BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The University of Houston’s athletic department has professed a reluctance to stage any cagey PR stunts in service of senior quarterback Case Keenum’s Heisman candidacy. There will be no billboards nor bobbleheads for the cause. The likely New York invitee and unlikely hardware winner would be hard-pressed to find humbler surroundings in which to stage his third major NCAA record-breaking performance of the season.
While a couple hundred thousand screaming faithful thronged Tuscaloosa to watch the SEC West division race come to a bitter head, an announced crowd of 13,909 (an estimation we’re going to charitably call “ambitious”) bore witness in decaying Legion Field to the fall of the all-time NCAA record for career passing yards by a player operating in just his third full season as a starter. (Keenum, devotees will recall, redshirted his first year with the Cougars and wasn’t named the full-time replacement for Kevin Kolb until more than halfway through his second season. After standout years in 2008 and ’09, he tore his ACL in the second quarter of the Cougars’ third game, a road date with UCLA, and was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.) Entering Saturday’s contest, Keenum already held the career total offense and touchdown passing records, and speculation that he might amass the 267 yards needed to pass Timmy Chang as the all-time passing yardage leader by the end of the first quarter wasn’t all that farfetched.
General goofiness abounded instead in the first half, with Houston needing a quarter and a half to gain its first lead over one-win UAB. The sequence of events that resulted in that lead was particularly memorable: An unfortunate 24-yard punt by UAB gave the Cougars the ball in enemy territory, at the 31-yard line. Two incomplete passes and a six-yard rush were abetted by an interference penalty against UAB to set up Houston at the 23. Keenum took the snap, rared back to throw … and the ball seemed simply to drop out of his hand onto the ground. He recovered it himself, threw it away, and was hit with intentional grounding. Three short passes and another penalty later, Keenum took a high snap that he appeared to almost bobble, ran the ball in himself and edged it over the pylon by the barest of margins. The extra point, fittingly, bounced off an upright before falling through for a successful try. All for a 14-7 edge.
Keenum would run in one more touchdown Saturday night, prompting jocular Cougars staffers to ask us to refer to him as a dual-threat quarterback. On Houston’s second drive of the third quarter, Keenum hit Justin Johnson for two passes in rapid succession: a 26-yarder that tied the record, and a 16-yarder that broke it. The moment came with no fanfare. A UH employee scurried down to the front of the press box to snap a photo. The stadium was quiet enough to make out the tune a lone UAB band member was picking out on a marimba at field level. Six plays later, Keenum took off for the endzone again, capping off his historic airshow drive with a run, spreading his arms for just one moment of glee.
Afterward, folded into a chair in a tiny interview room somewhere in the caverns beneath the stadium, Keenum seemed to have finished a particularly satisfying backyard game, comporting himself in the manner of a likable Brett Favre. ”I’m having a blast playing football right now,” Keenum said. He was relaxed, but mindful of his place in history. ”I’m not gonna take it lightly. I don’t take any of these things lightly.” Both he and his head coach were quick to praise Keenum’s teammates, with Sumlin analogizing, “You’re not looking at a batting title. It takes 10 other guys.”
This game elevated the Cougars to No. 11 in the BCS standings, still leaving them the lowest-ranked of any undefeated team by six slots. Sumlin seemed unperturbed by that or anything else that doesn’t directly relate to the 11 guys in his command on the field at any given moment. “All we can do is win,” Sumlin said. “And, obviously, other people have to lose.”
But it’s obvious where Houston’s appeal lies. As the Cougars faced the Blazers, a story circulated the press box about a Pinstripe Bowl scout getting credentialed for the Alabama-LSU game. I asked Keenum what he’d say to sell the Cougars as a high-value postseason prospect, should any such figures deign to call on Houston. He tilted his head thoughtfully. “What’s the score in that Alabama game?” Last we’d checked, the Crimson Tide led the Tigers in the third quarter, 6-3. Keenum nodded, unsurprised, and cracked a smile.
“That’d probably be it, right there.”
Artful Miscellany: Other non-AQ news of import
• Kellen Moore set a record of his own in Week 10, passing Colt McCoy for career wins with his 46th victory as the Broncos’ starting quarterback, a 48-21 thumping of UNLV. Stray thought: Will Moore and Keenum setting NCAA records in the same weekend end up helping both Heisman candidacies? Hard to mention one at this point without the other.
• North Texas’ new stadium looks the part. Now, if only they had a team to put in it.
• Arkansas State knows its audience.
Faced with a doomsday homecoming opponent in the Houston Cougars’ top-ranked offense, these Blazer bros turned out in style.
Violently Subjective Non-AQ Top 10
1. Boise State (8-0)
2. Houston (9-0)
3. Southern Miss (8-1)
4. TCU (7-2)
5. Tulsa (6-3)
[DANGER POLL BELOW THIS POINT IS UTTER DISASTER]
6. BYU (6-3)
7. Louisiana (7-2)
8. Arkansas State (7-2)
9. Northern Illinois (7-3) 1
10. Toledo (6-4)
DJ Khaled Prize For Excellence in Winning
Three non-AQ teams are ranked in the BCS standings this week, with Boise State at No. 5, Houston at No. 11 and Southern Miss at No. 22. Bowl-eligible teams among mid-majors, after 10 weeks of play: The Broncos and Cougars, Southern Miss, BYU, Louisiana, TCU, Arkansas State, Northern Illinois, Ohio, Tulsa, SMU and Ball State. Toledo hit six wins with last night’s shootout win over Western Michigan; Temple could get there tonight with a win over Miami (Ohio).
Walking Dead Watch
Florida Atlantic is likely to stay winless in Week 11, facing FIU on the road, but is there a glimmer of hope for 0-9 New Mexico against a team as wretched as UNLV?
The Miami RedHawks pay a call on Temple for Wednesday primetime MACtion. Thursday night features Houston at Tulane and Ohio at Central Michigan. Saturday, in descending order from “actual interest in the football to be played here” to “tune in out of morbid curiosity,” don’t miss: TCU-Boise State, Louisiana-Arkansas State, Louisiana Tech-Ole Miss, UCF-Southern Miss, Wyoming-Air Force, Hawaii-Nevada, Navy-SMU, Marshall-Tulsa, Western Kentucky-LSU and UAB-Memphis.