HOUSTON -- Maybe Houston's defense deserves some notoriety, too.
The Cougars' top-ranked offense sputtered for much of the game, so Houston (11-0, 7-0 Conference USA) turned to its unheralded defense to beat the Mustangs (6-5, 4-3) for the ninth time in 10 meetings.
SMU mustered only 263 yards and didn't score until J.J. McDermott threw a short touchdown pass to Darius Johnson with 8:33 left in the game. The Mustangs had 93 yards and six first downs in the first half and trailed 13-0.
"That's the best defense I've ever seen played here," said Keenum, one of 17 seniors playing their final regular-season game.
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Outside linebacker Phillip Steward intercepted a pass in the end zone to thwart the Mustangs' best scoring chance, and linebacker Sammy Brown had three sacks while playing on a sore ankle. The Mustangs went just 5-for-15 on third downs.
"Our offense, they get most of the attention," Steward said. "We don't mind not getting the respect. We just go out there and just play. Tonight, the offense was struggling a bit, so the defense needed to step up, and that's what we did."
Houston took off in the third quarter, when Steward picked off a J.J. McDermott pass in the end zone on SMU's first drive out of halftime.
Michael Hayes took a screen pass from Keenum and ran 60 yards to the SMU 2, and Matt Hogan kicked another field goal. McDermott then fumbled on a scramble near midfield, safety Kent Brooks recovered. Keenum threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Justin Johnson for a 23-0 Houston lead.
"When you aren't a dominant team, you have to make every play you have the opportunity to make, and we aren't doing that," SMU coach June Jones said. "We had a couple opportunities to score touchdowns, and we missed them. The bottom line is that you have to keep at it, and hopefully, we will make those plays."
The Cougars ranked 103rd in total defense last season, and came into Saturday's game ranked 67th.
"We're not there by any means," Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said. "But I think our team feels the improvement. Our guys are growing with confidence and enjoy playing. I couldn't be happier with how they're approaching the game right now."
Keenum, meanwhile, completed 30 of 45 passes for 318 yards, a ho-hum day for the nation's leader in total offense and pass efficiency. He set the completions mark on his seventh throw, breaking the previous mark (1,403) set by Texas Tech's Graham Harrell (2005-08).
The Cougars' sixth-year quarterback also joined Hawaii's Tim Chang as the only quarterbacks to reach 4,000 yards passing in three seasons, and he tied Chang's FBS record for career 300-yard passing games (36). Chang set his records in 2000-04, when he played for Jones.
Earlier this season, Keenum eclipsed Chang's FBS career records for total offense and passing yards and Harrell's record for touchdown throws.
"Another record is definitely awesome," Keenum said. "I know it's not a small thing."
In the bigger picture, Houston continued their march toward a possible Bowl Championship Series berth. They'll face co-division leader Tulsa (8-3, 7-0) on Friday with the winner earning a berth in the league's championship game on Dec. 3.
Win those, and the Cougars will have to wait for the BCS computer to decide if they're worthy of a big-money bowl.
"We can't get caught up in where we should be, what's going to happen," Sumlin said. "We don't have any bearing on that. What we do have, as I tell these guys, `If you win, you will not be ignored."'
Sumlin said he was glad to finally get a reasonably tough test after his team scored at least 56 points in its last five games, all blowout victories.
The Mustangs pressured Keenum with blitzes on the Cougars' first drive and sacked him once. Houston settled for Matt Hogan's 28-yard field goal to finish their most time-consuming scoring drive of the season -- 17 plays in 5 minutes, 58 seconds.
"It was good for us to be in a game like that," Sumlin said. "The last five or six weeks, our guys [starters] have been standing on the sideline in the third quarter. For them to play a whole game and really push themselves, and stress a little bit, I think that's good."
Keenum went over 300 yards passing in the fourth quarter, just before running 16 yards for a touchdown with 6:17 remaining. Backup quarterback Cotton Turner threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Gino Collins five minutes later to give Houston at least 35 points for the 11th straight game.
Hogan is 78-for-78 on extra-point kicks this season, an FBS record.
The Mustangs played without Conference USA leading rusher Zach Line, who underwent season-ending toe surgery on Thursday. Line, a junior, had reached 100 yards in eight of 10 starts this season.
The announced attendance was 32,207, a Robertson Stadium record.