November 25, 2011
Doubters are officially on notice: This Houston team isn't going anywhere.
To skeptics, Friday's game against Tulsa was supposed to be the Cougars' undoing. Tulsa came in riding a seven-game winning streak, its only losses coming at the hands of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise Sate, and had been step-for-step with Houston in league play, beating its opponents by an average of 24 points.
And, in the first half, the game lived up to its billing as a close contest though most of that was thanks to solid play by both defenses that resulted in a quiet 13-10 Houston lead after two quarters. But in the second half, Houston's offense, which has been devastating thanks to the play of sixth-year senior Case Keenum, snapped out of its funk and scored 35 second-half points to rout the Golden Hurricane 48-16 and win the Conference USA West crown.
Keenum, who became the FBS leader in 300-yard games, completed 33-of-46 passes for 457 yards and five touchdowns. Two of those touchdown passes were to Patrick Edwards on fourth down plays in the third quarter. Edwards had 181 yards and four scores.
The Cougars are now just one game shy of the BCS bowl game and Keenum a stone's throw away from being a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
And who would have predicted this? Seven weeks ago, the Cougars weren't even ranked. During the seventh week of the season, they appeared in the AP poll at No. 25 and in the coaches' poll at No. 21. This week, Houston was ranked No. 8 in the BCS standings with its two most difficult games remaining and nowhere to go but up.
A BCS bowl berth wasn't even supposed to be Houston's for the taking. Boise State, the perennial favorite among the nonautomatic qualifying teams, had a BCS bowl berth all but sewn up after its season-opening win against Georgia. From there it cruised through wins, knocking off opponents with ease and seemingly sleepwalking its way to yet another BCS game. That is until it got a rude awakening from TCU, which opened the door for Houston to be an improbable BCS bowl suitor.
Of course, Houston has the unfortunate luck of having to play a conference championship game, something none of the other non-AQ BCS bowl crashers (Boise State, TCU and Utah) have ever had to do. Short of a major upset, that opponent will be Southern Miss, a team Keenum is 1-1 against. Houston actually defeated Southern Miss for the conference title back in 2006.
Southern Miss, like Tulsa, is a team that has run through its schedule with relative ease. If the Golden Eagles hadn't been upset by UAB last week, they would have been in a position to possibly play in a BCS bowl if they beat Houston. However, those dreams have been dashed.
Still, Southern Miss could ruin Houston's season with a win next weekend. The consolation prize for a one-loss season could be a trip to the Armed Forces Bowl to play BYU. A far cray from Arizona or New Orleans. And it will all be decided next Saturday at Houston's Robertson Stadium. One game for history, Keenum's legacy and proving that there are good non-AQ teams outside of the Mountain West Conference.