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Loss to UCF crushes Heisman hopes for Houston QB Keenum

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Case Keenum walked back on the field Saturday, certain the 10 seconds remaining on the clock gave him enough time to conjure another miracle. Maybe that miracle finally would convince the nation the record-shattering Houston quarterback deserved consideration for the Heisman Trophy.

Keenum didn't see the referee pointing in the opposite direction. After another patented Keenum fourth-quarter touchdown drive, Houston had tried an onside kick. The Cougars had recovered, but the ball had traveled just nine yards. Keenum retreated to the sideline. Central Florida quarterback Brett Hodges brought out his unit and lined up for one final snap. When Hodges' knee hit the turf, it sealed UCF's 37-32 win and buried Keenum's Heisman chances.

Certainly, Keenum's 377 passing yards and three touchdown passes will look fabulous when Houston's sports information director sends his weekly "Case for the Heisman" e-mail to national media members later this week. But anyone who watched the game will know almost 200 of those yards came with UCF playing in a prevent defense with the game well in hand.

"We just never really got it kicking there when we needed to," Keenum said.

Keenum came out blazing in the first quarter, throwing for 179 yards and a touchdown. The Cougars led 10-0 and would have led by more had tailback Bryce Beall not lost a fumble on the UCF nine-yard line and had Michael Greco not coughed up the ball on Houston's next possession. One play after Greco's fumble, the first quarter ended. Keenum's waiting game began.

All week, UCF coaches told their players not to worry about how many yards Houston gained. Worry instead, they said, about how many plays the Cougars run.

That said, UCF coach George O'Leary should frame the second-quarter play-by-play and hang it in the locker room for all eternity. It's as if Michelangelo typed up a stat sheet. By the end of the first half, Houston had possessed the ball for seven minutes, eight seconds.

In that fateful second quarter, Houston ran four plays and gained exactly zero passing yards. Yes, part of the reason was a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Cougars cornerback Devin Mays, but most of the credit goes to Hodges and the UCF offense, which hogged the ball for 8:09 of the quarter on their first possession (a field goal drive) and for 5:24 on their second (a touchdown drive). On the sideline, Keenum looked like A.J. Burnett during a rain delay. He may as well have donned a jacket to keep his arm warm.

By the time the Cougars got the ball back in the third quarter, the Knights had figured out an offense that still might eclipse 6,000 passing yards this season. Even if that happens, what transpired Saturday should eliminate Keenum from contention for the Heisman. UCF played mostly nickel, sliding 253-pound defensive end Bruce Miller to defensive tackle, clogging the middle with 314-pound Torrell Troup and bringing 238-pound Jarvis Geathers off the edge. The Knights rushed four on most plays. Miller routinely split 580-pound double teams. Geathers simply outran Houston's tackles. Meanwhile, the other seven Knights blanketed Keenum's targets.

"They turned it into a physical game," Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said. "And we didn't respond the way we should have." Translation: Houston got whipped up front.

But a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback should lift his team even when his teammates falter. It would have been forgivable if Keenum had seven Alabama defenders in coverage. But the Knights entered Saturday ranked No. 114 out of 120 FBS teams in pass defense. A Heisman winner would have picked the Knights apart in spite of everything.

That's the conundrum with Keenum. It's not his fault he is two inches shorter than the BCS-conference quarterback archetype. It's not his fault most college coaches have as little imagination as their NFL brethren when recruiting players who don't have the "correct" measureables. Former Houston coach Art Briles was the only one to grasp Keenum's intangibles and offer him a scholarship. Otherwise, Keenum might have wound up playing at hometown Abilene Christian.

If Keenum played at Texas A&M or Arkansas, would his numbers be as good? Certainly, the Heisman statistical standard wouldn't be as high if he played in the Big 12 or in the SEC, but would he reach that standard playing with BCS-conference teammates against BCS-conference defenses? His wins against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech this season -- with non-BCS teammates, mind you -- suggest so. Still, in spite of those wins, voters won't get past the losses to UTEP and UCF.

Keenum obviously is a great quarterback. The way he kept his teammates up in the face of certain defeat was nothing short of phenomenal. If my life depended on an offense marching 80 yards in two minutes or less, I'd probably still choose Keenum as my quarterback. But I can't, in good conscience, recommend him for the Heisman Trophy when so many players are great against better competition.

Clemson back C.J. Spiller completed the passing, running and throwing touchdown triple crown Saturday in a rout of NC State. Stanford tailback Toby Gerhart mauled USC tacklers Saturday. Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and receiver Jordan Shipley have turned on the afterburners the past four games. (That stretch includes 470 passing yards for McCoy and 273 receiving yards for Shipley last week in a 35-3 win against -- wait for it -- UCF.) Alabama tailback Mark Ingram has proven all season he can carry a faltering offense, and Ingram isn't even the best player on his team. That would be linebacker Rolando McClain, who would be fighting Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for the award if more voters truly understood the game.

That's a crowded list, but Keenum could have played his way onto it by shredding his remaining Conference USA opponents. He plays in a gadget offense, but it's his go-go-gadget arm and never-say-die attitude that make the offense work.

But in the end, none of the gaudy numbers will matter when Heisman voters call up Keenum's résumé. All that will matter is that Keenum got beat by UTEP and UCF. Heisman winners can lose to only a few acronym schools. They can lose to LSU. They can lose to USC. They cannot lose to UTEP and UCF.

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