It's certainly unusual for a Conference USA team to feature the most widely known player on the field when they play a squad with a rich and storied tradition like Penn State. With all due respect to All-American defensive tackle Devon Still, that is exactly what will happen when the Nittany Lions battle the Houston Cougars on Monday afternoon in the TicketCity Bowl.
Andre Ware. David Klingler. Kevin Kolb. The Houston Cougars are no strangers to the Run and Shoot offense and explosive, stat-compiling quarterbacks. Their best one might just be on the field for his final collegiate game on Monday when Case Keenum leads the 17th ranked Houston Cougars against a top-10 Penn State defense.
Keenum is a talented and accurate passer who plays in a system well suited to his strengths. He's also one of those players that seems to always be in a Houston uniform. During his six-year tenure as a University of Houston student, Keenum became the first college quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards in three different seasons, and set FBS records for total offense, passing yards, and touchdown passes.
Lightly recruited out of Abilene's Wylie High School (where he held a 31-11 record as a starter, passed for 48 touchdowns, ran for 41, and led the school to its first Texas state championship), Keenum selected Houston, the only university in major college football to make a scholarship offer. Keenum redshirted during the 2006 season while senior quarterback Kevin Kolb held down the starting job.
As a redshirt freshman, Keenum battled sophomore Blake Joseph at quarterback and managed to start 7 games while seeing action in all 13. Keenum gave a taste of the future during a Texas Bowl performance against TCU, where he threw for 335 yards on 23-28 passing. Overall, Keenum finished the year as the team leader in passing yards and touchdown passes, ranked second on the team in rushing yards and touchdowns, and was the consensus 2007 Conference USA Freshman of Year.
Keenum put the world on notice, though, during the 2008 season. As a redshirt sophomore, Keenum led the nation in total offense and became only the second player in the storied QB history of the Cougar program to pass for 5,000 yards. He threw at least 2 touchdowns in every game but one, and at one point went 219 attempts without being intercepted. Keenum was named the 2008 Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year and led the Cougars to their first bowl win since 1980.
In 2008, Keenum trailed only Texas Tech's Graham Harrell nationally in passing yardage. In 2009, Keenum joined Harrell in the record books, as they became the only two players in the history of Division I football to pass for 5,000 yards in multiple seasons. The Cougars were once again the nation's most explosive team, ranked number 1 in total offense, scoring offense, and passing yards per game. Keenum led the Cougars to a 10-4 record and an appearance in the Conference USA title game, where they eventually lost to East Carolina. It'd be hard for Keenum to have been more successful personally - he was a first or second team All-American on multiple lists and was a finalist for the Davey O'Brien Award, given to the finest signal caller in the nation.
Keenum entered his 2010 redshirt senior campaign with a tremendous amount of momentum. He seemingly capitalized on it immediately, throwing for 5 touchdowns and completing 17 of 22 passes in his season debut against Texas State. But during the third game of the season against UCLA, things took a dramatic turn. Keenum dropped back to pass and was intercepted by a UCLA defender. As he attempted a tackle during the return, Keenum tore his ACL. Houston finished a disappointing 5-7 and Keenum's career looked to be over.
In January of this year, the NCAA gave Keenum a reprieve, granting him a sixth year of eligibility. Keenum has not disappointed. In fact, he may have had his finest year ever. After becoming the first player in the history of major college football to throw for over 5,000 yards in three different seasons, with a stunning 9:1 touchdown-interception ratio (45 touchdowns, 5 picks), Keenum brought the Cougars to their first undefeated and untied regular season in school history.
Still, the end of this season left a bitter taste in the mouths of Houston fans everywhere. Houston again went to the Conference USA championship game, this time ranked 6th in the BCS standings, and was once again turned back. Southern Miss led the Cougars 21-14 at halftime, before blowing the game open in the 3rd quarter. Keenum's play was mediocre. While he completed 41 passes on 67 attempts for 373 yards, he threw two outrageous interceptions - one in the end zone, and one pick-6 that sealed the game for Southern Miss. At 12-1, Houston dropped out of the BCS and to the TicketCity Bowl. Keenum, once considered a serious contender for the Heisman Trophy, was snubbed by the voters and denied a trip to New York.
Skeptics will deride Houston's strength of schedule and dismiss their run this year. Still, Keenum is a quality quarterback and has led his team to both bowl wins and victories against ranked opponents. There might be no better shot at redemption than a senior bowl victory in his home state against a ranked power conference program.