Run for the camera
Before Case Keenum got his head knocked off, he showed it.
In fact on this night, in the University of Houston's first legitimate game of the 2010 college football season, Keenum's noggin proved to be even more important than his lauded-over passing arm.
With Keenum refusing to be baited into forcing things, the Cougars rumbled right over Conference USA foe UTEP 54-24 in a game that started on Friday night and stretched into Saturday. In front of the Robertson Stadium faithful and an ESPN TV audience, Houston set itself up nicely for next week's sure-to-be-telling trip to play UCLA — as long as Keenum's head clears before LA comes into view.
On his one brain-less throw of the night — a third-quarter pass into heavy coverage — Keenum slammed hard into a teammate while trying to make the tackle on the resulting interception. He wobbled a little off the field and with Houston already up by 20 at that point, he'd never return.
Clearly getting checked for a concussion on the sideline, Keenum might not have been able to come back even if he was needed. He was joking with his teammates by late in the fourth quarter though.
And why not?
Keenum — the quarterback UH is promoting for the Heisman — didn't have to put up trophy numbers to build up the big lead, the losing Case cushion. With the Miners desperate not to let Keenum rack up an ESPN highlight reel, and banking on the notion that the quarterback and the Cougars would be national-exposure lured into trying to do it no matter the defensive formation, UTEP coach Mike Price double dog dared Houston to run.
He dropped a host of players into coverage, depending on the idea that Keenum would force things and interceptions would result.
Instead, Keenum kept handing off the ball and the spotlight to Houston's usually fourth-thought running backs, sometimes checking into rushing plays himself at the line.
The Cougars rumbled for 310 yards. Bryce Beall had a career-high 206 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries. Michael Hayes scored three more times, giving Kevin Sumlin's pass-happy team six rushing touchdowns.
Even though UTEP was without its best player — injured tailback Donald Buckram, who gashed the Cougars for 262 yards in an upset loss last season — this was still a worthy measure of Houston's talent. Unlike that 40-point blowout of second-tier FCS team Texas State in week one.
Still, everything went far from perfect even before Keenum wobbled off, his night done without a single touchdown pass for the first time in forever.
When West Virginia, playing in the game before the Cougars' on ESPN, drove 98 yards for a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie Marshall 21-21 in the closing seconds of regulation, suddenly all that work to get on ESPN seemed like a fool's play. By the time the sports giant cut to Roberston Stadium it was almost 9:40 p.m. (10:40 p.m. for the influential East Coast college football opinion influencers).
Was annoying Texas high school football coaches who see the Friday night lights as their exclusive domain, the late start time for UH's own fans and the unconventional turnaround between games worth it for this type of squeezed-in, second-thought national exposure?
In a word: Yes.
That's how vital TV games are to a program like Houston that's still trying to establish itself as a national player. The red-clad folks inside Robertson didn't seem to care anyway. Nothing was going to hold down this party.
Certainly not UTEP's flat-footed cornerbacks.
Keenum went deep early and often, the Cougars' quick-timing passing attack transforming into a bombs-away barrage. Keenum dropped a 61-yard pass into Patrick Edwards' arms as soft and steady as the rhythm of baby's swing to set up the first touchdown. A pass-interference penalty on another long Edwards breakout laid the stage for the second touchdown.
It took all of 13 offensive plays for Houston to put 14 points on the scoreboard. Then, Keenum turned to his other weapon — his cranium.