The atmosphere in Robertson Stadium in week 3 of the 2009 season had an electricity that was the product of a fan base desperately tasting national relevancy for the first time in nearly 20 years.
No, the Cougars home match-up with Texas Tech wasn’t their first ESPN televised game or true home game against a Big 12 opponent in that stretch of time.
But it was Cougar football’s first game competing as a top 25 team since 1991 and as importantly an exceedingly rare chance to get a true home game against one of the Big 12’s Texas schools.
Up to that point I had been at some games I would say were ‘good’ crowds by the low standards of the time (e.g. Oklahoma State- 2006, the ’06 CUSA Championship game, the Tulsa revenge game in ’08).
This game at the time was the largest crowd since UH football moved from the Astrodome (buoyed by some visiting fans) and they were treated to a thrilling contest.
Leading into the Game:
The excitement from Cougar fans leading into this game wasn’t just based on the opponent they’d probably had circled on the calendar all off season.
Exactly 2 weeks earlier, they’d gone on the road and beaten #5 Oklahoma State 45-35 the same week that OSU team was featured in Sports Illustrated. It was the kind of seismic win that forced the college football world to notice the Cougar football program and head coach Kevin Sumlin.
Winning a game of that magnitude might have been surprising, but I don’t think any Cougar fan was surprised Case Keenum was flourishing as starting QB in his 2nd year in OC Dana Holgorsen’s offense.
Keenum had shown an above-average ability to make plays when he stepped on the field in 2007. But Holgorsen and his variation of the Air Raid allowed Keenum to become one of the country’s most prolific passers and still occasionally show off his incredible improvisational ability.
The Cougar offense wasn’t just a one-man show though. Keenum had speedy receivers Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards who’d cut their teeth as freshmen the year before, along a big promising target from the junior college ranks: James Cleveland. Also in the backfield with Keenum were Bryce Beall and Charles Sims, a ‘thunder and lightning’ contrast at the running back position.
They had only played 2 games in the 2009 season, but it was clear the Coogs had one of the country's best offenses.
Things on defense were a lot less certain, but linebackers Matt Nicholson and Marcus McGraw anchored what Cougar fans hoped was an improved defense after a rough 2008. Holding Oklahoma State to 28 offensive points (7 came on a Dez Bryant punt return TD) and forcing multiple turnovers was a nice first showing.
On the opposing sideline, the Red Raiders were coming off arguably their best season in program history. The Red Raiders won their first 10 games of the 2008 season (including a Michael Crabtree TD over the cow college in Austin) but a loss to Oklahoma prevented an undefeated regular season and Big 12 title (they finished the year 11-2).
A lot of key players were gone from that ’08 team, including Crabtree and QB Graham Harrell. Figuring out who would be the next QB in Mike Leach’s pass-happy offense was probably the biggest question on Red Raider fans’ minds.
Harrell’s primary backup: Taylor Potts, was the logical successor and the starter going into the game with Houston.
The Red Raiders came into this game off decisive wins over Division 1-AA North Dakota and Rice and a 34-24 loss the prior week in Austin to the Longhorns. Potts had thrown for 400+ yards in all 3 of those games, so it looked like Tech’s vaunted passing offense would come into Houston firing on all cylinders.
Mercifully, this game was scheduled for an 8:15 PM kickoff on ESPN2 and everyone in attendance was spared the brutal late-September Houston heat.
The game had an interesting and kind of weird atmosphere as thousands of students had lined up as early as 12 AM to claim student tickets (yours truly got in line around 3 AM). It was a melting pot of: a sleep deprived student body that had largely been consuming ‘spirits’ for many hours, mixed with a large alumni/general Houstonian crowd and a notoriously rowdy fan base in Texas Tech.
On the field, Case Keenum got the Coogs on the board first with a TD pass to James Cleveland, though the Red Raiders would answer on the next possession with a Baron Batch TD run.
This game was surprisingly slow out of the gate offensively as only 2 of the game’s first 9 total drives ended in any points. The Coogs retook the lead on a Jordan Mannisto 30-yard field goal, but the game’s momentum was about to take a turn.
From the middle of the 2nd quarter to the middle of the 3rd the Red Raiders scored touchdowns on 3 of 4 possessions. The final one was a Taylor Potts TD pass to Tramain Swindall to put Tech up 28-20.
The Cougar defense was struggling dealing with Tech’s offense in a surprising way: stopping the run. When it was all said and done in this game, Tech finished with 163 yards rushing. But at a critical moment in the game, that Cougar run defense came through in a big way.
The Red Raider offense got possession at the beginning of the 4th quarter with a 28-23 lead and marched deep into Cougar territory to set up a 4th down & Goal from inside the Cougar 1-yard line. Mike Leach’s decision to go for it wasn’t surprising, considering the percentages on ‘4th & short’ situations and that a touchdown would effectively end the game.
No, the surprise came when Potts (decidedly not a mobile guy) kept the ball on a QB sneak and was stuffed for no gain by Kris Johnston and David Hunter to give the Coogs the ball.
That stopped the Red Raiders for the moment, but Keenum threw an interception on the very next possession and the Coogs had only 7:12 left of game time to get another stop and erase this 5-point deficit.
Thankfully, the Cougar defense had one more stop in them and Leach inexplicably threw nothing but passes on a drive that could’ve benefited from more than 1:25 running off the clock. Still, the Coogs were just about out of chances.
The Red Raiders gave the ball back to the Coogs with 5:47 left in the game and at their own 5-yard line. On this drive Keenum threw or rushed for a first down on 3 different 3rd or 4th downs. The drive began on Saturday night and 15 plays later it was early Sunday morning and the Coogs called timeout on a 2nd down & Goal from the 4-yard line. There were only 53 seconds left in the game.
It was a play Cougar fans had seen many times before, Keenum took a shotgun snap in an empty backfield, faked like he would pass for half a moment and then ran into the end zone to put the Coogs ahead for good.
My recollection of that moment is clouded, but I remember the moment UH scored being the loudest I’d ever heard Robertson Stadium. It felt like the ground was shaking and the people around me were all hugging and manically high-fiving each other.
We were asked, or truthfully begged, to not rush the field until Tech players had time to leave. I remember the moment the clock went to 0:00 me and thousands of UH students threw ourselves over the barriers and celebrated with reckless abandon.
In the middle of the on-field celebration, someone swiped Keenum’s helmet and Sumlin used his increased profile to ask for the helmets safe return on multiple TV/radio interviewers the following week. The helmet was safely returned and for a few days UH was college football’s newest 'Cinderella'.
The next game seemed like a cake walk: a road game at a 1-3 UTEP team that had just come off a 64-7 demolition in Austin to the cow college.
But the Cougar defense collapsed against the Miners, allowing 58 points and 306 rushing yards in a shock upset, 58-41. The Coogs went from #12 in the nation to unranked in the space of a week.
Even with the disappointing loss in its immediate aftermath, the win over Texas Tech was worthy of inclusion in this countdown for the sheer spectacle of the game. The tenure of Art Briles restored respectability and some good crowds came at the tail end of his time in Houston.
But, this game was a bigger home atmosphere than any UH game since the earliest years since the 1990s. It was a truly wild college football atmosphere and thankfully would not be the last one at a UH game in the 10 years since.