Nobody knows what the future will hold, of course. But years from now, if the Cougars are a member of a BCS conference, are playing in a 40-thousand seat on-campus stadium that they regularly fill, and are enjoying season after season of bowl victories and top 25 rankings, perhaps people will look back to last Saturday's 29-28 victory over Texas Tech as the program's turning point: the day when, after so many years of wandering in the wilderness, it all came together for University of Houston football.
First, there was the pre-game tailgate. Since moving out of the Astrodome over a decade ago, the University of Houston has progressively developed an excellent pregame tailgating culture. Last Saturday, however, it reached a completely new level as people arrived earlier than they ever had before in greater numbers than they ever had before. That incredible atmosphere alone doubtlessly made many first-time visitors to Robertson Stadium UH fans. It certainly impressed the folks from my office that I invited to my group's tailgate, and they plan to come back for more games.
Then there was the crowd: a boisterous, over-capacity gathering of 32,114 - the largest crowd UH has attracted since moving games on campus over a decade ago - was on hand to see the game. While that number might not sound impressive in relation to the crowds that some big-name schools attract, it's a huge step forward for a University of Houston program that has always seemed to struggle with poor attendance. Yes, there were lots of Texas Tech fans there. But the crowd was overwhelmingly comprised of Cougar fans, and they were loud and spirited the entire game. Many of them were there for the first time. And many of them will be coming back. At the very least, the standing-room-only crowd provides a real incentive for the UH administration to push forward with long-discussed plans to refurbish or replace Robertson Stadium.
And then, there was the game.
I've always said that the two best and most exciting UH football games I had ever attended in person were 1990's 36-31 victory over Texas A&M in the Astrodome and the 1996 56-49 victory over Southern Miss at Robertson in 1996. Last Saturday's thriller tops them both.
Make no mistake: the Red Raiders are a very good team. They showed it last Saturday, as they gained 484 yards on offense and limited the prolific Cougar offense to just three touchdowns on defense. Texas Tech led the game 21-13 at halftime and 28-20 late in the third quarter. The Cougars played well, too, amassing 579 offensive yards of their own and limiting the high-flying Red Raider offense to only seven points in the entire second half.
Texas Tech, however, led for most of the game, and had several chances to put the game away. Unfortunately for them, the Cougars would simply not back down. Early in the 4th quarter and up by five points, Texas Tech drove to the UH one yard line and attempted to score a touchdown on fourth-and-goal that surely would have put the game out of reach. The Cougar defense stopped them. On the following drive, Houston drove into Texas Tech territory and looked to take the lead, only to be intercepted. But the Cougar defense once again stood tall, forcing the Red Raiders to punt the ball away.
What happened then, with under six minutes to play and the ball at the UH 5 yard line, was something that will forever live in University of Houston lore: the "Two-Day Drive" (so named because it started before midnight and ended shortly afterward). 16 plays. 95 yards. 4 minutes 58 seconds. Touchdown. If you haven't seen it yet, here's part one, courtesy of ESPN:
And here's part two:
The video does not do justice to the absolute bedlam that engulfed Robertson Stadium when UH quarterback Case Keenum (38 of 58 for 435 yards and one touchdown) scampered into the endzone to score what would prove to be the winning touchdown. With 49 seconds left and only needing a field goal to win, Texas Tech desperately tried to march back down the field. But thanks to the UH defense (as well as the Red Raiders' lack of timeouts), the Cougars held on for the nail-biting 29-28 win.
The win is remarkable considering that Houston did not play their best football of the season. The Cougars were penalized 8 times for 74 yards, including one penalty that negated an interception. The UH defense allowed 163 rushing yards to a team that had managed a total of only 86 rushing yards in their first three games combined. Special teams missed two field goals. Keenum's 65.5 percent pass completion rate, while decent, was lower than usual. He also was sacked twice and intercepted once. The Coogs also got some help from Texas Tech mistakes: aside from the Red Raiders' two turnovers and 8 penalties, there was also head coach Mike Leach's decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 when a field goal probably would have put the game out of reach, as well as Tech's decision to use their three time outs early in the second half.
Still, a win is a win and their second-consecutive victory over a Big XII opponent was a huge one for the Cougars, one that proved that the stunning upset at Oklahoma State two weeks ago was no fluke and that the Cougars are indeed a team to be respected. The nation has noticed. The Cougars are now ranked #12 in the AP poll and are being mentioned as possible "BCS Busters" by national media outlets such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Case Keenum is also getting some serious attention as a Heisman candidate.
In my opinion, it's too early to think of the Cougars as a "BCS Buster." They'd have to go undefeated in order to do so and that's still a tall order. The team now needs to go on a grueling three-game road trip; Saturday's game against Texas El-Paso has "letdown" and "trap" written all over it and the showdown against SEC team Mississippi State two weeks from now looms large. Nevertheless, if you had told me before the season started that the Cougars would be 3-0 and ranked right outside the top ten right now, I wouldn't have believed you. This has been an incredible start to the 2009 football season and I am thoroughly enjoying it.
It will be months, if not years, before the true significance of last Saturday's game and its Two-Day Drive will be known. But, from where I stood that night at a packed Robertson Stadium, watching the Cougars drive 95 yards in five minutes to win a game over a Big XII opponent, you'd have a hard time convincing me that University of Houston had not finally reached its turning point. After suffering for so long through so many seasons of mediocrity and apathy, this is a much-needed and well-deserved time for the University of Houston, its athletes, its coaches, its students and its alumni. May it only continue.