Fifty-two seconds remaining on the clock and Cougar ball on the East Carolina 32-yard line. The Cougars were down by six points, but they were driving. ECU had just been penalized, again, for an illegal substitution.
It was just going to be like so many other Cougars games this season. Case Keenum was going to lead his team to a last-minute come-from-behind victory and the Cougars were going to go to the Liberty Bowl.
The Cougars went for the home run, throwing a deep corner pass to L.J. Castile who had a huge height advantage over the ECU defender. Keenum put the ball right where it was supposed to go. The ball was in Castile's hands. Then it wasn't. Then it was bouncing off of the ECU defender and into the hands of ECU's onrushing Van Eskridge.
And just like that, the game was over.
The Cougars, who so often this football season had been able to pull off the last-second miracle, found themselves on the other side of the miracle. Good-bye Memphis and the Liberty Bowl with the chance to take on Arkansas and the SEC once again. Hello to Fort Worth and the Armed Forces Bowl and the chance to take on Air Force for the third time in 16 months -- including the second time in a year in the Armed Forces Bowl.
It's easy to fault Case Keenum for the loss -- the ESPN announcing crew had no problem doing that. He did throw three interceptions -- two of them in the end zone -- after all. And some of his throws did appear to be soft floaters. But a look at the stats show that the Cougars gained 557 total yards in the game, 527 of those yards coming off of the arm of Keenum who withstood a difficult ECU pass rush to throw 75 times, completing 56 of the passes for five touchdowns.
And with a non-existent running game -- Keenum was the Cougars' leading rusher -- ECU was keying on Keenum. Receiver James Cleveland returned after missing the last two games, and he caught 19 passes for 241 yards and three touchdowns. Tyron Carrier caught 11 passes for 91 yards and a TD, and though ineffective from the backfield, Charles Sims caught 9 passes for nearly 100 yards.
But the offense did turn the ball over four times, and ECU scored after three of the turnovers, including what might have been the dagger midway in the second quarter. ECU had missed a field goal, and the Cougars were driving with the score 13-7. Keenum took the snap at the ECU 16 and rolled to his right, floating a pass towards the end zone that was intercepted. After a replay review found that ECU did intercept the ball, ECU then drove 80 yards to go up 14-13 when, instead, the Cougars were this close to being up 19-7 (the PAT could not be taken for granted).
So the Armed Forces Bowl is it. And despite what Cougars brass are saying, they're not happy that this game is the best that C-USA officials could get for a 10-3 nationally ranked squad.
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And they're right to be upset about playing Air Force in a little-seen bowl game. Then again, some of that anger should be reserved for themselves. All they had to do was to win this game and the Liberty Bowl would have been the Cougars'. But for once this year the Cougars just couldn't pull off that last-minute miracle.
So it's off to Fort Worth and a December 31 match-up with Air Force. The game will be at 11 a.m. on ESPN and it will be a battle of the nation's number-one passing offense against the nation's number-four-ranked rushing offense.
A MISCELLANEOUS NOTE:
One of the oddities of Saturday's game occurred on Keenum's first interception. The oddity was that the Cougars caught ECU with 12 men on the field (maybe 13). Kevin Sumlin called for a replay challenge, but the official stated the review was over whether there was actually an interception. The NCAA rule book allows for a replay review of whether too many men were on the field The word is that Sumlin wanted a replay review regarding the number of men on the field, but that the officiating crew would not allow the challenge and would only let him review whether the interception was actually made.