No. 8 Houston, Keenum get more help from defense
TULSA, Okla. (AP)
Long overshadowed by the nation's top offense, the Cougars' defenders are starting to develop a reputation for providing key stops and closing out games during a march toward the program's first BCS bowl game.
After Tulsa pulled within four points midway through the third quarter Friday, Houston's defense allowed only two first downs and created two turnovers on the Golden Hurricane's next six drives to close out a 48-16 victory and the Conference USA West Division title.
''We're starting to play some defense on this side of the ball,'' said linebacker Marcus McGraw, who had 15 tackles. ''One thing I've known throughout football is that defense wins championships. So, even though we've got a great offense, I think they're going to need our help if we're going to get this thing done together.''
The Cougars (12-0, 8-0 Conference USA) finished the regular season undefeated and got to 12-0 for the first time in school history. They'll try for a school-record 13th straight victory next Saturday when they host Southern Mississippi (10-2, 6-2) in the C-USA championship game and would also lock up a spot in a BCS game if they win.
A celebration awaited when Houston's players returned Friday night from their victory in Tulsa, and the title game quickly sold out. More than 12,000 general admission tickets were sold in three hours.
But the Cougars hope there's more ahead.
''Just looking at how they handled things after the game, I think they're happy, but I don't think they're satisfied,'' coach Kevin Sumlin said. ''I think they're looking forward to playing next week.''
The Cougars have hardly been formidable on defense in recent years, but ended up tying with Tulsa for the fewest points allowed per game (20 ppg) in a league normally known for shootouts. Even better, the Cougars haven't allowed any opponent to score more than seven points in the fourth quarter all season and they've allowed just 23 second-half points over the last four games.
That makes it tough for anyone to catch up to an offense that's scoring 53 points per game.
''It makes our job a lot easier when those guys are playing like that,'' said Keenum, the nation's top passer with 4,726 yards and 43 touchdowns against only three interceptions.
Houston had given up at least 30 points per game each of the last three seasons but is allowing only 20.9 per game this season. That would be the team's best mark since 1999.
Sumlin said his offseason focus for the defense was to find ways to make more third-down stops and improve the team's turnover margin. He believes some of the improvements are related to having a year of experience now with a three-man defensive front, after transitioning from a four-man front prior to last season, and in defensive coordinator Brian Stewart adapting his system rooted in the NFL to deal with the quarterback run game prominent in college.
''We've improved all year on that,'' Sumlin said. ''I can't say enough about the defensive plan.''
Lately, the defense has chipped in by keeping games close until the offense could find traction.
The Cougars scored just 13 points in the first half a week ago against SMU, getting a touchdown in the final minute before halftime to finally get the offense in gear.
Against Tulsa, Houston got two red zone stops late in the first half and limited the Golden Hurricane to a field goal after a third-quarter turnover to maintain a 20-16 lead. The offense then scored the final 28 points of the game to turn a nailbiter into a blowout big enough that Keenum was pulled out of mercy.
The Cougars' defense allowed only 109 yards in the second half while their offense racked up 332 yards.
''Our defense kept us in the game while we struggled a little bit offensively,'' Sumlin said. ''That really gave us the opportunity to get going offensively in the second half. ... Our defense played very well, creating turnovers and keeping the score down. It was a great team win.''
And yet, the Cougars - one of two remaining undefeated teams in the nation - are unlikely to get a shot at the national championship because of a weak schedule with no ranked opponents.
''I think each time you step on the field, you've got to go out there and play to earn respect,'' Keenum said. ''We really can't sit here and talk. That doesn't really change people's minds, what we say. What really changes people's minds is how we play.''
AP Sports Writer Chris Duncan contributed to this report from Houston.