Numbers add up for QB Keenum
Case Keenum was the nation's best player statistically in 2008, but few in the Houston area seemed to care.
According to Keenum, Houston's junior quarterback, there was little change as he walked around campus. People weren't stopping him outside class to snap photos or ask for autographs, and not many children with No. 7 jerseys approached him.
"I heard Tim Tebow's got a deal where there are signs up at restaurants in Florida, 'If you bring Tim Tebow here with you to eat, you eat here for life free,'" Keenum joked. "Yeah, we don't have any of those here."
Keenum led the nation with 5,241 total yards last season, and 5,020 of those were through the air. He completed 67.4 percent of his passes, threw for 44 touchdowns and had just 11 interceptions. He also led Houston to an 8-5 record and a win in the Armed Forces Bowl, and he even was mentioned in some Heisman talk by the time the season ended.
But Keenum said most of that was lost on the general population of the school and the city because many commuter students attend Houston, and Houston Cougars football isn't the main attraction in town.
"Houston's a big city. A lot of other people have a lot of other things to do," Keenum said. "The Houston Cougars are down on the list for a lot of people.
"With our fans, though, it was awesome. They're awesome people. They're die-hard fans. But there's plenty to do in Houston. It's not like a College Station [Texas] or Austin where Saturday afternoon everybody's at the field. Saturday afternoon you can go to the beach, go to an Astros game or do just about anything you want to."
Keenum hopes to open some eyes this weekend when his team travels to Stillwater to take on No. 5 Oklahoma State. The Cowboys opened the season with a win over then-No. 13 Georgia and look to be a contender for the Big 12 and, maybe, national titles.
Last season, Keenum and the Cougars played toe-to-toe with OSU in the first half before losing 56-37. However, Keenum said the game helped him grow as a quarterback.
This season, Houston isn't looking to just stay close. Keenum looked back on last season and said that although the Cougars put up gaudy numbers, they could have turned their five losses into wins.
"The end of the year is when you look back and say, 'Wow, that was pretty cool. We did something special,'" Keenum said of his numbers. "Probably the thing that made you most sick, though, was that there were still those times where it was really close to going the other way just the amount of offense that we left out there and how poorly we played at times. We played well for one quarter a game, and that was it."
He points to two games that really stuck out -- a 28-25 loss to Colorado State and a 37-23 loss to Marshall -- when looking back on what was considered a fantastic season. In that Colorado State game, he threw the losing interception in the end zone, as the Cougars started the season 1-3. Against Marshall, Houston had a chance to control the Conference USA West Division but blew it.
It's those games that Keenum, ever the perfectionist, looks back on when he thinks about 2008. It's not the gaudy numbers, it's the what-ifs.
"Marshall was frustrating," Keenum said. "Marshall, nothing was clicking. Something wasn't right. From the second we got there, something was off, and it showed the way we played that night. Those two times -- Colorado State and Marshall -- were no fun. It's never fun throwing a game-losing interception in the end zone. I don't recommend it. I got all mine out."
Houston coach Kevin Sumlin would be the first to tell you he didn't think Keenum would be as good as he was last season. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dana Holgorsen would be the second.
But as the season wore on and Keenum started to develop a rapport with his receivers, most of whom were freshmen or sophomores, the offense started to flow.
"By Game 5 or 6 I knew," Sumlin said of Keenum. "That's when we all started saying, 'Hey, this guy's pretty good.' Just him learning from some things early in the year and how he operated."
And through the offseason and fall camp, Holgorsen said his quarterback was leaps and bounds better than last season. During a practice match in fall camp, Keenum came to the line of scrimmage and checked the Cougars out of an offensive play Holgorsen had called. It ended up being the right check, and the offense scored.
Holgorsen said it was at that point he knew something had changed. "I was like, 'Wow, he's never done that before,'" Holgorsen said of Keenum's recognition of the defense. "He wasn't that good a year ago. Not even close."
Against Northwestern State in the season opener Saturday, Keenum accounted for 359 yards and five touchdowns (four passing, one rushing) in a little more than one half of work. The Cougars won 55-7.
Keenum said he spent the offseason learning defenses and tendencies. Holgorsen admits that as a result, he has given Keenum more freedom to check plays at the line of scrimmage. "He might be calling all the plays by the time he's done here," Holgorsen said.
The signal-caller said he's always had a head for football. In 1995, when his father, Steve, became head coach at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas, Keenum asked to be a ball boy.
Keenum was 7, and his father wasn't sure he was old enough to be on the sideline. He told his son that when he was able to throw the ball from the sideline to the numbers, he'd be allowed to be a ball boy.
That's when Keenum's career started.
To this day, Steve, now working with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, rarely misses an opportunity to see his son play. He's at every game, and Keenum said sometimes his dad would drive six hours from Abilene to watch him practice and then turn around and drive six hours home.
"I'm glad he's there," Keenum said. "It means a lot that he can do that."
That kind of support -- his mother, two sisters and girlfriend of four years also regularly attend games -- has kept him level-headed.
Even though the city might not recognize him, the athletic department does. Keenum has a billboard on the side of the highway that promotes Houston football. He's also on every preseason quarterback watch list, and he's a dark horse for the Heisman Trophy.
But none of that matters to him if he can't improve upon the mistakes of last season. That improvement starts this weekend.
"We've been talking about being a really good team and doing all of this stuff for a long time, and I think a lot of us are tired of talking about it," Keenum said. "We're ready to put some action behind those words and just do it. Just to go out there and play like we know how to play and do it."
Graham Watson is an ESPN.com football blogger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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