In the history of Houston Cougar football up to the 2011 season only 3 teams (1973, 1979, 1990) had made it to the conclusion of the season with 1 loss.
Even with an enviable run of innovative coaches for about 30 years of the program’s history (spanning from roughly the early 1960’s to the early 1990’s) and a recent renaissance, no Cougar team had finished the regular season undefeated.
In fact, none of the 3 teams had even made it as far as the 2011 team did in making it to the final week of the regular season without any blemishes. Both the 1979 and 1990 teams won their first 8 games of the season before each lost to the cow college in Austin.
This was rarefied air for the 2011 Cougars, and all they had to do was beat the best team in their division and at their stadium. Easy peasy.
Leading into the Game:
Over the course of this countdown I’ve realized there’s almost a disproportionate number of early season games among my picks so far. I don’t attribute that to anything other than chance, but as mentioned in the beginning this was about as late season as you can get.
The Coogs won their first 11 games of the 2011 season and most of those wins were on the spectrum of ‘comfortable win’ to ‘blowout’. This dominance was equal parts the Coogs having a great, senior-heavy team and getting handed a pretty friendly schedule.
I am a firm believer in the significance of beating whoever is in front of you, but only 3 of the Coogs’ 12 opponents would finish the regular season with a winning record (opponents UCLA, Rice, Marshall all got bowl bids by winning 6 games).
Regardless of the competition, in his 6th and final year Case Keenum looked like he was playing on ‘beginner mode’ against opposing defenses. Even though he played only 2.5-3 quarters in a lot of games, Keenum was comfortably on pace to eclipse 5,000 passing yards for the 3rd time in his college career.
And Keenum would’ve been the first to tell you he owed much of his success to a deep and veteran supporting cast. Since 2008 he’d leaned heavily on Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier, who were both now seniors. Ditto for Bryce Beall, his senior RB and sophomore all-purpose guy Charles Sims. And I haven’t even mentioned Justin Johnson and Michael Hayes, two more seniors who both played critical roles in this offense (as well as senior O lineman Chris Thompson).
Another thing separating this team from Cougar teams of the recent past was a respectable and exciting defense. Sammy Brown, a JuCO addition the prior season, built on a solid first year in red and white by becoming one of the country’s best pass rushers.
The Cougar defense was a mix of guys like David Hunter, Marcus McGraw, Nick Saenz who had played a bunch over their 4 years and impact newcomers like Derrick Matthews, Eric Braswell and JC transfer DJ Hayden.
Tulsa was proving to be no pushover in 2011 themselves. The Golden Hurricane opened their year with top 10 teams in 3 of the season’s first 4 weeks and won none of those games. But since the end of that stretch of games (Boise State in week 4) they were on a 7-game win streak and only one of those losses was by less than double digits.
After the 2010 season TU lost Todd Graham to the first BCS conference school willing to hold their noses and hire the polarizing and successful (now former) Golden Hurricane head coach. Graham’s successor was as Tulsa as they come: Bill Blankenship.
Blankenship was a TU quarterback in the 1970s, longtime head coach at local powerhouse Union High School in Tulsa and a position coach at TU the previous 4 years under Graham.
As much as the Cougars were a fearsome opponent, the Golden Hurricane had an identical 7-0 conference record and their own school record owning senior QB: GJ Kinne. I wouldn’t say Kinne’s accomplishments were on the same level as Keenum, but he would easily be in the top 2-3 of quarterbacks the Coogs would face in 2011.
Both teams held identical 7-0 conference records, so all the Golden Hurricane needed to do was win 1 more home game to guarantee hosting the Conference USA championship game.
This would prove a bit easier said than done for the home team.
If the only thing you clearly remembered from this game was the final score and a few highlights (like yours truly) then you’ll probably be surprised how this game started out.
The vaunted Cougar offense failed to score on 4 of their first 5 possessions in this game. Not only did they leave the field empty-handed those 4 times, but the Coogs didn’t possess the ball longer than 2:18 of game time on any of those possessions.
