Keenum and Cougars go out on top with 30-14 win over Penn State in TicketCity Bowl
DALLAS — The TicketCity Bowl was supposed to be a battle of the ultimate contrast of styles — the school from the small conference with an explosive offense versus the smash-mouth style of one of the most storied programs in college football.
The Cougars got the memo — they showed up. The hyped running attack and defense of the Nittany Lions were absent.
“I’m a big believer you’re going to stop what you’re opponent likes to do,” head coach Tony Levine said. “If they’re going to beat you, they’re going to beat you in a different way. We talked about it as a staff, if they beat us, they’re going to beat us throwing the football, not running the football.”
Six-hundred yards of total offense later, UH walked off the field with the second-annual TicketCity Bowl trophy and their first bowl victory since 2008 defeating PSU 30-14 in front of 46,817 fans at the Cotton Bowl.
“Our kids wanted to go out against a really, really tremendous opponent in a January bowl game on a national stage and show the country that our loss a month ago in the championship game was not the norm, that was a fluke, not the 12 wins leading up to it,” Levine said.
In his final game as a Cougar, senior quarterback Case Keenum earned game MVP honors and set several records. He completed 45-69 passes for 532 yards, the most ever for a Penn State opponent, and three touchdowns. His 542 total yards broke former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell’s previous single-game Cotton Bowl record.
“I think kind of before the game, we knew we were going to throw the ball a bunch and talked about breaking records,” Keenum said.
“Honestly, we left a lot out there.”
After opening the game with two incompletions, Keenum followed with a 39-yard pass to senior receiver Patrick Edwards on the ensuing down, and found Edwards again to cap off the drive with a 40-yard score.
Keenum and Edwards hooked up again for a 75-yard strike with 1:43 remaining in the first half to give the Cougars a 24-7 edge.
“Get out ahead, starting fast I think was great for our confidence,” Levine said. “Again, I think it set the tone for the game.”
Edwards finished with 10 receptions for 228 yards and two touchdowns.
The Cougars played fast and took advantage of the soft zone that the Nittany Lions played and picked them apart underneath and in the middle of the field.
“It was nice working against the zone,” Edwards said. “But it was kind of tough at first because they were being physical off the line. We got into some good play calling and plays down the field worked. We stuck with it.”
Seniors Tyron Carrer and Justin Johnson also had standout days in the passing game. Johnson led UH with 12 catches for 148 yards and one touchdown. Carrier, who left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury, caught nine balls for 44 yards.
“Tyron going down was extremely difficult,” Levine said. “What he means to our program, what he’s done here, what he’s played through is remarkable. To see him go down today and not be able to finish the game broke my heart.
“What he means to this team, we will not be able to replace Patrick Edwards and not come close to replacing Justin Johnson. What they’ve done on the field, and more importantly what they’ve done off the field, you can’t replace their leadership and their character.”
The Cougars offensive line was able to neutralize Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still, who has been battling a nagging toe injury, and held him without a tackle and just one quarterback hurry.
“We’ve been playing against bigger teams all year long,” senior center Chris Thompson said. “We knew we were the faster team and practiced that and work at it and harness it and hold ourselves to that, that we’re going to be the faster team on the field.
“With that being said, speed kills. We’ve been playing big teams, they were a huge team. Huge, probably one of the biggest in my career, and all-around as a team, and we just came out and executed and it went our way.”
The Cougars’ defense gave one of their strongest performances of the season, holding Penn State running back Silas Redd to 53 yards on 14 attempts. Sophomore quarterback Rob Bolden was held to just 7-26 for 137 yards and was picked off twice by senior safety Nick Saenz and once by junior linebacker Phillip Steward.
Bolden’s interception total could have been even higher as cornerbacks Zach McMillian and D.J. Hayden narrowly missed picking off passes that could have been brought back for touchdowns.
“I was looking at the end zone,” Hayden said. “I wanted to score real bad.”
The Cougars speed on defense overwhelmed the Nittany Lions, who managed just 306 yards on 71 plays.
Penn State did not achieve a first down until the second quarter.
“Coming in we knew they were going to try to run the ball,” said senior linebacker Marcus McGraw, who led UH with 10 tackles, one for a loss.
“We wanted to get them in third‑and‑longs, second‑and‑longs, make them start passing the ball a little bit knowing they had their second‑string quarterback in. I think we did a good job accomplishing that goal.”
Senior lineback Sammy Brown made a habit of meeting Penn State ball carriers in the backfield, recording two tackles for a loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry.
The win is UH’s 13th of the season, the most in school history, and its first under head coach Tony Levine.
Levine becomes the second coach in school history to begin his collegiate career with a win over a ranked opponent. Harold Lahar did it in 1957 with a win over Miami.
Following the victory, Keenum was just trying to take in the scene and even celebrated by going over and directing the school band.
“I was trying to savor every moment, do everything I wanted to do after a game,” Keenum said. “I’ve seen guys like Anthony Alridge on our team direct the band. I went up there, gave everybody hugs. Threw the Gatorade on Coach Levine. It was just an awesome game.
“I’ll remember this forever. I know all the guys in there will. Couldn’t think of a better way to go out.”