I will accept any criticism from any Cougar fan who believes I have this game over ranked. My own biases put this game above the ’09 Oklahoma State win or the ’16 Louisville win, and I’ll just recognize this at the beginning.
But, the significance of the Coogs’ 2006 Conference USA championship game versus Southern Miss went a lot deeper than a shot at winning the 7th or 8th best conference in Division 1A.
No, this game was the culmination of a year where a long-dormant program got fans to believe again. This game fully re energized what was left of the fan base and guaranteed a generation of Cougar fans would become fans of the program.
Beyond the clichés and what I believe were this game’s long-term positive effects, it was a really fun game to experience live and one I’ll enjoy writing about as much as any in this countdown.
Leading into the Game:
Both teams had good seasons, a painfully obvious observation since the two were about to participate in a conference title game. At least stylistically the 2 teams had some interesting contrasts.
The Cougars had their moments offensively in the first 3 years of head coach Art Briles and his QB Kevin Kolb. It was a reasonably interesting story too. You had the (not disgraced yet) super successful longtime Texas high school coach who was trying to turn around the moribund college program he once played for and a QB who’d ran Briles’ offense going back to youth football.
The fact that Briles finished 2 of the previous 3 seasons with a .500 or better record was laudable after the dreary 10+ years that preceded his arrival. But, the 2006 team was a senior-heavy group on both sides of the ball and if this wasn’t ‘the year’ for Briles, I think Cougar fans would’ve started wondering if Briles’ ceiling at UH was 6 or 7 wins.
Besides Kolb, the Cougar offense had pint-sized, lightning quick receiver/return man Vincent Marshall, human battering ram Jackie Battle and other receivers like Donnie Avery, Jeron Harvey and Biren Ealy who stepped up at different key moments of the year.
In the 2nd half of the ’06 season the Coogs had also discovered maybe their most dangerous offensive weapon: Anthony ‘Quick Six’ Alridge. In Alridge and Marshall, the Coogs probably had the 2 fastest players in CUSA and among the fastest in all of college football. Alridge would finish the season averaging 10.1 (!!!) yards per carry and with just under 1,000 rush yards.
Yet for all the offensive fireworks, the ’06 Cougar defense played its own vital role in getting the team this far. The week before the title game that group just about single-handedly kept the Coogs from an embarrassing road loss against a 1-win Memphis team.
The defense was a combination of multi-year senior starters like Marquay Love, Wade Koehl and Will Gulley blended with promising underclassmen like Kenneth Fontenette, Phillip Hunt and Ernest Miller. They weren’t the 1985 Chicago Bears, but with the offensive weapons this team had they didn’t need to be.
Southern Miss was led by longtime head coach Jeff Bower, a USM alum and 4-time Conference USA title winner to this point. The Eagles’ most recent title had come in 2003, a bit of a slide from the absurdly high standards set by Bower himself.
The Eagles were a run-first smash mouth offense that avoided turnovers and whose best weapons were burly TE Shawn Nelson and freshman RB Damion Fletcher, who would re-write USM’s rushing records by the end of his career. But this team’s identity largely came from its defense.
Year in and year out, just about the most predictable thing in a notoriously hard to predict Conference USA was the Eagle defense being the league’s best. More than anything, defense got the Eagles this far.
These 2 teams actually faced each other earlier that season back in October. Southern Miss won a heated game 31-27 in Hattiesburg and Kolb was not subtle when giving his thoughts immediately after that game:
“We’ll meet them in the conference championship, we’ll have some neutral refs and we’ll see what happens”
Kolb proved to be quite ready to back these words up when it came time for the re-match.
It was an unseasonably cold night for this one, and other than moments from the game itself my memories of the night were the cold and the traffic for a local infrastructure that had never experienced Robertson Stadium selling out for a UH game.
When USM got the game’s opening kickoff they quickly marched the ball down the Cougar defense’s throat and looked destined the end zone before they stalled out at the 12-yard line and settled for a field goal. On the 3rd play of that drive Damion Fletcher had A 36-yard run that would set the tone for the game’s opening half.
The teams traded punts and on the Coogs’ 2nd possession they scored on a lateral from Kolb to Vincent Marshall and the Coogs were now up 7-3.
