The No. 6 University of Houston Cougars had their BCS bowl dashed Saturday when they were defeated 49-28 by No.24 Southern Miss in the Conference USA Championship Game at Robertson Stadium.
The Cougars, who had their first BCS bid in clear aim, suffered their first defeat of the season to put an end to a roller coaster of a week that has included heavy speculation that head coach Kevin Sumlin is about to leave to take the Texas A&M game.
“After the game it was a very very tough locker room,” said Sumlin, who denied he has been offered the Texas A&M job. “We’ve a lot of different things this year.
“I told our guys to take a look around and really congratulate the senior class who played their last game here for what they accomplished this year. These guys have set a bar that really hasn’t been reached before at the University of Houston.”
But players like sixth-year senior quarterback Case Keenum, whose now seem two undefeated seasons fall apart in the C-USA championship game during his tenure, there was little solace in looking at the 12 straight wins the Cougars put together and the otherwise magical season that will now end in a third-tier bowl.
“This is very devastating,” said Keenum, who completed 41 of 67 passes for 373 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions while being sacked twice by the Eagles impressive four-man rush. “I’ve been in this position twice now and it’s not very fun. I told that to the young guys. It was right here in our grasp and we let it slip away.
“You have to give credit to Southern Miss, they came in here in a hostile environment … For them to come out like they did in that kind of environment you have to hand it to them. They came to play.”
That was obvious from the start when the Eagles (11-2) jumped out to shocking 14-0 lead over UH in the first two quarters. They always seemed to be a step or two ahead of UH on both sides of the football. Southern Miss’ skill players, led by quarterback Austin Davis, came up with several big plays to stymie the Cougars inconsistent defense. And defensively, the Eagles front four chased Keenum relentlessly once they had a two touchdown lead and made it hard for the Cougars passing game to do much of anything consistently.
This was perfect vindication for Larry Fedora and his Eagles who felt they had been overlooked coming into the game as the East Division champs.
“Nobody gave us a chance, nobody thought we could win,” said Fedora, who immediately began to lobby for his team to receive a BCS bowl bid though the Armed Forces Bowl is a much likelier landing spot. “Everybody thought Houston was going to walk away with this thing and our guy took objection to that.
“They had something to prove, they are going to play with a chip on their shoulder, and they wanted everybody to know that this is a good football team.”
The Cougars came up as believers after being thoroughly beat in all three phases of the game.
The biggest boost the Eagles received may have come on special teams where Furious Bradley came up with what was the play of the day when he shot up the middle to block Richie Leone’s punt and then he scooped it up and ran it in for the touchdown early in the third quarter. That put the Eagles up 14 points for the second time in the game at 28-14 but more important it seemed to be the blow UH never recovered from.
“When we were down there a touchdown at halftime, I think we still have a great opportunity, but the blocked punt for a touchdown was probably one of the bigger plays in the game,” said Sumlin. “I thought that being down seven allowed us to do what we do offensively and hang in there. But once they got up 14 then we couldn’t run it and we needed to really throw the ball I thought (Southern Miss’ defensive line) were able to pin their ears back and just rush us and play some soft coverage behind it.”
Perhaps because of the enormous distraction Houston was uncharacteristically sloppy throughout the game and became unglued after rallying to a 14-14 tie in the second quarter. They were outscored 35-14 the rest of the way as the Cougars defense couldn’t get the necessary stops while the offense continually sputtered.
Davis, who completed 17 of 33 passes for 279 yards and four touchdowns, took advantage of his superior skill players all afternoon. Receivers Dominique Sullivan and Ryan Balentine and running back Tracey Lampley all came up with big plays catching the ball while running back Desmond Johnson had gashing runs late in the game to demoralize the Cougars and send the overflow crowd home stunned.
The Eagles all but sealed it when Davis completed a 61-yard touchdown pass – his fourth touchdown of the day — to Lampley with 54 seconds remaining in the third quarter to make it 42-21. There was no way the Cougars (12-1) were coming back from there with the way the offense played.
Lampley finished the game leading the Eagles in rushing and receiving the ball, catching six passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns while gaining 71 yards on 14 carries.
“We did a good job as a team,” Lampley said. “Coach called the plays and we went out and did what needed to be done.”