Walking the plank
GREENVILLE, N.C. – As the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, reality hit the Cougars squarely in the face.
And it hurt.
The memory of Saturday’s 38-32 loss to East Carolina in the Conference USA championship game will likely linger with the Cougars for a while as they try to refocus after falling short of their most desired goals for this season.
UH’s first C-USA title since 2006, a trip to the Liberty Bowl and a shot at the program’s first 12-win season – all vanished with Saturday’s loss.
Instead, ECU (9-4) captured its second consecutive C-USA championship before an energetic home crowd of 33,048, becoming the league’s first back-to-back champion since it converted to a two-division format in 2005. The Pirates will face Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl on Jan. 2 in Memphis, Tenn.
The Cougars, who fell out of the Associated Press’ Top 25 after entering the weekend at No. 18, will face Air Force for the second consecutive year in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 31 at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth. UH (10-3) beat Air Force, 34-28, in last year’s game after dropping a 31-28 decision to the Falcons in the regular season.
Plenty to still play for
The Cougars still have a chance to tie the school record for most wins in a season.
‘I told our seniors that we’re sorry for them that we didn’t get it done (against ECU), but we’ve got one more game,’ UH head coach Kevin Sumlin said. ‘They can still be proud that they’ve won 10 games and have a chance to win 11, which is nothing to sneeze at.’
Quarterback Case Keenum threw for 527 yards and five touchdowns to surpass the 5,000-yard mark for the second consecutive season, and wide receiver James Cleveland caught 19 passes for 241 yards and three touchdowns to go over 1,000 receiving yards. But their efforts weren’t enough to offset erratic play in all three phases of Saturday’s game.
The offense committed a season-high four turnovers, paced by Keenum’s three interceptions, and was held to a season-low 30 rushing yards. Kicker Matt Hogan missed three extra-point attempts. The offensive line was whipped by the Pirates’ powerful defensive line, which sacked Keenum twice.
The defense gave up two rushing touchdowns apiece to Pirates running backs Dominique Lindsay and Giavanni Ruffin, failed to consistently pressure quarterback Patrick Pinkney and couldn’t find an answer for game MVP Dwayne Harris (nine catches, 123 yards, one TD).
Chances still there at the end
Despite all this, the Cougars almost left town with a win.
The defense stuffed Lindsay for no gain on a fourth-and-1 attempt from UH’s 36-yard line, and the offense took over with 1:47 and one timeout remaining.
Keenum marched the Cougars to the ECU 34 in five plays, setting up a first-and-10 with 52 seconds left. But the comeback bid ended when Keenum was intercepted by Pirates safety Van Eskridge in the end zone with 42 seconds remaining.
Keenum tried to hit wide receiver L.J. Castile on a deep route to the left corner of the end zone, but the ball bounced off the shoulder pads of cornerback Travis Simmons, popped up in the air and came down into the waiting hands of a roving Eskridge, who recorded his second interception.
‘We like having the ball in our hands with a chance to win it. We’ve got guys that can make plays down field,’ Keenum said. ‘(The Pirates) made more plays than we did. They made plays when it mattered most.”
The Cougars’ first three turnovers led to 17 points for ECU. The final one sealed their fate.
‘Obviously, turnovers were the difference,’ Sumlin said. ‘In a championship game, you can’t turn the ball over. They capitalized on turnovers, and, even with all that, we had a chance in the end to win.’
The Cougars have been in similar situations this season. They needed fourth-quarter comebacks to defeat Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Tulsa, two of those games on the road. One more such comeback would have given the program its third C-USA title.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
‘I felt like we would be able to move the ball down field and score (on the final drive),’ wide receiver Tyron Carrier said. ‘We just didn’t make the plays that we usually do.
‘Hats off to East Carolina. They made more plays than we did, and we came up just a little bit short.”