This game went sideways in a manner that would be almost unbelievable as fiction.
Of course, the phrase ‘stranger than fiction’ has become cliched by now, but I am not sure how else you can succinctly describe a game where 2 quarterbacks suffered season-ending injuries in the space of less than a quarter.
Whatever way you looked at the Coogs’ 2010 game at UCLA, it was a disaster on the field and a game that had lasting negative effects on the season.
And yet somewhat akin to the legend of the Phoenix rising from the ashes, somehow this very bad, no good game in Los Angeles inadvertently set the table for one of the program’s best seasons.
Leading into the Game:
As this game was in week 3 of the 2010 season, we only knew so much about the Cougars or UCLA. But what we did know about these schools 2 weeks in made the Cougars appear to be a big favorite.
After an exciting 2009 where the Cougars finished 10-4 and beat 3 BCS conference schools (Ok State, Texas Tech and Miss State) 2010 was to be a year where everything came together.
The extremely productive and sometimes volatile Cougar offense from the year before would have a senior Case Keenum running the show with an upperclassmen heavy supporting cast of guys like Patrick Edwards, Tyron Carrier, Bryce Beall, James Cleveland and Charles Sims.
Before the season the Coogs got their first piece of bad news: Sims would be sitting out the 2010 season (and redshirting) due to academic reasons.
In the first 2 weeks of the season the Coogs won a pair of home games against Division 1-AA Texas State and UTEP respectively. Both games were blowouts and between the 2 the Cougar offense averaged 61 points.
Nobody would have confused Texas State and UTEP for a challenging couple of weeks. But those blowout wins and some lingering name recognition from the 2009 team got them into the AP Top 25 at #23 prior to week 3’s action. That Case Keenum left the game early vs UTEP with an injury really wasn’t on anyone’s radar.
It wasn’t a new feeling as the Coogs had spent 11 weeks ranked in the 2009 season but went into 2010 unranked after a tough finish to the previous year.
UCLA was having the exact opposite experience of the Coogs in their first 2 weeks of the season. The Bruins went on the road to K-State in their opener and lost 31-22 while giving up 300+ rush yards. If possible, the following week was even worse as they hosted #25 Stanford and got drubbed 35-0.
There wasn’t a lack of talent on the Bruins roster, as they had future pros like: Johnathan Franklin, Rahim Moore, Anthony Barr and Akeem Ayers on the roster.
But finding a QB that fit what 3rd year head coach Rick Neuheisel and what the Bruins staff wanted to do was a challenge. They’d played Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut and neither one stood out.
Even considering the Cougars were a road team making a rare trip out West, they were still the favorites over the 0-2 Bruins.
If you ever needed a reminder as a Cougar fan about the folly of feeling too confident when your team is the favorite.
Nothing in the first quarter of this game would have prepared you for how it ended up finishing, or even what was coming the next quarter. The Cougar offense looked flat and out of sorts the moment they got on the field at the Rose Bowl.
After a 3 & out on their first possession, the Coogs put together a 9 play, 74-yard drive that ended with a 29-yard Matt Hogan made field goal. Unfortunately, after that scoring drive, the Coogs left the field empty-handed on their next 9 possessions.
The Bruins got on the board with a Johnathan Franklin touchdown run to up 7-3, a lead that they would never come close to relinquishing over the rest of the game. Once the 1st quarter ended the game started getting out of hand for the Cougars.
On their 3rd possession, the Bruins held the ball for a 14-play, nearly 6-minute drive that lasted from the end of the 1st through the early 2nd quarter, capped off by a 2-yard Kevin Prince TD run. By now the Bruins had figured out the Coogs were struggling to stop the run.
While a 14-3 deficit wasn’t what most Cougar fans expected in this game, a 2-score deficit with most of 3 quarters left was nothing new for Keenum or most of these players. On their next drive the Coogs managed to get to the UCLA 30-yard line, but Keenum had a 3rd down pass intercepted by Rahim Moore.
That first Cougar turnover set UCLA up at the Houston 42-yard line and 7 plays later the Bruins extended their lead to 21-3 on another Franklin TD run.
Bad as this was looking, the night’s absolute worst news came on the next UH possession. The Coogs had managed to get deep into UCLA territory once again, but on 1st & Goal at the UCLA 2-yard line Keenum was picked off by Akeem Ayers.
After the play was over Keenum laid completely motionless on the Rose Bowl field and sometime after the game it was confirmed he’d torn the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) in his right knee. At this point, losing to UCLA was the last thing most Cougar fans were concerned about as they watched the face of the program taken to the locker room.
Ayers’ interception return was ended by Michael Hayes at the Cougar 23-yard line, but the Cougar defense stood tall and Matt Nicholson recovered a Bruin fumble on the drive’s first play.
The game went to half with the Bruins leading 21-3 and the 2nd half only brought more bad news. First, the Cougar offense was still struggling with backup QB Cotton Turner now taking snaps and the Bruins scored on 2 of their first 3 possessions to extend their lead to 28.
But the QB situation became a full-blown crisis when Turner was knocked out of the game on the Coogs’ 2nd drive of the half. It was a broken collarbone and like Keenum, Turner would miss the best of the 2010 season.
The only remaining UH QBs in Los Angeles were walk-on Austin Elrod and true freshman Terrance Broadway. Later in the game, well after there was any doubt UCLA would be the winner, Broadway put together a 13-play, 74-yard scoring drive that ended with a James Cleveland TD reception.
UCLA didn’t do much after the middle of the 3rd quarter and they didn’t need to. On their last possession the Bruins got the ball with 6:23 left and an 18-point lead and just held onto the ball for the rest of the time in regulation. It was the last indignity for the Coogs in a game chock full of them.
Keenum finished with only 83 yards passing and 2 interceptions before he left the game. Despite facing a run defense that gave little resistance to K-State and Stanford, the Coogs only managed 108 rush yards on 3.6 yards per carry. The Bruin rushing offense finished their night 280 yards and 4 TDs on the ground.
This was a thorough defeat for the Coogs and would have no shortage of long-term effects on UH football.
Early the following week, Cougar fans knew officially what they’d probably suspected since the prior Saturday night: both Keenum and his backup Turner would miss the rest of the 2010 season.
This opened a QB competition between Broadway and fellow true freshman David Piland. While Broadway did start the following week in a home win over Tulane, Piland ending up starting every other game and getting most of the reps over the remainder of the season.
The Coogs were not the same team without their star QB, although they lost 3 conference games (@ Rice, UCF, Tulsa) by a total of 13 points. It was a frustrating year to put it mildly.
2010 was supposed to be ‘the year’ and it ended with the Cougars staying home in the postseason with a 5-7 record.
But just a couple weeks after Christmas, Cougar fans got some good news for the first time in ages: the NCAA was granting Keenum a 6th year of eligibility. That meant the dream of this program having ‘the year’ was still alive for 2011.
I am always curious how different the trajectory of Cougar football would be if Keenum didn't get hurt that night against UCLA. It’s an alternate reality scenario that we’ll never really have an answer for, and as painful as this game was in real time it inadvertently set Cougar football up for an incredible 2011.