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ADD Houston to the list. A 45--35 upset of No. 5 Oklahoma State last Saturday in Stillwater didn't just launch the Cougars into the Top 25 for the first time in 18 years (at No. 21), it also stamped them as the standard-bearers for Conference USA in this season's already crowded BCS-busting competition. Houston joins No. 7 BYU, No. 15 TCU and No. 18 Utah (all from the Mountain West) and No. 10 Boise State (WAC) in the hunt for an at-large bid to college football's exclusive year-end festivities. Can another round of congressional hearings be far off?
Like every recent BCS party crasher, the Cougars sport a prolific offense. Led by quarterback Case Keenum, Houston is averaging 50 points and 525 yards per game. Keenum is so good with his arm—he threw for 5,020 yards and 44 touchdowns and led the nation in total offense a year ago—that it's easy to forget how good he is on his feet. The 6'2", 210-pound junior, who was an option passer at Wylie High in Abilene, Texas, buys time as well as any quarterback in the country. Against the Cowboys he scrambled from one side of the field to the other on an early 16-yard touchdown run. Then, on fourth-and-goal from the Oklahoma State six, his game-winning touchdown pass, which fortuitously bounced off linebacker Donald Booker into the hands of running back Bryce Beall, came after Keenum had held the ball for nearly seven seconds and twice considered pulling it down and trying to run it in himself.
Keenum was raised on football. Until 2004, his father, Steve, was the coach at McMurry University, a Division III program in Abilene. Case spent much of his free time hanging out with the team. But his father wouldn't let him work as a ball boy until he was strong enough to throw a football from the sideline to the nearest set of hash marks. "He'd been begging to do it since he could walk," says Steve. "But he had to wait until he was eight or nine."
Just 6'1" and 180 pounds when he graduated from high school in 2006, Case got his only scholarship offer from Houston's then coach, Art Briles. As a redshirt freshman, Keenum split time with Blake Joseph, but after Briles left for Baylor in late '07, new Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin, the former co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, wanted one quarterback to run his spread. Keenum won the job in fall camp, and Houston finished 8--5, beating Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. "Every quarterback wants to throw the ball on every down," says Keenum. "I just try to get it to guys who can make plays."
Against Oklahoma State the Cougars showed the poise of a team that knows it belongs in the Top 25. They blew a 24--7 halftime lead in the third quarter, falling behind 28--24 before rebounding with three fourth-quarter touchdowns. "There was about nine minutes of 'Oh, no,'" says Sumlin. "But we're all playing better than we were last year, and we did what mature teams do."
That maturity will be tested in Houston's next game. On Sept. 26, Texas Tech, another Big 12 heavyweight, comes calling.
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