Beyond the Boxscore
Divine Nine: Case Keenum puts up an absurd number as UH goes from Groupondesperate to tourist attraction
The two guys from China settle into their seats at Robertson Stadium, thrilled with the view, if not the metal, backless bleacher seats. They're in section 221, almost lined up with the 50-yard line. In an old building that can still sometimes seem as quaint as the high school stadium it used to be.
In the University of Houston football team's home, the 200 "level" can feel like you're close enough to touch the field. Or catch one of Case Keenum's passes. There's little doubt that the sixth-year senior quarterback could deliver the football right to any seat that he wanted.
That's why Ong Teung and his colleague are here of course, sitting in the rain on these bare bleachers, on a campus that's not so easy to find from their downtown hotel if you're unfamiliar with the city. To gawk at Keenum.
"We heard about this quarterback who's very good at throwing touchdown passes," Teung says. "We wanted to see."
Yes, they're coming all the way from China to watch Case Keenum now. And after he threw nine touchdown passes — yes, nine — at Rice in a 73-34 Bayou Bucket blowout at rainy Robertson, UH might as well start booking tourists from Sudan.
Keenum isn't just breaking all-time NCAA records, he's rewriting them in the most ridiculous manner. Like tossing nine touchdown passes on a night he needs four to tie the all-time NCAA mark.
OK, these Chinese businessmen didn't exactly make a trip to Houston to see Case and The Coogs. This isn't a Yao Ming situation. They're in Texas for other matters and happened to ask the concierge at their hotel if there were any American sporting events they could go experience The concierge recommended Kevin Sumlin's University of Houston team, or more accurately, he recommended Keenum.
"He tell us, 'Best quarterback in Texas,' " Teung says.
Baylor's Robert Griffin III may have cause to object to that characterization. Matt Schaub too. But why try and quantify? That only threatens to cloud the magic and there's no denying there is plenty of magic going on with Case and the Coogs right now.
They're 8-0 and No. 17 in the BCS standings, almost sure to inch even higher Sunday night as other teams fall this weekend. Keenum isn't just breaking all-time NCAA records, he's rewriting them in the most ridiculous manner. Like tossing nine touchdown passes on a night he needs four to tie former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell's mark for career touchdown throws in football's biggest division.
This is the program that needed to turn to Groupon to sell tickets early this season? Yes, before the fairytale fully launched — which is only within the last several weeks — UH used the online discount giant in an attempt to put more bodies into Robertson (capacity 33,000).
"U of H tried to move tickets on Groupon," says Pat Ryan, co-owner of The Ticket Experience, a Houston-based ticket broker that follows the trends in the ticket market like Theo Epstein tracks Moneyball stats. "They put some of their inventory on Groupon. They just don't have the season ticket base that other programs can rely on."
Now, well now, Houston is gaining one heck of a bandwagon base to go with its always committed core. Now, those signs all over campus touting that the Thursday night game against supposed city rival Rice is free for students look more like a charming cool perk rather than a desperate plea.
Case and The Coogs is an ultra-entertaining show that draws them in. From closer than China too. Take Diane Baxter. This 54-year-old has no natural tie to UH. She didn't go there. She doesn't have any friends who work there. She doesn't know any of the players on the team.
But she's found herself buying tickets to see the Cougars — and this is one latch-on fan who isn't all about Keenum. "I love Tyron Carrier," Baxter says of the super quick 5-foot-8 weapon who only returns the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and catches seven more passes on this night. "He and (senior linebacker) Sammy Brown are my favorites."
Hey, fevers hit in a rush. And with Houston falling for Case and The Coogs, the unthinkable's happening. Houston's next and last home game this season — a Nov. 19 Robertson matchup with SMU — is on the verge of becoming a scalper's delight.
"My partner and I took a gamble and we bought up a bunch of tickets to the SMU game," Ryan says. "If Houston loses one game before then, the ticket's worthless. We'll take a loss. But if they stay undefeated, it's a pretty big ticket in Houston. It becomes an event."
These Cougars have a way of making things big.
Showtime On Grass
This is a team that doesn't steamroll opponents as much as it fast breaks by them. Rice coach David Bailiff actually has his team primed and ready to play with some ferocity. The Owls build a 17-7 lead with 14 minutes and 52 seconds of hard, tough first quarter work. A red-clad UH fan sitting by Teung screams out, "Come on! This is Rice!"
The Cougars promptly erase all that Rice work, flash by flash by flash by flash. UH outscores the Owls 45-3 in a 21-minute span. Forty five to three. It looks like the Cougars are out of Rice's league. And they might actually be soon, with the school's regents granting president Renu Khator permission to make a conference affiliation change decision (presumably to the Big East) earlier on game day.
Keenum tosses touchdown passes of 57, 21, 64, 18, 41 and 20 yards in the blitz. He breaks Harrell's record in 21 minutes of game clock.
The 21-yarder to Carrier — seemingly inconsequential on the final stat sheet — is such a thing of precise beauty that the speedster basically only has to sit down in the end zone to catch it over his shoulder.
The 2011 Cougars are the 1980s Showtime Lakers — only they're doing it with a football. On wet grass. With the wind whipping through those palm trees stuck up above the end zones. And you thought the Air Force cadets that came paragliding in through the ominous dark gloom during the national anthem were high flying?
The 2011 Cougars are the 1980s Showtime Lakers — only they're doing it with a football. On wet grass.
They've got nothing on Case and The Coogs.
"We've got to continue to get better every week," Sumlin says, after Houston breaks 70 and racks up 656 yards of total offense. "And if we do that, there's no telling what we can accomplish."
They've already managed to turn old Robertson — which reminded everyone just how old it is when the downpour sent fans scouring underneath the concourse, where there's not a single TV to watch the game by the concession stands — into an unlikely international tourist destination.
"Best quarterback in Texas!" Teung crows on leaving.
It's hard to argue with our visitor's visual evidence.