I made the decision along with several friends, current Pawdcast co-host Dustin included, the summer before the 2009 season to go see UH play at Oklahoma State.
I like to tell the story about how on the drive up to Stillwater, Oklahoma at different points we’d start talking ourselves into how the Coogs could somehow beat the #5-ranked Cowboys. We never ended up really changing each other’s minds, or our own minds on a game where our Cougars were a big underdog.
It was a game where Kevin Sumlin, Case Keenum and a promising UH team had a chance to prove they were more than just another Conference USA team.
After that weekend I think we all wondered why we were so hesitant to pick the Coogs in the first place.
Leading into the Game:
This game was in week 2 of the season, so whether any fan base believed it or not in real time, nobody really knew that much about their team.
Certainly, the Cougars had less hype surrounding them than OSU, which isn’t to say there wasn’t hype around the Coogs.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin’s first year had been encouraging. His choice of starting QB: Case Keenum was flourishing in a high-flying passing attack reminiscent of the Run & Shoot teams of 20 years or so before. Sumlin had made an inspired hire (a hire that almost wasn’t) for his offensive coordinator: Dana Holgorsen, a colorful former Mike Leach assistant.
The offense was extraordinarily young as Keenum was only a sophomore, his best two receivers were freshmen Pat Edwards and Tyron Carrier and the top back was freshman Bryce Beall. They were volatile, as young teams can sometimes be, but were already putting up absurd numbers.
Out of all the games that season, the Coogs’ 70-30 win over Tulsa in which Keenum threw for 6 touchdowns and 402 yards embodied the team's potential. When everything was clicking, few teams could stop the Coogs.
Other aspects of the Cougar team in the first year were a little more hit and miss, specifically the defense. To close out the 2008 regular season the Coogs’ defense had surrendered 30 or more points in 5 of their last 6 games. But there were still promising young players like Marcus McGraw, David Hunter and Nick Saenz who saw extended action that year as freshmen.
The only on-field result for the Coogs to this point in the season was a 55-7 win over Division 1-AA Northwestern State. And it wasn’t as if a blowout a lower division team that ended up going 0-11 contained any real insights.
On the other hand, the Oklahoma State Cowboys had managed to become enough of an ‘it’ team that they were on the cover of Sports Illustrated the week of this game.
The Cowboys were a preseason top 10 team and opened the 2009 season with a decisive 24-10 home win over #13 Georgia. The resulting hype from that win bumped the Cowboys’ ranking up to #5, the highest that program had been ranked since 1985.
In their previous season they’d showed off an explosive offense, highlighted by QB Zac Robinson and all-everything receiver Dez Bryant and finished that year in the top 25. They were a 9-4 team with one of the country’s most explosive offenses and appeared to be only a good defense away from competing at the top of the Big 12.
It was only a 1-game sample size, but the win over Georgia gave Cowboy fans some hope they had a team that didn’t need to win their games via wild and unpredictable ‘shootouts’.
Though, nobody would confuse OSU’s week 2 game against Houston with anything but a classic college football ‘shootout’.
It’s not that we didn’t expect OSU to have a large stadium packed with alarmingly friendly orange-clad fans. That spectacle was a big part of the appeal of my group going up to Stillwater in the first place.
OSU’s Boone Pickens Stadium had not that long before gone through a massive face lift that expanded its capacity to just over 60,000 seats. This was thanks in large part (but not entirely) to the generosity of the stadium’s namesake: a hedge fund manager and OSU alumnus.
The scale of the place and the audio/visual experience of everything happening before an OSU game was impressive. In the very front row of the OSU student section people with huge paddles slapped the padded wall in front of them in unison. There was also someone riding a black horse named Bullet, OSU mascot Pistol Pete firing a uncomfortably loud prop gun at random intervals and the ill-conceived OSU-inspired song Cowboys 4 Ever.
That song has become so notoriously mocked across the internet after it debut at the UGA game that I printed the song’s lyrics in the hope OSU would play it for this game. I was not disappointed when that awful song came on the stadium Jumbotron, although I’m sure my friends and nearby OSU fans were.
Surprisingly, considering both teams entered the game with hype around their offenses, the game started with the Coogs and Cowboys trading turnovers.
Keenum had a pass picked off by Terrance Anderson deep in OSU territory. Exactly 5 plays later Cowboy RB Kendall Hunter fumbled the ball and the Coogs’ David Hunter recovered it at the OSU 16-yard line. On the very next play, Keenum ran it in for a touchdown and the Coogs were the first team on the board.
The Cowboys were able to get into the red zone on their next possession, but it ended in a missed 39-yard field goal by future NFLer Dan Bailey. The Coogs responded with a Jordan Mannisto made field goal and the 1st quarter ended with the Coogs up 10-0.
This shutout wouldn’t last much longer as Zac Robinson would find Dez Bryant for a 11-yard TD catch and OSU would cut the lead to 3. That OSU scoring drive, plus a Cougar fumble on the next possession well into OSU territory dissipated some of our early optimism.
