A 62-yard touchdown pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Case Keenum to junior tight end Mark Hafner provided the exclamation point to Houston’s 35-28 win over Marshall on Saturday in front of a homecoming crowd of 21,116 at Robertson Stadium.
Even the heroic last-minute efforts by Marshall – the Thundering Herd scored twice in the last 5:10 of the game – were not enough to stop the Cougars, who won their Conference USA finale and kept alive their hopes of winning the C-USA West Division title.
Houston (7-4, 6-2 C-USA) will win the West and earn a spot in the C-USA Championship Game if Tulsa loses to Rice next weekend.
Houston got off to a slow start in Saturday’s game. The Cougars went into halftime with a 10-7 lead over Marshall, but roared back to score 25 points in the second half.
Keenum, who played the entire game for the Cougars, completed 24 of 32 passes for 298 yards and 2 touchdowns. With 10:50 left to play, Keenum took matters into his own hands and scored on a 1-yard run. He also rushed for a two-point conversion that put the Cougars up 28-14.
Marshall (2-9, 2-5) answered with a 1-yard touchdown run by freshman running back Darius Marshall that brought the Thundering Herd within seven with just over five minutes left in the game.
However, Keenum responded with a long touchdown pass to Hafner that extended Houston’s lead to two touchdowns with 4:22 remaining.
Marshall scored its final points when junior running back Kelvin Turner ran it in from 1 yard with 2:31 left to play.
Marshall senior quarterback Bernard Morris finished the evening 20-of-32 passing for 260 yards and a touchdown. He connected with junior wide receiver Emmanuel Spann on a 32-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.
Houston’s only points in the first quarter came when senior kicker T.J. Lawrence made a 32-yard field goal with 11:34 left in the first quarter.
Morris was sacked three times, twice in the second quarter. Both drives resulted in missed field goals by senior kicker Anthony Binswanger.
With 7:31 to play in the second quarter, Morris was sacked by Houston senior linebacker Brendan Pahulu for a loss of 15 yards on a third-down play.
The Thundering Herd could not get into the red zone and had to settle for a 47-yard field goal attempt, which senior kicker Anthony Binswanger missed to give Houston the ball on its own 30 with 7:25 left in the half.
Keenum completed three of four passes to move the ball down the field quickly, and senior running back Anthony Alridge scored from three yards out for his 20th career rushing touchdown. Alridge’s scamper put the Cougars ahead 10-7 with 5:17 left to play.
Alridge finished the night with 103 yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving).
The Houston defense forced Marshall to turn the ball over on downs on the following drive, but Keenum fumbled the ball and Marshall junior free safety C.J. Spillman recovered to give the Thundering Herd possession on the Houston 37 with 3:19 left in the half.
However, the Cougars’ defense did not give up. Junior defensive end Phillip Hunt sacked Morris for a 4-yard loss on third down, and Marshall had to settle for a 42-yard field goal attempt. However, the Thundering Herd came up empty after Binswanger missed the kick.
The Cougars started the second half strong, forcing Marshall to turn over the ball on downs on their first drive of the half. Lawrence connected on a 24-yard field goal attempt to push Houston’s lead to 13-7 with 10:45 left in the third quarter.
Houston scored again when Keenum found Alridge on a 26-yard touchdown pass that put the Cougars up 20-7 with 4:31 left in third quarter.
Marshall junior running back Chubb Small ran it in from 13 yards out to pull Marshall within six points with 20 seconds left in the third quarter.