Defensive Cougars step up in win

With the final push toward a possible BCS bowl game upon them, the Cougars defense put together its best performance of the season in a 37-7 win over SMU on Saturday -- even better than its Sept. 24 shutout of FCS Georgia Southern or its Oct. 8 56-3 win over East Carolina.

INSIDE SLANT

The defense Houston defense is sick of hearing about how bad it is this season.

With the final push toward a possible BCS bowl game upon them, the Cougars defense put together its best performance of the season in a 37-7 win over SMU on Saturday -- even better than its Sept. 24 shutout of FCS Georgia Southern or its Oct. 8 56-3 win over East Carolina.

"That was the best defense I've ever seen played here," sixth-year senior quarterback Case Keenum said. "Hats off to our defensive coaches. The defense played extremely well tonight. I'm very proud."

He wasn't the only one.

"We had a great effort defensively, only allowed seven points and our third-down percentages were great," Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "It's great for our team, a great atmosphere."

The defensive performance held a June Jones-coached, powerful run and shoot SMU offense off the scoreboard until midway through the fourth quarter. The Mustangs had 263 yards of total offense and only 24 rushing yards.

The performance for Houston was dominant against a team even the harshest of critics would have to admit isn't an entire pushover. And it was one that required starters to stay in the game until late in the fourth quarter, which hasn't exactly happened much this season while the Cougars have been destroying opponents.

"It was good for us to be in a game like that going into Tulsa (on Nov. 25)," Sumlin said. "The last five or six weeks our guys have been standing on the sideline in the third quarter. So for them to be able to play the whole game and really push themselves is good because of what we want to accomplish these next few weeks. These next few weeks are championship weeks."

Calling those next few weeks "championship football" isn't a stretch. The Nov. 25 Tulsa game will determine the C-USA West Division champion and decide who plays in the Dec. 3 C-USA championship game. Should Houston beat Tulsa, then win the C-USA title game, it will find itself in a BCS bowl game.

NOTES, QUOTES

--For the first time since the Cougars climbed all the way to No. 3 in the nation, this year's Houston football team is ranked in the Top 10 of both major polls.

Helped by four teams ranked in last week's Top 10 losing this past weekend, the Cougars (11-0) were ranked eighth Associated Press Top 25, up from No. 11 last week. In the USA Today Coaches poll, the Cougars jumped from No. 11 to No. 7.

In the AP poll, Houston still trails fellow non-automatic qualifying school Boise State (9-1), which lost Nov. 12 to TCU.

"We can't get caught up in where we should be, what (could) happen," Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "What we do have is the mindset that if we win, we will not be ignored. Seven weeks ago we weren't even in the rankings, so it's hard for us to complain right now. We recognize the process and it all gets back to us. If we win, people will recognize our efforts."

--The Cougars' 11-0 start to the season is the best in school history. While two other teams finished seasons with 11 wins, no Houston Cougars team has ever won more than 11 games and this squad has at least two more games with as many as three remaining games (if it plays in the Dec. 3 C-USA championship game) to improve on that mark.

Houston is one of only two remaining FBS teams in the nation that are unbeaten, along with 11-0 LSU.

--QB Case Keenum set some more records in the Cougars' win Saturday over SMU. The NCAA career passing and total offense leader, Keenum completed 30-of-45 passes for 318 passing yards and a passing touchdown.

With 6:38 remaining in the first quarter of the game, Keenum completed his 1,404th career pass, breaking former Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell's record for career completions. Keenum finished the game with 1,427 completions.

He also tied former Hawaii QB Timmy Chang's NCAA career record for 300-yard passing games with 36.

KEEP AN EYE ON: WR Justin Johnson -- The senior wide receiver is feasting on opposing defenses that continue to focus their efforts on his senior WR teammates Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier. Against SMU on Saturday, Johnson had a game-high nine receptions for 99 yards and a touchdown. On the season, the senior has 56 receptions for 804 yards and eight receiving touchdowns, which isn't bad for the team's third receiving threat.

LOOKING GOOD: The Houston defense had its game of the season shutting down SMU's run-and-shoot offense for most of the game. While it didn't hurt that C-USA leading rusher RB Zach Line didn't play for SMU, it's still hard to ignore just how dominant the Houston defense was against the run, holding the Mustangs to 24 rushing yards on 26 attempts. LB Sammy Brown was a beast with three sacks in the game and 4.5 tackles for loss. Houston's defense will have to have a repeat performance on Nov. 25 against the best offense it's played all season, Tulsa.

STILL NEEDS WORK: The Cougars don't have much left to work on other than proving critics wrong. Their defense is coming off its best game of the season and its offense scored 37 points against one of C-USA's best defenses in SMU. The scoring was down, however, from the season scoring average of 53.1 points per game. Houston had scored at least 49 points per game for seven consecutive games before the SMU win. RB Charles Sims, who had seemed to become the feature back for the Cougars over the past month, had just eight carries for 44 yards in the game.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The level of play at the end of the year steps up, and we're stepping up." -- Houston senior QB Case Keenum.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER NOTES

--LB Sammy Brown's 4.5 tackles for loss against SMU on Saturday gives him an FBS-leading 26 for the season. He had three sacks, which gives him 12.5 for the season (No. 2 in the nation behind Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus' 13.5). Brown has 20 career sacks, eighth-most all-time at Houston.

--K Matt Hogan hit three field goals Saturday vs. SMU to go along with four extra points, giving him 276 career points (No. 2 all-time at Houston). His four extra points allowed him to pass former Louisville K Art Carmody (2004) for most consecutive PATs without a miss at 78.

--QB Cotton Turner, the senior backup QB to Case Keenum, made the most of his mop-up duty Saturday vs. SMU. He completed two passes for 47 yards including a 43-yard touchdown pass, his second-consecutive game with a touchdown pass and fifth of the season.

--LB Phillip Steward, a junior, had his fifth interception of the season on Saturday vs. SMU. It was his second-straight week intercepting an opposing quarterback in the end zone.

ROSTER REPORT

--LB Sammy Brown hurt his ankle Nov. 10 at Tulane and didn't participate fully in Houston practices until Nov. 18. That didn't seem to hurt him Saturday in a win over SMU. Brown had three sacks and 4.5 of his team-high 10 tackles were for a loss.

--RB Bryce Beall, who returned to the lineup Nov. 10 at Tulane after a hamstring injury cost him the previous three games, had just two carried for 14 yards on Saturday vs. SMU. The senior has 53 carries for 311 rushing yards this season and seven rushing touchdowns.

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