Houston settles for Ticket to play PSU
Houston got its January bowl game against a BCS conference team.
There will be a national stage against a big program with a chance to gain some of that much-coveted respect.
And yet, the invitation to the Jan. 2 TicketCity Bowl at Cotton Bowl Stadium was hardly viewed as a victory for the 12-1 Cougars.
The lopsided, embarrassing loss to Southern Miss in last Saturday's Conference USA Championship game dropped the previously undefeated Cougars from a BCS invitation -- which would have been the first for the school or the conference -- to being an also-ran in the crowded postseason bowl schedule playing the Big Ten's Pen State Nittany Lions.
Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin tried putting a happy face on the situation when accepting the TicketCity invite.
"I know our team is excited about this matchup and really appreciate having a chance to play in front of our fans one more time," Sumlin said. "Our fans have been tremendous all season. ... To play against Penn State in a great venue such as the Cotton Bowl will bring back some special memories for our university."
Houston won the 1976 and 1979 Cotton Bowls and played in the Cotton Bowl two other times, but this is hardly a happy homecoming to the Cougars seniors who thought their time had finally come. The chatter after their Southern Miss loss was less about finishing with a bang in a bowl game and seemed to have more of a season-is-over tone.
"We had a great season," Houston senior linebacker Marcus McGraw said. "We didn't finish the way we wanted to, but when you look at all we've done we've had a great season. We set the bar high for the younger guys and for people coming into this program. It's disappointing but there's always an upside to it."
The C-USA loss cost the program about $2.5 million, according to the Houston Chronicle, but the national exposure and respect from a BCS game likely would have been even more valuable.
"The challenge to the younger guys is to appreciate this year, but use it as motivation in the offseason," Sumlin said. "We are guaranteed one more game, and look at it as a way to further develop the younger players."
For the college football world, they get one more chance to see the latest version of the greatest show on turf with Houston's record-setting offense and record-setting senior quarterback Case Keenum, who will leave the field Jan. 2 as the NCAA all-time leader in just about every passing statistical category.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--QB Case Keenum is the Cougars' all-time winningest quarterback in school history and the NCAA's all-time passing leader, total offense leader and just about every other major passing category. If Houston gets over its disappointment of the BCS miss, it will be because of their senior leader. Keenum is not just the stat compiler that will leave the college game with all the records, he has been the spark plug that has kept the Cougars' high-powered engine running all season. He enters the bowl game with 5,099 passing yards and 45 touchdown passes.
--LB Sammy Brown leads the nation in tackles for loss at 28 (2.15 per game). He's been a disruptive force in the backfield of every team the Cougars have played this year and has been a big reason why the defense became better and better down the stretch of the season (at least until that Southern Miss defeat). He and fellow senior LB Marcus McGraw are both all-C-USA caliber defenders who are the strength of the Houston defense.
--WRs Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier, like their quarterback, have plenty of records of their own and are as dangerous in the passing game as they are in the punt and kick return games, respectively. Edwards, with 28 receiving yards on Dec. 3 vs. Southern Miss, became the C-USA all-time receiving yards leader (4,279 yards). Carrier's 52 consecutive games with a reception leads the nation and his 311 career receptions is the all-time C-USA record.
BOWL HISTORY: Houston hasn't had the same bowl experience recently that it had back in the late 1970s and early 80s when it played in the Cotton Bowl four times between 1976 and 1984. The Jan. 2 TicketCity Bowl is the school's 20th bowl appearance and third under head coach Kevin Sumlin, who has a 1-1 record in bowls with a 2008 win over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl and a 2009 loss to the same team in the same bowl.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're going to regroup and move forward. There is a bright future here at the University of Houston, and the young guys are ready for that." -- Houston senior WR Justin Johnson.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Entering the season, this was RB Bryce Beall's run game. But he's been hampered the second half of the season with a hamstring injury. Nonetheless, the Cougars have enough of a run when they need it with RBs Michael Hayes and Charles Sims seemingly taking turns to lead the charge. With just 104 carries this season, Sims had 782 rushing yards (7.5 per carry) and nine TDs. Hayes had 136 carries for 707 yards (5.2 per carry) and found pay dirt 11 times. That duo also combined for more than 1,000 receiving yards out of the backfield and eight TDs. Sims and Hayes get most of their yards on draw plays and swing passes out of the backfield, which is often Houston's best defense to a strong pass rush off the edge.
Scouting the passing game: Houston's passing game philosophy has been, for several years, of the opinion it does its thing regardless of what opposing defenses try to do to stop it. That has worked, for the most part, but saw some serious challenges when Southern Miss was able to generate a dominating pass rush with its front four last Saturday. QB Case Keenum was under more pressure in that game than he had been in the entire season and the result was two interceptions, two sacks and seven quarterback hurries. Still, this is the nation's leading passing offense for a reason. In Keenum and WRs Patrick Edwards, Tyron Carrier and Justin Johnson, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better senior quartet of playmakers in recent memory. Keenum has 5,099 passing yards and 45 touchdowns while Edwards, Carrier and Johnson combined so far this year for 241 receptions, 3,519 yards and 34 receiving TDs.
Scouting the run defense: Houston gave up 200-plus rushing yards five times this season. Teams rushed for 171.8 yards per game against the Houston defense, but even that number might be deceptively low considering Houston was so far ahead in so many games that opposing teams took to the air in an effort to come from behind. The Houston defensive front isn't very good and against a Penn State team that gained 165.1 yards on the ground per game against much better defenses than the Cougars, this could be the key to the game.
Scouting the pass defense: Houston's secondary played much of the season without its full slate of starters in the secondary due to various injuries, but when healthy, the unit was very good against the pass. In the pass-happy C-USA, Houston allowed 214.2 passing yards per game, which was No. 3 in the league despite facing more pass attempts (546) than any team in the league. Junior LB Phillip Steward was tied for third in the league with his four interceptions this season and the Houston linebackers corps is a big part of the pass defense, whether it be about dropping in coverage or generating a pass rush on the edge. LB Sammy Brown's 12.5 sacks led C-USA in the regular season.
Scouting the special teams: WRs Patrick Edwards (punt returner) and Tyron Carrier (kick returner) are two of the best return men in C-USA and arguably the nation. Most teams in C-USA started to go out of their way to kick away from both this season as they took one kick back for a touchdown this year. In Richie Leone, the Cougars have a solid punter (40.9 yards per punt) and K Matt Hogan (10-of-12 in field goal tries) is also dependable. Neither, however, get much use with this offense.
Intangibles: Sixth-year senior QB Case Keenum is as much a leader of this Houston Cougars team as head coach Kevin Sumlin, who is a coveted head coach by teams across the nation. If the Cougars can get over the mental hurdle of being so disappointed by the C-USA Championship game loss, it had been a steady, mistake-free team for the most part the rest of the season. This is a senior-heavy team that has played with one another, especially all the skill position players on offense, about as much as any team in the nation.
--RB Bryce Beall continues to be a shell of his former self on the field. Hampered the second half of the season with a hamstring injury, Beall played in last Saturday's C-USA Championship game against Southern Miss but got neither a rushing attempt nor reception.
--LB Sammy Brown closed out the regular season with a bad ankle, but it didn't appear to bother him much in last Saturday's C-USA Championship game against Southern Miss. Brown, who had six tackles, including two for a loss in that game, should be as close to 100 percent as he's been in months for the team's bowl game.