New talent triumphs
After losing lethal weapons receiver Donnie Avery and running back Anthony Alridge to graduation, no one could have predicted the 2008 Cougar football team would end up with the No. 1 offense in the nation at the end of the regular season. But that’s exactly where UH ranked heading into its matchup with Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl.
The Cougars’ offense gave their fans unbelievable comebacks against SMU and UTEP, 70-points against Tulsa and the football program’s first victory in a bowl game since 1980.
Contributions from players such as senior tight end Mark Hafner, freshman wide receiver Tyron Carrier and freshman running back Bryce Beall allowed the Cougars to reload their offense instead of rebuilding it.
The leader of the offense is sophomore quarterback Case Keenum, who threw for 5,020 yards and 44 touchdowns this season. Keenum completed 67.4 percent of his passes, 10th in the nation and third among quarterbacks who threw more than 500 passes.
‘The mark of a really good player is when you talk for 15 minutes and you don’t mention him, because everyone is used to it,’ head coach Kevin Sumlin said in the post-game press conference after the Cougars’ 34-28 victory in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 31.
Keenum’s 252 passing yards in UH’s win against Air Force snapped his 13-game streak of at least 300 passing yards, but he did something that his predecessor Kevin Kolb could not – he won a bowl game.
Keenum joins former quarterbacks Andre Ware and David Klinger as the only Cougars to throw more than 40 touchdowns in a season, and his 5,020 yards through the air makes him the first UH quarterback since David Klinger to pass for 5,000 yards in a season.
Hafner led the Cougars with 86 receptions this season, 11 of which were for touchdowns. In his previous two seasons at UH, Hafner had 59 receptions and five touchdowns. His abilities will certainly be missed, but there are others who are ready to shoulder more responsibility.
One of those players is Carrier, who led all UH receivers with 1,026 yards, and became the first UH freshman receiver to surpass 1,000 yards. Carrier is a player whom Keenum can count on in the clutch. His 26-yard touchdown reception against SMU on Oct. 18 gave UH a 42-38 lead and helped the Cougars complete a comeback from a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
Beall, Conference USA Freshman of the Year, played a huge part in ending the Cougars’ losing streak in bowl games. He led the team in both rushing (135 yards) and receiving (92 yards) in the Armed Forces Bowl.
‘We have talked all year about this, but Bryce would have had more yards this year if I had been smart enough to play him more in the first couple of games,’ Sumlin said.
Despite his youth, Beall proved to be UH’s best rusher, acquiring 1,247 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. He also caught 34 passes for 496 yards, including a 20-yard reception on a crucial third down that allowed the Cougars to run out the clock.
‘I’ve got room to get better,’ Beall said. ‘Coach McKinney is always telling me not to settle on this. There are always ways to improve.’
Beall will get better, and so will UH’s offense. Keenum will enter his junior year as an outside contender for the Heisman Trophy.
Freshman wide receiver Patrick Edwards will look to recover from the season-ending injury he suffered at Marshall, and sophomore wide receivers L.J. Castile and Kierrie Johnson will also return with more experience.
Considering what UH lost after the 2007 season and the fact that the Cougars entered fall camp not knowing who their starting quarterback would be, they have done a nice job of not missing a beat.