HOUSTON -- Houston lost much more than a game in Saturday's Conference USA championship.
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.
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's mentioned as a top candidate for virtually every higher-profile job opening.
Sumlin shot down a media report that he'll soon become the coach at Texas A&M, which fired Mike Sherman only two days ago.
"That is not true," Sumlin said. "I said a few weeks ago I wasn't going to talk to anybody, period, during the football season. Many of the things that have been reported have been found out to be false already.
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"I haven't talked to anybody," he said. "I haven't said anything to anybody about it."
Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades will discuss a contract extension soon with Sumlin, who was an offensive assistant under R.C. Slocum at A&M from 2001-02. Sumlin is 35-17 in four seasons at Houston.
"People are crazy if they don't think we are working our tails off to do what we can to keep him," Rhoades said. "He's a terrific person and a terrific head coach, and we're going to continue to [communicate], and that is all I am going to say about that."
On a grander scale, the Cougars (12-1) blew their big chance to impress a national-television audience and show that they had finally climbed to the top in their state after years of playing in the shadows of A&M and Texas.
Keenum could've also bolstered his case for an invitation to next week's Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Instead, the Golden Eagles (11-2) turned it into their showcase, shackling Houston's high-powered offense and striking with several big plays of their own to win their first league title and reach 11 victories for the first time.
"Everybody thought Houston was just going to walk away with this thing," Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said. "So our guys obviously took objection to that. They had something to prove. They were going to play with a chip on their shoulders. They wanted everybody to know that Southern Miss is really a good football team."
Southern Miss won the C-USA title game for the first time, and the league championship for the fifth time overall.
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 and two interceptions. He became the first quarterback to reach 5,000 yards passing in three seasons, one more record to tack onto his magnificent career.
But the only goal he cared about reaching Saturday was lifting the program to its first undefeated season and first BCS berth.
Now, all he and the Cougars have to look forward to is a disappointing, lower-tier bowl.
"It was in our grasp," Keenum said, "and we let it slip away."
The Cougars nimbly played through the groundswell of rumors about Sumlin in recent weeks, and vowed that they wouldn't lose focus leading up to the biggest game in program history.
It was obvious from the start, though, that the Cougars were off-kilter.
Southern Miss jumped to a 14-0 lead before Keenum finally started clicking midway through the second quarter.
"We weren't affected at all," Keenum said of dealing with distractions. "We went out there, and it was just about the conference championship game."
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, vastly improved from last season, never got a handle on Davis, who also rushed for 47 yards.
Southern Miss went up 21-14 at the break, and the Cougars looked just as shaky after halftime.
Golden Eagles defensive back Furious Bradley blocked Richie Leone's punt, scooped up the loose ball and took it 11 yards for a score and Deron Wilson intercepted a Keenum pass in the end zone.
The Cougars got that one back, when Houston's Philip Steward picking off a deflected pass and returning 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, Southern Miss scored twice over the next seven minutes to stretch the margin to 42-21.
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.
Keenum, a sixth-year senior, set Football Bowl Subdivision career records for total offense, yards passing and touchdown passes this year after missing most of last season with a torn knee ligament.
None of that mattered on Saturday.
"I knew at halftime I had 30 minutes left," Keenum said, "and that was the last time I would walk off that field in my jersey. It was not the way we wanted to go out.
"I'm not going to accept this," he said. "Whatever bowl game that is, we are going to prepare and go out winners."
|Case Keenum sets another record (third career 5,000-yard season) but fails to deliver Houston's first BCS appearance. (AP)|
|USM||Ryan Balentine 14 yd pass from Austin Davis (Danny Hrapmann kick)|
|USM||Tracy Lampley 16 yd pass from Austin Davis (Danny Hrapmann kick)|
|HOU||Justin Johnson 9 yd pass from Case Keenum (Matt Hogan kick)|
|HOU||Michael Hayes 1 yd run (Matt Hogan kick)|
|USM||Dominique Sullivan 69 yd pass from Austin Davis (Danny Hrapmann kick)|
|USM||Furious Bradley 11 yd blocked punt return (Danny Hrapmann kick)|
|HOU||Michael Hayes 4 yd run (Matt Hogan kick)|
|USM||Desmond Johnson 17 yd run (Danny Hrapmann kick)|
|USM||Tracy Lampley 61 yd pass from Austin Davis (Danny Hrapmann kick)|
|USM||Ronnie Thornton 26 yd interception return (Danny Hrapmann kick)|
|HOU||Justin Johnson 13 yd pass from Case Keenum (Matt Hogan kick)|
|Third Down Efficiency||8-18||6-20|
|Fourth Down Efficiency||0-1||3-6|
|Kick Return Yds||37||97|
|Punt Return Yds||51||0|
|Time of Poss.||27:27||32:33|
|USM: Tracy Lampley 14-71, Desmond Johnson 10-61, Austin Davis 9-47, Jamal Woodyard 5-30, Team 1--2|
|HOU: Michael Hayes 15-50, Charles Sims 9-32, Patrick Edwards 1--9, Case Keenum 6--18|
|USM: Austin Davis 17-33-279-1, Quentin Pierce 0-1-0-1|
|HOU: Case Keenum 41-67-373-2|
|USM: Tracy Lampley 6-125, Dominique Sullivan 4-95, Ryan Balentine 3-24, Kelvin Bolden 2-6, Quentin Pierce 1-20, Desmond Johnson 1-9|
|HOU: Justin Johnson 12-171, Charles Sims 10-69, Michael Hayes 6-27, Patrick Edwards 5-28, Tyron Carrier 4-41, Gino Collins 2-23, Daniel Spencer 1-11, Ronnie Williams 1-3|
|Southern Mississippi||5th Conference USA East||1-7||1-11|
|Houston||4th American Athletic||5-3||8-4|