The lone early game bright spot was when the Coogs went 80 yards in 8 plays, capped off by a 5-yard Keenum to Edwards touchdown pass. However, the normally ultra-reliable Matt Hogan had his point after attempt blocked so the Coogs trailed 7-6.
Even as their offensive counterparts struggled, the Cougar defense was able to keep the game from getting out of hand.
After the Golden Hurricane scored points on 2 of their first 3 drives, the Coogs and Nick Saenz stuffed Tulsa fullback Alex Singleton on a 4th down & short deep in Cougar territory. At this point, the Cougars were still down 10-6 early in the 2nd quarter, but the momentum of this game changed from here.
The Coogs didn’t immediately score after that defensive stand, but not that long after broke their offensive cold spell with a short field drive that ended with a Charles Sims 20-yard TD reception. UH was now up 13-10 and that lead would hold the rest of the game.
On the next drive Tulsa once again got deep into UH territory, but Cougar DB Kent Brooks forced a fumble and once again Tulsa had nothing to after a long drive.
At the end of the 1st half the Coogs still held a narrow 13-10 lead and I’m sure both groups of fans were sweating, despite the late November weather.
You couldn’t have scripted a more emphatic Cougar response at halftime than what actually happened. The defense forced TU into a 3 and out, and the offense went 67 yards in less than 2 minutes to go up 20-10 thanks to another Keenum to Edwards TD hookup.
Things did get dicey for the Coogs when Tulsa was able to get a field goal on their next drive and on the next UH possession Sims fumbled on the first play of the drive. At this point Tulsa was only down 7 and could have easily tied it, but the Cougar defense stood strong again and the Golden Hurricane settled for another field goal to cut the lead to 20-16.
After the 2 teams traded 3 and outs, the Coogs got the ball back with 4:32 left in the 3rd and the game changed radically. Keenum completed 5 of 7 passes and for the 3rd time that day found Edwards for another touchdown. The Coogs were back up 2 scores and the well-oiled offensive machine was now starting to hum.
The defense forced another Tulsa 3 and out and the Coogs landed a ‘body blow’ to their opponents with a 10 play, 73-yard TD drive that culminated with a Michael Hayes TD run at the goal line. The Coogs were now up 34-16 and while Tulsa and Kinne got deep into Cougar territory on their next drive, they turned it over on downs once again.
A 51-yard Keenum to Edwards completion on the next drive’s 2nd play set the Coogs up in the Tulsa red zone where Keenum found Justin Johnson for a touchdown that well and truly ended this game.
The Coogs got one more touchdown with backup QB Cotton Turner and the game ended with the Coogs winning a 48-16 game that was much closer than the lopsided final score indicated.
Keenum finished the afternoon with 457 passing yards and 5 TDs, while his favorite target Edwards had 181 receiving yards and 4 TDs of his own.
As importantly, the Cougar defense held the Golden Hurricane to 337 total yards and 4.2 yards per play.
The Coogs were 12-0 and I remember as the TV broadcast ended seeing the team high fiving all of the UH fans that had made the trip to northeast Oklahoma.
If you’re reading this you almost certainly know what happened the week after this game. The Coogs hosted CUSA East Division champs Southern Miss and despite being a large favorite, were soundly defeated in front of a national TV audience.
As if the humiliation of this loss wasn’t bad enough, Cougar fans got treated to a week long ‘will he or won’t he’ with head coach Kevin Sumlin and the surprise head coaching vacancy at Texas A&M (which became a 'will he').
Really, the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Tulsa win was about as grim and unpleasant as any of the games in this countdown.
But the significance of the 2011 team winning every regular season game shouldn’t be completely swept into the dustbin of history. Even though Cougar footballs future looks incredibly bright, there’s a decent chance we’ll never see another undefeated team in the program’s history.
No matter what happened after this game, I hope there’ll always be an appreciation for what winning this game meant.