But the Cougar defense forced another punt and only needed 9 plays to go 96 yards and go up 17-7 courtesy of a Patrick Edwards TD reception. At this point there was 1:37 left in the 1st half and we were all feeling pretty good about the Coogs holding a 2-score lead. Nobody could have predicted what happened next.
Cougar kickoff specialist Matt Hogan kicked the ball into an OSU player’s back and Tim Monroe recovered it for the Coogs’ offense, who now had with decent field position and about a minute and a half left to work.
Keenum found Tyron Carrier on an inside screen and Carrier took 32 yards for a touchdown and the Coogs were now up 24-7. Outside of the UH team and (generously) about 300 or so Cougar fans, Boone Pickens Stadium was enveloped by a dazed silence. The #5 team in the country went into the half down 3 scores in their own stadium.
As expected, OSU came out angry in the 2nd half and scored on their first possession thanks to an efficient run game and a timely 29-yard reception by Bryant to get the Cowboys near the red zone. Just as importantly, OSU quickly got the Coogs off the field on their first possession of the half.
If any one moment swung this game’s momentum back to OSU it was Bryant taking the Coogs’ punt and running it back 82 yards for a TD and cutting the lead to 24-21. It seemed almost physically impossible for a receiver Bryant’s size to possess his physical abilities.
The Coogs’ next possession stalled out in OSU territory and the Cowboys took their first lead of the game on the next possession, only 4 plays later via a Beau Johnson 37-yard TD run.
We all feared OSU would come out of the locker room and start playing like the nation’s 5th best teams and in less than 12 minutes of game time the Cowboys did precisely that. It may have been a bit early to say any 3rd quarter drive was a ‘must score’ but the Coogs desperately needed to do something to break their opponents’ momentum.
After a much-needed stop by the UH defense late in the 3rd quarter, Carrier returned the OSU punt 33 yards well into Cowboy territory. The Coogs were able to get down to the OSU 1-yard line when the 3rd quarter ended.
Two unsuccessful rush attempts later, the Coogs went for it on 4th & Goal from the 1-yard line and Bryce Beall was able to hit pay dirt and UH regained a 31-28 lead.
Not surprisingly, OSU responded quickly with a Robinson TD pass that put the home team back in the lead, 35-31.
The next Cougar drive would be a make or break one and would have no shortage of drama. The Coogs were able to get deep into OSU territory, but stalled out near the goal line. With just under 7 minutes left in the game, the Coogs went for it on 4th & Goal on the OSU 6-yard line.
Keenum stepped back to pass and despite having a pretty good pocket was not able to find an open man and threw a pass that was tipped into the air. This wasn’t his assigned route, but Beall saw his QB struggling and floated towards the middle of the end zone where he caught that tipped pass for a touchdown.
By Beall’s own admission ‘it felt like the ball was in the air for 5 minutes’ and you could hear the air come out of Boone Pickens Stadium when the play was signaled as a TD and the Coogs re-took a 38-35 lead. It was a momentum-shifting moment, but the Coogs still had work to do.
On the next OSU possession, Robinson fumbled the ball and David Hunter recovered his 2nd fumble of the day. The Coogs had a chance here with 5:05 left in the game to do some combination of running out the clock and getting the lead back to 2 scores.
Unfortunately, the Coogs were only able to manage a single 1st down and punted the ball back to OSU with over 3 minutes left in the game. I’ll admit at this point there was a lump in my stomach at the thought of coming this far and seeing UH give up the game-winning drive at this point.
On the first play of the drive, Robinson dropped back and threw a pass in Bryant’s direction that the receiver tipped in the air and landed into the ‘breadbasket’ of Cougar CB Jamal Robinson, who ran 26 yards for a Cougar TD.
The seats my group and I sat in were on the side of the end zone where Robinson ran in the game’s decisive TD and I just remember that moment being pure pandemonium. We were all hugging and high fiving each other in shock at what we were witnessing.
Other than the few of us rooting for the visiting team, the stadium was filled with a stunned silence as rain (which has been threatening all day) started to fall steadily at Boone Pickens Stadium. I would go so far as to say it was funereal, even.
When the clock struck 0:00, the Coogs had outplayed and outlasted the country’s #5 team by a score of 45-35. Keenum finished the day with 366 passing yards and 3 pass TDs, Carrier had a team-high 111 receiving yards and a TD and Beall had a rushing TD and a receiving TD.
Our group lingered for a bit with the UH traveling contingent outside the stadium, before jogging through a full-on rainstorm to eat Subway and ask each other if we were sure what we’d just spent 3+ hours watching actually happened.
It would take a while for the shock of this win to truly sink in for all of us, and I’m sure we weren’t alone among Cougar fans.
After an off week the Coogs had another memorable win over a Big 12 opponent, this time at home over Texas Tech. A couple weeks later the Coogs made it a perfect 3-0 against BCS conference schools when they beat Mississippi State on the road.
There were certainly low points in the 2009 season, upset losses to UTEP and UCF along with a heartbreaking CUSA title game loss to ECU.
But the 2009 season overall, highlighted by this win, showed Cougar fans that this program could compete with any team on any given Saturday and that expecting any less was no longer good enough.