The true believers stagger out of Robertson Stadium, shocked and silent. One woman simply stops on the ramp down from section 220 and motions for the crowd to go around her. A friend wraps her up in a hug and moves her to the side, out of the way — as she wipes away tears.
Even the sudden believers — the ones who jumped on The Case Keenum Express well into its roll — cannot quite process this.
"We got our tickets late, but this is supposed to be great," Iris Martinez tells me. "This is supposed to be a great day, no?"
Supposed to be. But no.
Not with Keenum throwing two interceptions in the second half of the Conference USA Championship Game, a BCS play-in game for the University of Houston, after having gone the first 12 games of the season throwing three picks total. Not with the usually calmly sure Cougars losing their composure, having to waste one timeout to avoid getting caught with only 10 men on defense as a player argues with a coach, not with senior center Chris Thompson drawing an inexcusable personal foul penalty for throwing a left jab toward a defensive back well after the play.
Sugar and Orange Bowl reps watch as UH self destructs. It's like Case & The Coogs invited their rich grandfather over and fell into the Christmas tree.
Not with the usually precise offense misfiring on almost every big play chance — Keenum overthrows Justin Johnson on UH's very first possession, Tyron Carrier drops a ball Keenum puts right on his numbers, then another. Not with Larry Fedora's Golden Eagles coming into the Coogs House and hitting the heavy favorite right in the mouth. Again and again, and again.
Southern Mississippi 49, Houston 28.
Watch it and weep.
Many red-clad folks do just that as the largest crowd in Robertson history turns into one big BCS funeral possession. That should-have been is dead and buried. Right along with Keenum's chances of winning the Heisman Trophy and maybe even Kevin Sumlin's status as the overwhelming No. 1 candidate for the Texas A&M job.
Sometimes one game really can change everything.
Instead, of heading to New Orleans for an $18 million Sugar high, the best these now 12-1 and soon-to-be outside the Top 20 Cougars can hope for is a Christmas Eve afternoon bowl game in Hawaii. Otherwise, Houston could be stuck playing its minor bowl in Dallas or Fort Worth. That's not exactly the trip of anyone's dreams.
Sugar and Orange Bowl reps watch as UH self destructs. It's like Case & The Coogs invited their rich grandfather over and fell into the Christmas tree. So much for the storybook script.
ABC so wants to make the Cougars stars too. Kimberly Keenum — Case's wife — gets the near Tony Romo significant other treatment during the game broadcast, receiving more air time than a praying Red Sox fan at a playoff game. But by the time Kimberly puts her hair up into a ponytail in the fourth quarter, everyone knows the cameras will soon be moving on.
It's not just that Houston loses, it's how Southern Mississippi almost pushes the sixth-ranked team in the country aside in the second half, building a 28-point lead. Heck, by the end of the third quarter, Fedora's underdogs already have 416 yards of total offense — and many of the Golden Eagles are turning to the disbelieving Robertson crowd and raising their arms in the air.
It's one thing to get stunned as the favorite in a championship game. It's another to get completely bulldozed.
"This ain't Tulane!" one swath of Southern Mississippi fans yells at the departing sea of red in the fourth quarter, taking a swipe at how Case & The Coogs put up crazy offensive numbers against many of their conference's lightweights (73 points against Tulane included). "This ain't Tulane!"
Making a Case
It'd be easy to make the case that Keenum let Houston down, that the sixth-year senior seized up in the program's biggest game in decades. After all, throwing two interceptions in the Cougars first game against a ranked team all season after having virtually made no mistakes for three months hardly can be chalked up to coincidence.
It's a damning stat — but there's much more to it than that.
Sure, Keenum's first interception is a horrible throw — on first and goal from the 1-yard line no less. With the Cougars trying to get within seven points, he gives wide receiver Patrick Edwards absolutely no chance to make a play in the corner of the end zone, throws the ball almost right into defensive back Deron Wilson's hands instead. And sure the shock of this pick has to shake this Cougar offense even more, regardless of UH intercepting the ball almost right back and then driving in for the score.
By the time Kimberly Keenum puts her hair up in a ponytail in the fourth quarter, everyone knows the cameras will soon be moving on.
But Keenum's second pick comes with the game already decided, with the quarterback knowing he has to force a few things.
Keenum didn't choke. He and his receivers both have an off day on the worst possible day. It happens.
Fedora might tell you it happens when you assume too much, get too arrogant. Southern Mississippi's fiery fourth-year coach makes it clear that he feels his team was wronged by almost everyone involved with this game.
"This moment is about respect!" Fedora yells in the visitor's locker room before the game. "Nobody gives you a chance. Nobody gives you a chance. But they don't know what's in your chest.
"They don't know. Do it for each other."
Fedora keeps at it even after a soaking sideline Gatorade bath, tells the story about watching the promos for the conference championship games and seeing Southern Mississippi not even get mentioned in those Case & The Coog Conference USA ABC spots.
It's a great motivational gimmick, but it's hard to brand this Houston program as arrogant.
There is UH president Renu Khator walking around Robertson with her husband before the game, wearing a red shirt and black cowboy boots, interacting easily with the fans. "It's a great day to be a Coog," she says to one excited middle-aged guy in a "Coogs House" T-shirt — as a guy in a suit with an earpiece hustles to keep up with the fast-striding, smile-friendly leader.
"This ain't Tulane!" one swath of Southern Mississippi fans yells at the departing sea of red in the fourth quarter. "This ain't Tulane!"
This Houston team's never come across as overly smug either. Granted, Keenum talking about how he wouldn't want to be the team that has to face UH in a bowl game right after getting destroyed in the game that means everything isn't the quarterback's best decision.
But that's more frustration than arrogance. Senior defensive lineman David Hunter even goes out of his way to apologize to the fans for the loss on UH's flagship radio station 790 AM. That's classy, not cocky.
Watch it and weep.
Now, every college football in the country, except one, has had at least one bad day. Ask Oklahoma-pounding Oklahoma State about how one bad day on the football field can change everything.
Houston's is just more devastating than most. Keenum will never play another game that could change the University of Houston's program. It's still more likely than not that Sumlin will never coach another game of this magnitude at UH (or another game in Cougar red period). The fans know another season like this on Cullen Boulevard could take another generation or three to arrive.
That's the history the University of Houston is fighting, one Sumlin acknowledges as soon as 49-28 is over.
"One of the challenge is: Is this a team or is this a program?" Sumlin says right after the game, before he gets into the mass press conference where everything tends to get watered down. "(The younger players) are going to determine if this is going to be just a one in 20 year thing or if this is going to become a consistent nationally recognized program."
Iris Martinez — one of those new Cougar fans, this is the first game she's attended all year — listens to Sumlin's words in a radio earpiece (she's already pretty hardcore), starts shaking her head.
"I still want to cry."