FOOTBALL: Best in the West
The Cougars unceremoniously whipped the Rice Owls on Saturday night to return the Bayou Bucket trophy to Cullen Boulevard.
With one more win, UH can bring home a more prestigious trophy – the Conference USA championship.
The Cougars captured their second C-USA West Division title and first appearance in the league championship game since 2006 with a lopsided 73-14 win over Rice before a lively crowd of 28,243 at Robertson Stadium.
UH (10-2, 6-2) tied a school record with 59 first-half points and will face East Carolina (8-4, 7-1) in the C-USA title game at 11 a.m. Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C.
The 18th-ranked Cougars, who finished a perfect 6-0 at home, tagged Rice for the most points scored by any major college program this season. They also became the fourth squad in program history to record 10 regular-season wins, but unlike all their other victories, this one carried the most weight.
‘This was one of our primary goals – to win the West,’ head coach Kevin Sumlin said. ‘We haven’t been perfect, but we’ve gotten better. Our guys keep fighting. They’ve put our team in a position to win a championship.’
The Cougars, who won their last C-USA championship in 2006, couldn’t have looked any more like champions than they did against Rice (2-10, 2-6).
UH steamrolled its crosstown rival for 684 total yards, scoring on all nine of its possessions in the first half. The Cougars’ defense pitched a shutout through the first 36 minutes, intercepting three passes and holding the Owls 0-for-8 on third-down conversions before halftime.
When the teams departed for the locker room at the break, the Cougars had a 59-0 lead, their highest point total in a first half since a 95-21 win over SMU on Oct. 21, 1989.
It was a fitting tribute to the Cougars’ 1989 squad, including Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware, which was honored at halftime.
Saturday’s thrashing also was sweet revenge for the Owls’ 56-42 victory in last season’s Bayou Bucket that prevented the Cougars from advancing to the C-USA title game.
‘We had that bitter taste in our mouth all year, so it was really important to come out and start early,’ wide receiver Tyron Carrier said. ‘We set the tone at the beginning for the rest of the game.’
Carrier set the tone in a big way, returning the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, the second-longest in school history. It was Carrier’s third kickoff return for a touchdown this season and the fourth of his career.
The Owls went three-and-out on their first possession, and the Cougars wasted little time building on their momentum. Quarterback Case Keenum directed them on a 10-play, 56-yard drive that ended with his 1-yard touchdown run with 10:10 left in the first quarter.
Cornerback Brandon Brinkley, a senior playing in his final home game, picked off a pass from Owls quarterback Nick Fanuzzi on the ensuing drive and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-0 with 8:43 remaining in the first quarter.
The rout was on from there.
‘We got some big breaks there early,’ said Keenum, who sat out the entire second half. ‘When you score a touchdown in all three phases, it says a lot about how you’re playing as a team.’
Several Cougars provided big plays in the first half.
Keenum, a dark horse contender for the Heisman Trophy, completed 25 of 31 passes for 323 yards and two touchdowns to go along with his rushing score. Freshman running back Charles Sims rushed for two touchdowns, and Carrier scored on a 37-yard reverse for his first career rushing touchdown.
Receivers L.J. Castile and Patrick Edwards had a touchdown reception apiece, and cornerback Jamal Robinson had two interceptions. Matt Hogan connected on a 22-yard field goal to improve to 10-for-10 in that category.
It was a near-perfect performance.
Because of it, the Cougars are heading to the C-USA championship game.
‘As a coach and program, that’s where you want to be,’ Sumlin said. ‘The only way to do that is to win games. These guys have fought to do that, and that’s where we’re at right now. But the season isn’t over yet.’