The atmosphere in and around Robertson Stadium last Friday evening was electric. The weather was cold, the stadium was packed with a standing-room-only crowd of 31,818 (so much for the abysmal fan support, right, Dick and John?) and even Lori commented as we walked to the stadium that it felt so much different and so much more exciting than a typical University of Houston home game. That's probably because it was; the 2006 Conference USA Championship Game was the most important game the Cougars have played in at least a decade. And this time, the Coogs did not disappoint.
As has been the case so many times this season, the Cougars actually trailed at halftime, 13-17. It didn't help that the Cougars missed out on a late scoring opportunity from Southern Miss's two yard line when the typically-incompetent Conference USA referees failed to clear USM players off the pile and put the ball back into play before the clock ran out (of course, it wasn't wise for the Coogs to run the ball with 23 seconds remaining and no time outs, either). That triggered a barrage of beer-throwing from a handful of angry fans in the north endzone, which was the only thing embarrassing about the boisterous crowd that evening.
The Cougars once again proved that they are a second-half team, however. Kevin Kolb busted a 46-yard touchdown run on a third-down play midway through the third quarter, the longest run of his career. Kolb later found Biren Ealy open for 33-yard and 32-yard touchdown passes, and the Cougar defense stepped up to keep the Golden Eagles from scoring anything more than a single field goal in the entire second half. The final score: Houston 34, Southern Miss 20. With the win the Cougars claimed their first conference title since 1996 as well as a trip to the Liberty Bowl.
It was probably the most complete game the Cougars have put togwther all year, and it couldn't have come at a better time. Houston generated 443 yards of total offense; in addition to his long touchdown run, Kolb was 19 for 31 with 258 yards and two touchdowns in his last game at Robertson Stadium. And, although the Cougar defense gave up 349 yards of total offense to the Golden Eagles, they also managed to hold USM to field goals on two of their long drives.
The "Unholy Trinity" of University of Houston football - penalties, special teams gaffes and turnovers - still has not been completely exorcised. The Coogs were flagged 8 times for 55 yards, a PAT attempt was botched and the Cougars had to burn a time out on a Southern Miss PAT attempt late in the first half when they had too many men on the field; that time out, of course, would have come in handy at the end of the first half when the Coogs were knocking on USM's door. On the bright side, however, the Cougars had no turnovers.
All in all, a good game and a great night. This was a showing - both on the field as well as in the stands - that the University of Houston needed to have, and it was something the city as well as the nation (via ESPN2) needed to see. A lot of people who hadn't personally attended a UH football game in a long time, if ever, were impressed, and even some of the complainers became believers after the game.
Next up for the Cougars are the Gamecocks of South Carolina in the Autozone Liberty Bowl in Memphis on December 29th. With a win, the Coogs will notch 11 victories for the first time since 1979, win a bowl game for the first time since 1980, and likely earn their first top 25 ranking since 1990 (they are already on the cusp, "also receiving votes" in both the AP and USA Today polls). However, the Cocks, coached by the legendary Steve Spurrier, are without a doubt the best team the Cougars will face all year, and I'm under no delusions about the Cougars' chances in this one.
But I plan to be in Memphis nevertheless. 2006 was the year the Cougars and their fans have been waiting for for a long time, and I plan to have a good time on Beale Street either way.