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Volume 9, Issue 3                                    University of Houston

Cougars fall short in Liberty Bowl shootout


by MARK SUAREZ
THE DAILY COUGAR

    A deafening noise attacked the Cougars from every angle, forcing senior quarterback Kevin Kolb and the UH offense into a silent count.

    With South Carolina clinging to a 30-28 third quarter lead, Houston lined up on third and goal from the Gamecock eight-yard line with 5:30 left in the third quarter. It had the potential to be a game-changing play -- and it would later prove to be exactly that.

    As the ball was snapped, it sailed beyond the grasp of Kolb who was on the move to his right. Kolb gave chase, and in an act of desperation, kicked it to avoid a turnover into the same raucous crowd that had taken hold of his voice. 

    The kick drew a penalty and took UH out of field goal range. The sequence put the Cougars in a hole they would not escape as they fell 44-36 to South Carolina in front 56,103 fans at the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis.

    “At that stage of the game, it made a difference,” UH head coach Art Briles said. “We have the opportunity to gain a little bit of momentum, and we had a bad series of events happen right there.

    “You have to give some credit to South Carolina's crowd. We had to go silent count down there and it disrupted our exchange out of the shotgun.”

    From the onset the Cougars came out and threw everything they had at the Gamecocks, racking up 527 yards. 

    Houston (10-4) and South Carolina (8-5) traded blows early and often in a wild first half that yielded seven lead changes. 

    Led by USC quarterback Blake Mitchell, who was named the Liberty Bowl Most Valuable Player, the Gamecocks pulled away in the second half. Mitchell completed 19 of 29 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns.

    The Cougars’ performance in the second half had been a strong point all season, but in this game it proved to be their Achilles’ heel.

    Houston’s second-half rally would fall short after a sack and breakdowns in the secondary ultimately spelled doom for the scarlet red and albino white.

    South Carolina sophomore wide out Kenny McKinley capped off two scoring drives for the Gamecocks. McKinley caught a pair of fourth quarter 43-yard touchdown passes, the second of which occurred with 7:39 remaining and proved to be the difference in the game.

    But Houston would battle back.

    With 5:42 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Cougars cut the Gamecock lead in half on a 3-yard touchdown run by senior running back Jackie Battle (18 carries, 85 yards and two touchdowns), UH successfully converted a two-point conversion to cut the lead to eight.

    The Cougars then made a crucial defensive stand on the ensuing USC possession on fourth and 1 from the South Carolina 37-yard line with just longer than four minutes remaining.

    Sophomore linebacker Cody Lubojasky busted up the middle and stuffed USC junior running back Corey Boyd (18 carries, 94 yards and two touchdowns) short of the first-down marker. The Cougar sideline then erupted.

    Houston’s celebration, however, would be short-lived.  On the ensuing drive, Kolb took a 14-yard loss on a sack on first down. Three plays later on fourth and 24, Kolb (26-39, 386 yards and three touchdowns) completed a 16-yard curl route to senior wide out Donnie Avery, who was tackled short of a first down.

    The Cougars would not get the ball back until two seconds remained on the clock, leaving UH time for just one play. Senior wide receiver Vincent Marshall caught a short pass with blockers ahead of him but was tackled as he made his way down the right sideline, ending Houston’s comeback bid.

    Houston got a spark from Marshall, who was named UH Offensive Player of the game. The fifth-year senior was a thorn in side of the South Carolina defense all afternoon as he caught nine passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns, the second of which helped establish a new Liberty Bowl scoring record.

    With Houston trailing 27-21 and 42 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Marshall caught a short pass near the left hash mark and broke free 77 yards down the near sideline for a touchdown. The score gave Houston a 28-27 halftime lead. The 55 combined points set a Liberty Bowl record for a half.

    The South Carolina defense would adjust its game plan in the second half, however, to match up with Marshall and the rest of the speedy Cougar wide receiver corps who had the advantage early.

    “They played a little bit more zone defense and took the middle of the field away from us,” Marshall said. “They had a safety over the top and a man in my face and they made it hard to throw deep.

    “They blitzed and kept people in Kevin's face. The zone hurt us in the second half.”
    After the fans cleared the stands, the area that seated the UH fans rested in silence.
    The chants of “Whose house? Coogs’ house!” cheered by the Cougar crowd were a distant memory in the empty seats littered with torn ticket stubs. 

    For Briles, falling short of delivering a bowl victory to those fans stung the most.

    “That’s the thing that bothers me the most … our fans have been extremely supportive of us all year, they were great at the (Conference USA) championship game and they were great here tonight,” Briles said. “I feel responsible for sending them home without a smile on their faces. They give us hope, they give us inspiration, they give us momentum, so I’m extremely proud of the way they supported us this year.”      <>

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