The Cougars had only one option on Saturday night. To advance to the C-USA title game, the Cougars had to defeat Rice. In 2008, the Cougars also had only option to take in order to advance to advance to the title game: beat Rice. The Cougars went on to suffer an embarrassing defeat to Rice in that 2008 game.
Tyron Carrier wasn't going to let that happen again. Not if he could help it. So in a packed stadium resembling a sea of red, Carrier fielded the opening kickoff at the one-yard line. Fifteen seconds and 99 yards later, Carrier was in the end zone, a field of Rice Owls far behind him as he found the ultimate way to jump-start the Cougars.
"We had that bitter taste in our mouth the whole year," Carrier said. "It was real important for us to come out and start early. I put it up on myself to set the tone for the rest of the game. That's what happened."
Set the tone for the rest of the game, he did. The Cougars went up 14-0 four minutes later when Case Keenum scored on a one-yard run, then about a minute-and-a-half later, senior Brandon Brinkley made his senior night something truly special as he intercepted Rice quarterback Nick Fanuzzi and returned the ball 45 yards for the touchdown.
Just like that, not even at the midway point of the first quarter, the Cougars were up 21-0. There was not going to be a bitter taste left in the mouths of the Cougars after this game. The score was 59-0 Houston at the half, and the final score was 73-14 Houston over Rice as head coach Kevin Sumlin exercised some restraint and benched most of his starters and ran the ball.
"We caught some big breaks there early," Keenum said. "When you score a touchdown in all three phases pretty early like that, it says a lot about how we're playing as a team. I thought we played really well as a team tonight."
Played really well is a bit of an understatement. Keenum was 25-for-31 for 323 yards and two touchdowns despite playing only one half. Charles Sims rushed 12 times for 87 yards and a touchdown. The defense held Rice to 0-for-8 on third-down conversions in the first half and 3-for-16 for the entire game. Keenum and his backups completed passes to 14 different receivers and with no interceptions. It was a night that, no matter what the Cougars wanted to do, they could.
"I thought we were ready to play," coach Sumlin said. "Probably as ready as I've seen our team since I've been here."
And the crowd was ready to play as well. The official crowd was announced as 28, 243, but so deep was the sea of red-clad fans, and so loud was the crowd, that the stadium looked to be sold out and overflowing. The crowd was also easily the loudest and most energetic crowd of the season, and the Cougars fed off of this energy.
"I can't thank our fans enough," Sumlin said. "I thought our atmosphere was tremendous tonight. It was just kind of electric, loud, people were having a good time. It's really, really fun to coach in that atmosphere. It's definitely a home field advantage. Our players really, really feed off of that."
The 10-2 Cougars aren't going to have that home crowd to feed off of for their next two games. They're off to Greenville, NC to play the East Carolina Pirates on Saturday for the C-USA title and the right to go the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. And it's only after Saturday's game that the Cougars will know where they'll be playing next.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:
One thing that makes the college football game experience better than the pro football game experience is the crowd. There's just something about a crowd of students and alumni living and breathing with every snap of the ball. It's an experience the Cougars haven't witnessed a lot in years past -- losing can do that. But Saturday's crowd lived the college football experience. "I was thrilled to see our fans there..." Athletic Director Mack Rhoades said. "For the fans who were here, which was certainly a bunch of them, I think if you ask them, they had a great time. It was a festive environment. It's what college football should be about."....College football is also about the rankings, and with Saturday's dominating win, the Cougars moved to 18 in both the AP and Coaches polls and they moved up to 21 in the BCS.
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