FORT WORTH, Texas -- The Houston Cougars could be looking for a new quarterback if junior Case Keenum opts for the greener pastures of the NFL. Causing greater anxiety for Houston fans at the moment is the interest shown in their impressive second-year head coach by programs with immediate vacancies.
Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin's name emerged quickly as a candidate for recent openings at Kansas, Louisville, Cincinnati and now at Texas Tech in the wake of the stunning developments in Lubbock. If Keenum -- the lightly recruited gunslinger out of Abilene -- plans to return for his senior season, he did just about everything possible in Thursday's 47-20 loss to Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl to make sure Sumlin comes back with him.
It was not a good day for the Cougars.
On a cold and overcast afternoon at TCU's Amon G. Carter Stadium, Air Force's No. 1-ranked pass defense proved itself worthy of consideration as the nation's best. The Falcons intercepted Keenum six times, twice tipping balls for interceptions in the first half, as the quarterback of the nation's highest-yielding aerial assault matched the number of interceptions he threw in the season's first 12 games.
Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson outplayed his more heralded counterpart, throwing for a surprising 161 yards of the Falcons' overall 563. Ground-based Air Force ripped Houston with a diverse rushing attack to the tune of 420 yards, but it was the calm and cool Jefferson who kept the Cougars' defense confused with near-perfect execution, completing dinks and dunks, but also key passes downfield on multiple touchdown drives.
Jefferson hit on 10 of 14 passes, including gains of 37, 34 and 29 yards. He averaged 11.5 yards per attempt, more than doubling the production of Keenum, who completed 24 of 41 for 222 yards and a touchdown to go with the half-dozen picks.
When Sumlin was asked if Air Force's effectiveness through the air surprised him, all he could muster was "Yeah."
Similarly distraught by the severity of the beating a year after Houston beat Air Force here 34-28, Keenum's icy blue eyes stared straight ahead as he engaged a small group of reporters outside the Cougars' quiet locker room. He didn't wait for a question to be asked, instead offering a 78-second monologue before turning and briskly walking away.
At least in that moment of defeat and despair, Keenum sounded as if he had no plans to leave the program on these terms.
"I'm going to learn from this. You know, I'm a winner and I'm a competitor. I'm a winner and that's how it's going to be. We're going to take this into the offseason and we're going to use it as motivation," Keenum said after a lengthy apology to the team's seniors. "Look for the Cougars to do something special next year, because there's a lot of guys in this locker room that's got a lot of determination. Things didn't roll our way today, we made a few mistakes and they capitalized, but it's over, and that's the best part of that game. We're going to continue to work as hard as possible and never let that happen again."
The Cougars return three starting wide receivers, their starting running back and four of five offensive linemen, so the continuity is there to dust off from this loss and build on a 10-4 season that included wins over Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Mississippi State.
As for Sumlin, one of four black coaches among the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, he has led the Cougars to an 18-9 record and consecutive bowl appearances in his first two seasons. He and Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades have been working for weeks on a restructured five-year contract.
Sumlin has earned a reputation of producing high-octane spread offenses, similar to those of fired Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. Sumlin spent five seasons under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, serving as co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach in 2006 and '07.
Sumlin's offensive coordinator at Houston is Dana Holgerson, a familiar name to Red Raiders fans. Holgerson spent eight seasons at Tech, three as Leach's offensive coordinator. He played for Leach at Iowa Wesleyan and coached with him at Valdosta State.
A Sumlin-Holgerson pairing in Lubbock could provide a measure of philosophical stability and possibly save a highly touted 2010 recruiting class geared to fit Leach's wide-open scheme.
Tommy Tuberville is on record as expressing interest in succeeding Leach. Baylor coach Art Briles, a legendary name in Texas high school football, worked under Leach as a running backs coach from 2000-02 before taking his first head coaching job at Houston. The Cougars handed Sumlin his first head coaching job when Briles moved on to Baylor.
It is expected that Sumlin's new deal will be announced soon; the sooner the better as far as the UH administration is concerned.
And if quarterback and coach do return, as Keenum said, something special could be brewing.
"As a coach, first of all, I've got to do a better job based on the results today. It starts with me," Sumlin said. "And No. 2, you're always as a coach going back and you're going to analyze the positives and negatives of the year mostly what went wrong with your losses.
"We'll go back and look at that. I don't know that we did a whole lot of things differently than last year, and the results are a whole helluva lot different this year than they were last year."
As for next year, it won't be long before the Cougars know who they'll have under the headset and under center.