For almost a year, University of Houston quarterback Case Keenum had ran through Saturday in his mind every chance he could.
The sixth-year senior had anticipated what the pregame schedule would be like, how the student section would welcome him back and most important walking off Robertson Stadium a winner once more. As good fortune would have it, Saturday’s season-opening 38-34 win over UCLA was everything Keenum had hoped as he through nearly a year of rehab following reconstructive knee surgery.
“It was pretty surreal,” Keenum said. “This whole day has just been everything I have wanted it to be from going to the hotel, being the with the guys and having pregame walk through, the Cougar walk and being here and the student section packed an hour and half before the game.
“It was just awesome. There are really no other words. I imagined what this was going to be like and it was a perfect way to start the year off.”
Keenum would get little argument from most of the 31,144 fans who packed Robertson Stadium on a heated afternoon. Most them wanted to see how Keenum would handle coming after nearly a year away from the game.
Most of them, including Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin, held their collective breaths anticipating the first hit the star quarterback would take in live action. And once he took it on the opening drive of the game, there seemed to be a sigh of relief in the stadium. Probably none was bigger than the exhale that came from the Cougars visor wearing coach.
“I’d be lying to if I said the first couple times he took off with the ball that I kind of held my breath,” said Sumlin, whose team is off to a 1-0 start. “After that it was back to playing football again.”
And play football Keenum did from the opening drive until the end when he and the Cougs delivered on a must-score drive late in the fourth quarter to thwart a Bruins comeback.
Keenum led the Cougars on a tone-setting opening drive that went 16 plays and 80 yards in 5:54 and ended with running back Michael Hayes running in for a one-yard touchdown to put the Cougars ahead 7-0. Keenum was 5 of 7 passes on that opening drive while also pulling the ball twice and running for pickups of 8 and 10 yards.
Keenum, who was on pace to rewrite many NCAA records before his would-be senior season got derailed trying to make a tackle last year at UCLA, seemed very much his old self as he led the Cougars quick tempo on several impressive scoring drives throughout the day.
When it was over, the Heisman Trophy hopeful had completed 30 of 40 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns while taking one sack and a couple big hits.
As irony would have it, Keenum made his comeback against the very team that he suffered the anterior cruciate ligament against last season in Pasadena, Calif. But there was no talk of redemption, just satisfaction of coming away with a positive result.
“It felt good just to get the first one over with,” Keenum said. “It wouldn’t have mattered who it was.
“It felt good just to get out there and to get the first one under the belt.”
Sumlin, who had to endure not even knowing if he would have Keenum back until the NCAA granted him a rare sixth season in January, also seemed relieved to get this one in the review mirror. He had watched Keenum make strides every day in practice but there is no substitution for live game speed.
Sumlin initially joked that he knew Keenum was back from the opening kickoff.
“We close practice for a reason,” said Sumlin, whose team faces North Texas next week. “I probably got to see him a lot more than anybody else before the day.
“You worry honestly about emotions and adrenaline in a game,” he continued. “You never know how guys respond. Physically is he back to where he was? Probably not. But what you worry about is a guy’s ability mentally to handle situations and be able to move around and make throws. He moved around and made some throws.
“For the most part he took care of the ball pretty well, weathered some sacks, protected the football, made some plays down the field. We’ve seen it for the last couple weeks, him coming along and building some experience with the guys.”
All indications were that nothing much had changed. Wide receiver Tyron Carrier was once again Keenum’s favorite target with 10 receptions for 138 yards and a touchdown though nine other either intentionally or in the case of offensive lineman Chris Thompson unintentionally caught passes.
“It felt like old times,” Carrier said. “We were both on the same page as you can see. He didn’t miss a step.”