By Chris Duncan/The Associated Press
HOUSTON — Austin Davis threw four touchdown passes and No. 24 Southern Mississippi ruined Houston’s perfect season and Bowl Championship Series hopes with a 49-28 victory over the seventh-ranked Cougars on Saturday.
It was star quarterback Case Keenum’s last home game for Houston for sure, and could’ve also been the finale for coach Kevin Sumlin, who has been mentioned as a top candidate for virtually every higher-profile job opening.
Houston (12-1) was poised to impress a national-television audience and representatives from the Orange and Sugar Bowl, who attended Saturday’s game. Keenum could’ve also made one last case for an invitation to next week’s Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Instead, the Golden Eagles (11-2) turned it into their big day, shackling Houston’s high-powered offense and striking with several big plays of their own to win their first league title.
Tracey Lampley caught two touchdown passes and the Golden Eagles became the first team to hold Houston, averaging more than 50 per game, below 35 points this season.
Keenum completed 41 of 67 passes for 373 yards and two touchdowns. He became the first quarterback to reach 5,000 yards passing in three seasons, one more record to tack onto his magnificent career.
The sixth-year senior bounced back from a torn knee ligament last season to become the Football Bowl Subdivision career records for total offense, yards passing and touchdown passes this year.
The only goal left to reach was to carry the program to its first undefeated season and first BCS berth. Now, all the Cougars have to look forward to is a disappointing, lower-tier bowl and an uncertain future without Keenum and, maybe, without Sumlin.
Speculation intensified this week when Mike Sherman was fired at nearby Texas A&M, where Sumlin worked as an offensive assistant for R.C. Slocum in 2001-02.
The Cougars nimbly played through the groundswell of rumors in recent weeks, and vowed that they wouldn’t lose their focus leading up to the biggest game in program history.
But it was obvious from the start on Saturday that the Cougars were off-kilter.
Southern Miss jumped to a 14-0 lead before Keenum finally started clicking midway through the second quarter.
Charles Sims gained 31 yards on a screen pass, and Keenum found Justin Johnson for a 9-yard touchdown pass with 7:48 left in the half.
Keenum went 3 for 3 on the next series, hitting Johnson in stride down the middle for a tying 50-yard touchdown.
Houston’s defense is vastly improved from last season, but it never got a handle on Davis, who also rushed for 47 yards.
Davis found Dominique Sullivan for a 69-yard touchdown to put Southern Miss up 21-14 at the break.
The Cougars looked just as shaky after halftime.
Southern Miss’ Furious Bradley blocked Richie Leone’s punt, scooped up the loose ball and took it 11 yards for a score to make it 28-14.
Deron Wilson intercepted a Keenum pass in the end zone, but the Cougars got it right back, when Houston’s Philip Steward picked off a deflected pass and returned it to the Southern Miss 5.
Michael Hayes scored on the next play to cut the deficit to 28-21, and a Houston rally seemed to be coming.
Instead, Lampley started the Golden Eagles’ next series with a 28-yard run and Southern Miss took more than four minutes off the clock before Desmond Johnson scored on a 17-yard scamper.
The Cougars’ secondary broke down again in the final minute of the third quarter, when Davis found Lampley open down the sideline for a 61-yard touchdown and a 42-21 Southern Miss lead.
Sumlin called his players together and gave them a fiery pep talk between the third and fourth quarters, but that changed nothing.
Southern Miss linebacker Ronnie Thornton intercepted a Keenum pass and returned it 26 yards for a score with 2:41 left. As the Golden Eagles celebrated, Keenum unstrapped his helmet and slowly trudged off the field.
The victory should fuel more rumors about Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora who, like Sumlin, is another hot name linked to various jobs. Fedora, completing his fourth season with the Golden Eagles, is a former offensive coordinator at Florida (2002-04) and Oklahoma State (2005-07).