Big present, bigger future for Keenum, Houston

Pat Forde
Yahoo! SportsNovember 20, 2011

HOUSTON – When he pulled Case Keenum aside behind the Houston bench Saturday night, P.I. Crawford wasn't worried about the BCS, strength of schedule or the Heisman Trophy.

He simply wanted to share one of the best days in Houston football history with one of the best players in Houston history.

The lieutenant in the Houston police force has been working sideline security at Robertson Stadium for about six years. He was not going to let Keenum slip away without getting his picture taken with the Cougars' record-setting quarterback.

"I've known Case since he's been here," Crawford said. "He's a good kid. In my line of work, I don't come across too many good kids.

"I think he's done wonders. Look at the crowd. I can remember the 8,000- and 9,000-person crowds."

That's why the debate about the Cougars' conquering of a weak schedule and attendant worthiness for BCS bowl consideration can wait. There is always time for arguing about the most nonsensical championship in all of sports.

What was more pertinent on a warm, windy night here was appreciating a commuter-school success story, keyed by an undersized quarterback who might have been the only one crazy enough to envision a day like today at a place like this.

In front of a Robertson Stadium-record crowd of 32,207, a day that began with the first-ever ESPN "GameDay" visit ended with the undefeated Cougars' 11th victory of the year, a 37-7 beating of SMU. Keenum, the FBS career record-holder in passing yards, total offense, touchdown passes and now completions, was honored on Senior Day – again. He went through the ceremony last year while out with a torn ACL – an experience he admitted was "pretty crappy" – and then was granted a sixth year of eligibility.

After a slow recovery from the injury, coach Kevin Sumlin saw Keenum get it all back together during a practice about 10 days before the season opener against UCLA. He slid around pressure in the pocket and delivered a strike downfield, prompting offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury to tell Sumlin, "That's it."

He's been locked in ever since, leading the nation in total offense and ranking second in pass efficiency.

[Recap: Keenum sets completions mark in victory]

Keenum's numbers against SMU were mundane by his prolific standards – 318 passing yards, one touchdown passing and one touchdown rushing – but that was secondary. The bigger picture is what Keenum and Sumlin, have helped build at a gritty city school that has precious few of the trappings taken for granted by power programs.

"We don't have guys who had press conferences with a bunch of hats on a table to announce where they're going to school," Sumlin said.

In this fiercely competitive and political football state, Texas and Texas A&M get those blue-chip guys. Texas Tech and Baylor are helped by conference affiliation. TCU and SMU are powered by wealthy and influential alums who have improved the value and profile of their football programs.

Houston? It just has a great recruiting backyard and a lot of elbow grease. There is some heritage here – a Heisman Trophy winner and some periodic great teams since the 1960s – but it never stays on autopilot.

Ten years ago the Cougars were 0-11. Now they're 11-0.

Art Briles got Houston up and running, but his departure to perennial lightweight Baylor hinted at the eternal uphill reality of this job. Sumlin has improved the product enough to get his name mentioned for other jobs every year (North Carolina is the hot topic right now).

He didn't directly address job rumors Saturday. That wasn't on his mind after the investment involved in getting this far.

Some of the first players Sumlin signed when he got the Houston job in 2008 ran on the field for their Senior Day salute Saturday. This program has had this kind of season because so many of the guys who have turned Houston into the No. 1 scoring offense and total offense in the country are seniors. Eight of them had their hands on the ball Saturday – three receivers, two running backs, two quarterbacks and center Chris Thompson.

"It was extremely emotional for me," Sumlin said. "These guys, I've been with them since day one."

While undefeated teams and Heisman candidates stumble on a weekly basis, Keenum and the Cougars keep rolling through Conference USA. Win two more games – a very tricky one Friday at Tulsa and then potentially the C-USA title game – and this bunch of B-list players will have a strong argument for BCS bowl inclusion.

"That's what I love about this place," Keenum said. "It's a lot of guys who had to work for everything they get, a lot of guys with chips on their shoulders."

[More Houston coverage:]

The fact that Keenum's shoulders aren't very far off the ground is why he wound up at Houston. He's listed at 6-foot-2, which is comical. He might be 6-0. That's why the recruiters who came to watch him play in Abilene, Texas, told him he'd be a five-star recruit – if only he were a few inches taller.

But that never stopped Keenum from thinking big. He's 23 years old and married, blessed with more maturity and perspective than most college football players – but he was a stubbornly grandiose dreamer as a kid.

I asked him whether he could have ever imagined a day like this at Houston, and his answer was basically this: sure, why not? He's never been interested in putting limits on his potential, just because other people did.

"I think all kids grow up watching ‘GameDay,' " he said. "I remember watching Ken Dorsey win however many in a row (at Miami). That's big-time football. That's what it's getting to be around here."

Houston had a big-time football day Saturday. For a moment, at least, that was all that mattered.

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