The moment I’ve dreaded since I committed to doing this countdown is finally here: the 2011 Conference USA championship game.
If you’re going to make a countdown of significant games (both good and bad) from the year 2000 to present, avoiding this one is impossible.
At this point the 2011 CUSA championship was the biggest game Cougar football had played in over 20 years, with a BCS bowl berth tantalizingly close. Nobody confused Southern Miss with a bad CUSA team, but you would’ve had a hard time finding a Coog fan lacking confidence that week.
Sometimes it takes a devastating loss to appreciate when a team finally does break through on a national stage.
I guess that’s my way of spinning a monumental let down like this one.
Leading into the Game:
The Cougars had just completed the 2011 regular season with a 12-0 record. I can’t go back in time and take the entire fan base's temperature in early December of 2011, but I think Cougar fans were a lot more nervous about the regular season finale up at Tulsa than the CUSA championship.
By now I’ve written about the 2011 team a couple different times in this countdown, so I’ll try and keep my summary as compact as possible.
The Coogs were an unstoppable force against their schedule this year, so much so that they hadn’t played a game closer than a 30-point margin since October.
Case Keenum in the 2011 regular season threw 43 passing TDs to only 3 interceptions and had just under 5,000 passing yards. That’s with the context that Keenum sat a lot of 4th quarters because the Coogs had long since sent that game into ‘garbage time’.
The devastating early season injury to Keenum at UCLA in 2010 allowed him to finish his college career at the same time as his 2 favorite targets since 2008: Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards. And while both Edwards and Carrier were excellent (Edwards would finish 2011 with 20 receiving TDs!) the breakout of Justin Johnson I think is what really kicked this offense into overdrive.
Johnson had also played as a back and tight end at different points of his career and finally found his niche as a match up nightmare who was too quick for opposing linebackers and too strong for opposing defensive backs.
Not to be overlooked, the Coogs also had a trio of backs: Charles Sims, Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall, who were effective rushers and oft used to great effect in the passing attack.
The defense was anchored by multi-year captain Marcus McGraw and alongside him sensational freshman and local kid Derrick Matthews. I would argue Sammy Brown was the biggest difference maker for the defense. Brown would end up leading the nation in tackles for loss and finish with double-digit sacks.
Some other standouts who merited mention were new JuCO arrival DJ Hayden who would finish 11 passes defensed and 5 forced fumbles, and Phillip Steward who had 6 interceptions and 2 fumbles recovered from his linebacker position.
Even though I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted this game’s outcome, in retrospect I am sure me and many other Coog fans underestimated Southern Miss.
For starters, the Eagles had their own super veteran QB: Austin Davis. The Eagles’ offense wasn’t designed to put up the gaudy passing numbers the Coogs did, but Davis would comfortably surpass 3,000 yards this season.
The strength of the Eagles’ offense was in their balance, as they averaged over 200 yards per game both rushing and passing. Head coach Larry Fedora had as deep of a stable of backs as anyone in the country, highlighted by all-purpose machine (1,000+ rush/receiving yards) Tracy Lampley and super frosh Jamal Woodyard.
Statistically, the Eagles had a somewhat better defense than the Coogs and had only surrendered 30+ points twice in their 12-game regular season. Future All-Pro linebacker Jamie Collins and Cordarro Law (who has the 2nd most fumbles forced in a career) anchored a nasty front seven.
But the biggest talking point in the lead up to this game was unfortunately shifting away from either of the teams. Only 4 days before this game kicked off, Texas A&M unexpectedly fired Mike Sherman and immediately Cougar head coach Kevin Sumlin emerged as the Aggies’ primary target. I don’t know what Sumlin said about those rumors and considering what ended up happening, I don’t care.
Even with those rumors and a top 25 team with a 10-2 record standing in their way, I don’t think there were many fan bases more optimistic than the Coogs going into conference championship Saturday.
This was a season that had seen a few good crowds at Robertson Stadium, but the place was bursting at the seams with the crowd for this CUSA championship game.
Even with 2011 being a banner year for the Houston Texans, the 12-0 Coogs had somehow managed to be the city’s biggest sports story in the week leading up to this game.
Both teams’ offenses came out of the gates extraordinarily slow. The game’s first 7 possessions ended with zero points for either team. The longest drive over that stretch was an 8-play, 44-yard drive by the Coogs that ended with a turnover on downs at the USM 35.
