The Cougars have been a tooth-and-nail fighting team since the season began, and Saturday’s game against Rice was no exception.
Winning the Bayou Bucket 56-48 set a precedent for the way the Cougars (3-3, 2-1 C-USA) must play for the rest of the season to get another shot at the conference championship.
"We got a little beat up, but we’ve got a big game next week against (Alabama-Birmingham) on the road," Head coach Art Briles said. "We’ve got to shake ourselves off. We set ourselves up to get a little roll going."
In the last couple of games, the Cougar defense has made stops late in the fourth quarter to keep the opposition from scoring, and this week was no exception.
This time, however, the Cougar offense responded to the defensive production with 748 total yards, the most ever under Briles, and they reached their highest single-game score of the season as the Cougars snapped the Owls’ seven-game Conference USA winning streak.
Senior wide receiver Donnie Avery contributed significantly to the offensive effort, racking up 427 yards total (346 receiving) and two touchdowns, the highest single-game yards total in both UH and C-USA history.
"I knew I was going to come out and have a big game because I prepared Tuesday like it was game day, prepared Wednesday like it was game day, prepared Thursday like it was game day," Avery said. "It was wonderful. It was a rivalry game and we’ve got bragging rights until next year."
For the first time in two weeks, the Cougars got off to a fast start with sophomore quarterback Blake Joseph leading the way.
Joseph finished with a career-high 318 yards and three touchdowns on 11-of-18 passing, including a 77-yard touchdown pass to Avery to begin the game and a 67-yard touchdown pass to Avery to end the first quarter.
Avery ended the first quarter with 208 yards, a UH record for most yards in a quarter, as he and Joseph led the Cougars to a 28-14 lead over the Owls (5-1, 1-1 C-USA).
The Cougars were held scoreless in the second quarter and were behind 34-28 going into halftime, but senior running back Anthony Alridge kept the Cougars in the game with a third quarter touchdown that brought Houston within five.
Rice scored in the final drive of the third quarter to put the Owls’ lead at 13, but redshirt freshman quarterback Case Keenum, who started the second half for the Cougars, responded with a two yard touchdown run to begin the fourth quarter.
Keenum completed 15-of-18 passes for 156 yards.
Rice would not score again, as the Cougar defense stopped them and forced them to punt on their remaining drives of the game.
With 4:13 left in the game, Rice had the ball on their 13, but junior defensive end Phillip Hunt took away the Owls’ chance to score on the drive when he forced junior Rice quarterback Chase Clement to throw the ball away on a third down, leading to another Rice punt.
"I saw the guy sliding my way, so I knew there wasn’t any chance I could get around him," Hunt said. "I made a quick move underneath him and got under him for the tackle."
Alridge then took over for the Cougars, running for a 33-yard touchdown with 8:16 left in the game to give the Cougars their first lead since the second quarter.
He scored again on a 50-yard run with 2:20 left in the game to finish the game with four touchdowns and secure victory for the Cougars.
Although the Cougars improved to 3-3 overall and 2-1 in C-USA with the win, Rice was just the first of six consecutive conference opponents Houston will face.
Briles also commended the resiliency of his team.
"We finally fought to the end and won, and that’s the thing that’s going to give us momentum." Briles said.