It only took 5 plays on the Eagles’ next possession for them to re-take the lead though. QB Jeremy Young found Shawn Nelson for a 45-yard pass completion and 2 plays later Young scored on an 8-yard run to put the Eagles up 10-7.
The Coogs responded with a 5+ minute, 15-play drive that featured a healthy dose of Jackie Battle running between the tackles and Kolb even showed off his ‘wheels’ on a 12-yard run to set up a manageable 4th & Short. Appropriately, the drive ended with Battle running up the middle for a TD run. A bungled PAT kept the Eagles within a score, as the Coogs now led 13-10.
USM’s response to the Coogs re-taking of the lead was a 16-play, 8+ minute drive that nearly chewed up the entire 2nd quarter. The Eagles not only re-took the lead (via a Young to Chris Johnson TD pass) on this drive, but they only gave the Coogs about a minute and a half to respond.
A good return by Marshall and a couple Kolb completions started the Coogs off in a good position and Briles broke out the tricks with a WR pass from Marshall to Jeron Harvey for an 18-yard gain. The Coogs were able to get to 3rd & Goal from the 2-yard line, but an ill-advised run play on that down (with no timeouts left) allowed USM to run out the clock as their team wouldn’t get off the ball.
In hindsight it was good gamesmanship from USM and an awful play call by the Coogs. But in real time Cougar fans let the officials and USM have it, including but not limited to loudly booing the opponents’ marching band.
At halftime this was still anyone’s game, but the Cougar defense would need to do a lot better, especially defensively, to take home the league trophy.
The teams traded punts on the half’s opening two drives and the Coogs would be the first team to land a punch. And this metaphorical punch, in my opinion, dramatically changed the momentum of this game.
On the Coogs’ 2nd possession with the situation being 3rd & 3, Kolb stepped towards his running back and elected to keep the ball himself, running 46 yards for a touchdown. The crowd erupting after that play is one of the loudest moments I’ve experienced at a UH home game, regardless of venue.
The Eagles only managed to get the ball around midfield and punted it to the Coogs’ 14-yard line. Kolb was playing like a man possessed, completing all 6 of his pass attempts and on his final attempt connecting with Biren Ealy for a 33-yard TD. The Coogs now had their largest lead of the game.
That would be the last thing either team did offensively in the 3rd quarter, but in 15 minutes this game had been flipped on its head. Late in the 3rd quarter the Eagles were dealt another blow when their star RB Fletcher left the game, not to return at any later point.
Even without Fletcher, the Eagles managed a 13-play and 6+ minute scoring drive that ended in a field goal and cut the Cougar lead to 27-20.
It was time for a Cougar response and Marshall set the tone with a good kick return, and 6 plays later Kolb found Ealy for another deep TD. With less than 5 minutes in the game the Coogs now led by 2 scores and everybody wearing red and white in that stadium could taste a championship.
There was no more drama in this game and the Coogs lifted the Conference USA trophy and students flooded onto the field. It was a moment of pure elation. I’m pretty sure I had someone get a picture of me and Kenneth Fontenette at field level on my flip phone.
Kolb finished the game with 258 pass yards, 2 TDs and no interceptions. Kolb and Jackie Battle also combined for 114 rushing yards and Marshall had a game-high 8 receptions and 100 receiving yards.
As importantly as anything the offense did, the Cougar defense held Southern Miss to 3 points in the 2nd half and held their opponents scoreless on 5 of their last 6 drives.
It was a moment of ecstasy for a program that had experienced so little joy.
This win was about more than the specific achievement of winning the 7th or 8th highest rated conference at this level of Division 1. Cougar football had gone through a dry spell that rendered them irrelevant in their own city, and even on their own campus.
The program hadn’t won a conference title since 1996 and incredibly hadn’t won more than 7 games in a season since 1990.
It was the culmination of the hard work by a lot of guys who were in the Briles’ staff’s 1st signing class and guys who bought in on building a winner at a place that hadn’t done much of that recently.
The 2006 Cougar football team wasn’t perfect, but they showed Cougar fans and future players that you can win here and eventually that kind of winning because the expectation.
This team kicked the proverbial door down and it was a heck of a lot of fun to watch it happen.