became only the second Houston quarterback to pass for more than 5,000 yards in a season. Bryce Beall, a freshman, ran for 135 yards and a score.
"We wanted to be the team that broke that record," Beall said.
A month after being denied a trip to the C-USA title game with a loss to crosstown rival Rice in the regular season finale, Houston (8-5) avoided a record it didn't want to share with Notre Dame. The Irish won the Hawaii Bowl last week to end their NCAA-record bowl losing streak at nine.
In a rematch of a hurricane-disrupted game 3 1/2 months ago that Air Force won, Houston never trailed after the Falcons (8-5) fumbled the opening kickoff and Beall scored on a 1-yard run only 93 seconds into the game.
But the Cougars had to overcome two fourth-quarter turnovers, including a fumble at the goal line by Beall.
"I don't understand what they called," Sumlin said. "From the angle they saw, it looked like he was halfway in the end zone. I thought they were trying to figure out if it was a touchdown. I never saw the replay."
Beall appeared to break into the end zone, but the ball popped loose. Officials initially marked him down at the 1, but after a lengthy review ruled that he fumbled in the end zone and Air Force recovered.
But the Falcons failed to get a first down, punting after Hunt's school-record 34th career sack, his second of the game.
"The whole environment, being in a bowl game, these are experiences you need to shoulder," Air Force freshman quarterback Tim Jefferson said. "You can grow immensely from your recall from being in games like this. We had moments that were good, moments that were inconsistent."
Air Force ended the season with three consecutive losses, including the regular season finale last month on the same field when the Falcons lost 44-10 to TCU.
"I thought coming in we would have to play very crisp and faster than we had all season long and we didn't do that," said coach Troy Calhoun, whose team also ended last season with a loss in the Armed Forces Bowl.
On the third play after the punt, Keenum hit Andre Kohn for a 13-yard TD for a 31-20 lead with 11 minutes left after Beall's 24-yard burst up the middle.
But Keenum, whose 4-yard keeper to start the second half put Houston ahead to stay, later had a pass that deflected off a receiver and was intercepted by Aaron Kirchoff. Fullback Jared Tew finished that drive with five straight carries for 27 yards, the last a 2-yard score that got the Falcons within 31-28 after a 2-point conversion.
Tew, getting his first career start because of an injury to starter Todd Newell, finished with 27 carries for 149 yards -- only 30 yards fewer than he had in nine regular season games.
But Jordan Mannisto kicked a 37-yard field goal before Air Force's final drive.
With Hurricane Ike approaching the Texas coast, the first meeting between Houston and Air Force on Sept. 13 was moved from Houston north to the SMU campus. Kickoff was switched from mid-afternoon to midmorning and played in windy and rainy conditions in a near-empty stadium.
The rematch was under sunny skies before an announced crowd of 40,127.
Air Force didn't complete a pass in the first game, but held on to win 31-28 after building an early 24-point lead against an understandably distracted Houston team.
This time, Spencer Armstrong fumbled the opening kickoff return, though the Falcons quickly tied the game on Tew's 2-yard run. But Houston scored on all three first-quarter possessions, going ahead 17-7 after Keenum's 1-yard run and a 22-yard field goal after Hunt recovered a fumble.
Air Force tied the game at 17 on Ryan Harrison's 44-yard field goal with 2:28 left in the first half, and Tyron Carrier fumbled the ensuring kickoff. Harrison then had a 55-yard kick that went through the uprights, but Houston had called timeout and his second try was wide left.
The Cougars got to the 13 after an 11-yard run by Beall, still with 8 seconds and a timeout. Carrier caught a screen pass and was running at an angle toward the sideline when he suddenly cut up to try to avoid a defender. The freshman was short of the end zone and time expired.