See pics from ESPN GameDay at UH in our slideshow.
Maybe it was the stadium packed to the gills before kickoff. Maybe it was the excitement and energy of Senior Day. Maybe it was ESPN's Lee Corso letting loose with a profanity as he picked the Cougars to defeat SMU. Maybe it was the representatives from the Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl who were in attendance.
Whatever it was, the Houston Cougars were just a touch off as Saturday's game against the Mustangs got started. And with 46 seconds remaining in the first half, the Cougars were winning, but were only winning 6-0. That's when Case Keenum dropped back into the pocket, as if to pass. Instead he handed the ball off to Michael Hayes on a delayed draw. The hole in the line was large enough for Hayes to burst through, then he hit the afterburners, going 36 yards for the touchdown, putting the Coogs up 13-0.
And just like that, the game was over. There was still another half to play. Still 30 minutes of football to play, but everyone in the stadium knew it didn't matter. The Cougars were going to win the game and go 11-0 on the season, ultimately defeating SMU (6-5) by the score of 37-7.
"We weren't able to score as many touchdowns as we'd like to in the red zone," head coach Kevin Sumlin said after the game. "That's one area where we needed to improve. We got it clicking a little bit in the second half. We had to be more patient with what we were doing. We were just a little off."
The Cougars might have been just a little off to start the game. But by the end, it was the same Cougar team the fans have been seeing since October. An offense functioning on all cylinders. A defense making big stops. And as the clock ticked toward 00:00, the Robertson Stadium crowd let it all out with chants of "BCS, BCS, BCS" as it became clear the Cougars were going to be just one of the only two undefeated football teams in the FBS.
The Cougars probably aren't going to play for the mythical national title, no matter what happens with LSU, Alabama and Arkansas -- the Cougars are currently number 8 in the BCS standings (Boise State is ranked 7, but Boise State is irrelevant to the BCS Bowls since they can't win their conference). But that's not something the Cougars are concerning themselves with. They're concerning themselves with those things that are within their control. Like winning football games.
"All we can do is win," Sumlin said. "I've told our team that where we are as a non-AQ team, right now, we can't get caught up in where we should be, what's going to happen. We don't have any bearing on that. What we do have, as I tell these guys, if you win, you will not be ignored. For us to continue to win, we'll have that conversation at the end. You're looking at a group of guys that seven weeks ago weren't even in the rankings. It's hard for us to complain about a lot of things right now."
And it is hard to complain about things right now if you're the Cougars. The defense played probably its best game of the season against the toughest opponent they've faced this season. Case Keenum set another NCAA record, this one for most career completions, and he tied two more -- 36 games of 300-plus passing yards and he's just the second player with three 4,000-plus yard passing seasons in a career (he's tied with Timmy Chang for both).
The Cougars go on the road to Tulsa on Friday to finish the regular season. The winner of the game will be the C-USA West champion and will host the C-USA Conference Title game. Once again, the Cougars will be playing their toughest game of the season, this time against an 8-3 Tulsa squad that lost to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State and has roared through the conference play just like the Cougars. And for the fourth time this season, the Cougars will be playing on short rest.
"We're used to that," Sumlin said. "We've played three Thursday games. We've actually got an extra day this week, I told [the team in the locker room]. We've played three Thursday games, so we'll approach [Friday] the same way because it's an eleven o'clock kickoff."
And if they didn't know before, the Cougars know it now. They've gone big time. They're in the national consciousness. ESPN's College GameDay was proof of that as were the guys in the bright orange jackets standing around in the interview area after the game.
A BCS bowl is waiting right around the corner for the Coogs. All they've got to do is keep winning. It's just that simple.
MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The crowd of 32,207 was the largest in Robertson Stadium history....The Cougars are 11-0 for the first time in team history, and they've now won 11 games three times in school history....Kicker Matt Hogan set a NCAA single season record with his three extra points on Saturday, giving him 78 consecutive PATs on the season.
The Rice Owls also finished out their home slate on Saturday afternoon, playing at the same time as the Cougars, and the Owls defeated Tulane 19-7 to improve their record to 4-7 with only a game against SMU left to go. This wasn't the season the Owls were hoping it would be as once again they're missing out on a bowl game. But if they can find a way to defeat SMU on Saturday, then they will at least have improved on last season's record. And while it's admirable that the Owls play such a tough non-conference schedule, one can't help but wonder if things would be better off if they started playing teams of their same caliber instead of schools like Texas and schools from the Big 10.
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