Beyond the Boxscore
In praise of Case Keenum and the Houston Cougars: BCS Bound?
It's easy to coach scared when you're the favorite. There's almost a natural instinct to play it close to the vest when you have the better team. Gambling is for underdogs.
When you're expected to lose the big game, you can be emboldened to call an onsides kick to open the second half — a la Sean Payton in Super Bowl XLIV. When you're physically overmatched and getting pushed around, drawing up something like a wide receiver pass doesn't seem so risky — i.e. Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin against A&M Thanksgiving night. When you're the superior team though . . . well, let's just say Chuck Noll was never known for his trickery.
Which makes what University of Houston coach Kevin Sumlin pulls in Tulsa even more impresssive.
Sumlin flips the script. Coaching the team with everything to lose — a Bowl Championship Series (BCS berth), an undefeated season, the dream of every non-automatic qualifying school — he refuses to tighten up. Instead he goes bolder.
Houston's coach gambles on fourth down twice Friday, both times with his Cougars clinging to a slim lead over Tulsa, both times knowing that failure could swing momentum the other way. Sumlin doesn't gamble small either. He calls two long pass plays — gets 33- and 38-yard touchdown passes from Case Keenum out of fourth-and-10 and fourth-and-one respectively.
He dials up the drama, walks the edge and No. 8 Houston turns a close game into a 48-16 runaway, another huge statement thrown at a college football monopoly that wishes these 12-0 Conference USA Cougars would just go away. UH is not going anywhere though, not with this coach who refuses to dream small.
Houston's coach gambles on fourth down twice Friday, both times with his Cougars clinging to a slim lead over Tulsa, both times knowing that failure could swing momentum the other way.
Except to the conference championship game (11 a.m. Dec. 3 at Robertson Stadium), one win away from a BCS bowl, its $18 million payday and supersized national spotlight.
All because Sumlin rises to the occasion in the biggest Houston game in his four-year tenure. Oh, Case and The Coogs might have still won without their coach's guts-out approach. UH could have squeaked out a road win if Sumlin stuck to convention, maybe even won comfortably, by 10 points or so. But there is no way they blow this 8-3 Tulsa team off its own field, no way they make anyone with an open mind (admittedly, a rare thing in college athletics) wonder if these Cougars shouldn't be playing LSU for the national championship after all.
"They had a good gameplan," Sumlin says of the Golden Hurricanes in his postgame radio show. "They're well coached. They made us work for everything."
And Case and The Coogs still win by 32 points. Because their coach goes for the jugular when the game seems to be hanging by a string.
Worthy of The Hat
Sumlin's performance in the second-largest city in Oklahoma conjures up memories of LSU coach Les Miles' best games. Miles is The Hat after all, the maverick who is never above a crazy gamble, fourth down or otherwise.
Maybe it's no coincidence that Sumlin and Miles — fresh off the No. 1 Tigers' 41-17 come-from-behind dismantling of No. 3 Arkansas — are the coaches of the only two undefeated teams in major college football.
Crazy belief in your team goes a long way.
It's easy to see what it does for Houston. With the Cougars clinging to a 13-10 second half lead, facing fourth-and-10 on Tulsa's 33-yard line, a 50-yard field goal attempt or a punt seems in order. Houston's defense is playing well for the fourth straight week. Sumlin and Keenum can afford to play the field position game.
It's the smart thing to do. Just not the winning thing.
That is letting Keenum take a shot — and not just any shot but a long pass to a slanting Patrick Edwards, a play that's not just designed to get a first down, one that's geared to produce a touchdown. And that's just what it does with Edwards cutting by the Golden Hurricanes' secondary, running away to the end zone, turning a defensive game into a 10-point game.
"I just visualized myself making plays," Edwards says on the radio afterwards.
Sumlin's performance in the second-largest city in Oklahoma conjures up memories of LSU coach Les Miles' best games.
When Houston faces a fourth-and-one later in the third quarter, with Tulsa having cut the lead to 20-16, Edwards is emboldened enough to call his own play in the timeout before the play. To tell Keenum and Sumlin that if they go long to him, he'll score and put the damn game away.
So on fourth-and-one from Tulsa's 38-yard line, another situation when typical coaching philosophy calls for a safe pin-them-back punt, Keenum unleashes a deep strike to Edwards down the sideline. The 5-foot-9 playmaker gets one-on-one coverage from the run-anticipating Golden Hurricanes. Touchdown!
"Case is a good quarterback," Edwards says. "And on those two (fourth down) plays he made the perfect throw and I did my job and scored."
You can argue that gambling on Case Keenum isn't really gambling. Having a sixth-year senior quarterback who can throw for 457 yards and five touchdowns on a day when he and Sumlin end up talking about a "slow start" changes games too.
Still, even with Keenum, there'd be many coaches too frightened by the moment to make those fourth down calls. This is one of the reasons a lot of major programs figure to try and lure Sumlin away from Houston soon — Texas A&M included, if it's at all SEC smart.
UH has a difference maker on the sideline.
Afterwards, Sumlin praises his guys for handling all the curveballs thrown at the team this season — three Thursday night games, one early Friday game, all the sudden national attention. But the truth is that Case and The Coogs never navigate it all without their bold, calm coach.
"I think it says something about the maturity of this team," Sumlin says. "I came in (at halftime with the score 13-10 Houston) and told the guys that (Tulsa) hadn't lost a league game either and we'd figure it out if they just didn't panic."
Tulsa comes into the afternoon confident it's every bit the equal of Houston. The Golden Hurricanes only losses this season came to No. 5 Oklahoma State, No. 7 Boise State and No. 12 Oklahoma. The Cougars hadn't played a team this battle tested all season.
It turns out Tulsa hadn't played a team like Case and The Coogs all season either though. How about a 35-6 blitz of a second half? How's that for figuring it out?
"I tell you the most important number for all of us right now is 12-0," Keenum says in an on-field TV interview.
To get there Case and Coogs needed a coach willing to go fourth and bold.