Late in the first quarter USM got the game’s first break, a bad 20-yard punt by the normally reliable Richie Leone allowed the Eagles to start at the Cougar 37 on their 4th possession. Austin Davis only completed 2 of 5 pass attempts on this drive, but the 2nd one was a 14-yard TD to one of USM’s 2 Texans: Ryan Balentine.
The opening quarter ended with the Coogs trailing 7-0 and after going 3 and out again early in the 2nd quarter and thanks to a Cougar personal foul on the punt return USM started deep in Cougar territory. Davis connected with Tracy Lampley 3 plays later for a 16-yard TD reception. The visitors now led 14-0 and you could feel the nervous energy from the crowd.
Some of those nerves went away when the Coogs responded with a vintage Keenum drive as he went 5 of 6 and found Justin Johnson from 9 yards out to cut the USM lead to 14-7.
The Cougar defense responded by getting the Eagles off the field in 3 plays and 21 seconds of game action. At midfield on the next possession Keenum connected against with Johnson, who was tackled just shy of the goal line and Michael Hayes punched it in on the next play to tie the game.
All the earlier nervous energy was replaced by enthusiasm and the blip earlier in the game was just the team starting slow like they had in several other games. The next drive swung the game’s momentum wildly.
On 2nd down & 15, Davis completed a pass to Dominique Sullivan who beat his man and won a foot race with several other Cougar defenders for a 69-yard touchdown to put the Eagles back up 21-14.
The scored remained 21-14 at halftime and while it was still anyone’s game, seeing the Coogs down at halftime hadn’t been a common occurrence this season. This game would essentially be decided in the next quarter.
Southern Miss received the opening kickoff and went 3 and out, an encouraging start. Another Cougar special teams gaffe dramatically changed this game, as the Coogs’ on their next drive was blocked and returned for a TD by USM reserve Furious Bradley.
On their next drive the Coogs got all the way to USM’s 1-yard line, only for Keenum to get intercepted in the end zone by Deron Wilson. The Cougar defense threw their offense another lifeline as Phillip Steward intercepted Davis on the next possession and returned the ball to the USM 4. On the next play, Hayes would get his 2nd rush TD of the day and cut the USM lead back to 1 score.
But the Cougar defense didn’t have another stop in them, and the Eagles ran on 8 of 11 plays on their next drive, ending with a 17-yard run by Desmond Johnson.
The game started to feel like it was slipping away and after another empty Cougar offensive possession, Davis connected with Lampley again, this time on a 61-yard TD to put the Eagles up 42-21. At this point the air felt like it had been let out of Robertson Stadium.
In USM’s first possession of the 4th quarter the Eagles fumbled the ball deep in UH territory, giving their opponents the faintest hope of a comeback. But the Coogs were only able to get to the USM 25 before Keenum was sacked for a 19-yard loss on 4th down.
The last indignity of this game was Keenum throwing a pick six with 3 minutes left and allowing USM to put an exclamation point on their shocking upset win.
Nothing after that point mattered, USM had thoroughly beaten the Coogs in every phase of this game and left no doubt which team was more prepared that day. Keenum finished the day with 373 pass yards, but an uncharacteristic 2 interceptions. The veteran Cougar receivers dropped 3 passes between them and the running backs combined for a pedestrian 82 yards on 24 carries.
The Eagles rushed for 207 yards as a team and Davis averaged 8.4 pass yards per attempt and threw 4 TDs to only 1 interception.
From 2006 to 2011 I’d been fortunate to have witnessed few losses at Robertson Stadium, but this one felt like 4-5 losses stacked on top of each other.
It was a bad day.
Sumlin announced on December 10th what everyone had suspected for over a week: he was leaving to take the same job at Texas A&M. There wouldn’t have been much positive feeling towards the man regardless of the game’s outcome, but the humiliating loss permanently eliminated even perfunctory good will.
Under interim head coach Tony Levine (who would be named permanent HC shortly before the bowl) and with the assistant coach group intact, the Coogs had a chance to send out Keenum and a great senior class as winners at the TicketCity Bowl.
Soon to be parted OC Kliff Kingsbury and Keenum decided to throw the dang ball on nearly every play and the Coogs beat Penn State 30-14 and finished the 2011 season with a program-record 13 wins.
The Coogs would get to the promised land of a big time bowl game several years later, but without that knowledge it felt like the Coogs had let a once in a lifetime opportunity slip through their fingers.
In terms of 21st century UH football losses, nothing could top this one… which is good news for the rest of this countdown.