Brandon Brinkley returns an interception 46 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
HOUSTON --The Houston Cougars scored at will on the Rice Owls to reclaim the Bayou Bucket, rolling to a 73-14 victory at Robertson Stadium on Saturday.
The Cougars notched their 10th win of the 2009 campaign, tying the program record for regular season wins in a single season. The Cougars posted 10-win regular seasons in 1973, 1979 and 1990.
"Everyone knew what was at stake here tonight from a big-picture standpoint," head football coach Kevin Sumlin said. "The more you can reduce things to feelings about rivalry games, the more I think it helps the guys focus a little better. Our guys came out today and showed how important this game is to them."
Sophomore kick returner Tyron Carrier started the scoring frenzy when he returned the opening kickoff 99-yards for his third touchdown return of the year and the fourth of his career.
Houston pushed the lead to 14-0 when the Cougars scored on their initial possession following a three-and-out by Rice. Junior quarterback Case Keenum scampered for a one-yard touchdown to cap a 10-play, 56-yard drive.
Three-and-outs would plague the Rice offense throughout the opening half, as the Houston defense stifled the Owls and did not allow a first down on five of eight first-half drives.
The Houston defense contributed to the scoring barrage, extending the lead to 21-0 when senior cornerback Brandon Brinkley returned an interception 45 yards for a score. It was Brinkley's second career interception return for a touchdown.
Of the Cougars' nine drives in the first half, eight of them resulted in touchdowns. Freshman kicker Matt Hogan added a 22-yard field goal for the lone exception.
Freshman running back Charles Sims had touchdown runs of five and 18 yards. He finished the game with 87 yards on 12 carries, all coming in the first half.
Junior cornerback Jamal Robinson added a pair of interceptions, increasing his team-leading total to five.
Keenum extended his school record to 28-consecutive games with a touchdown pass, when he connected with sophomore wide receiver Patrick Edwards on a 39-yard deep corner route to put the Cougars up 38-0.
Keenum, who didn't play the majority of the second half for the second consecutive week, finished the day with 323 yards on 25-of-31 passing and two touchdown passes. He is just 78 passing yards shy of his second 5,000-yard passing season.
Carrier recorded his first career rushing touchdown on a 37-yard reverse in the second quarter, extending the Houston lead to 45-0. Sims then tacked on his second rushing score to increase the Cougar lead to 52-0.
Junior wide receiver L.J. Castille caught a five-yard fade pass with a minute remaining in the first half to extend the Houston lead to 59-0. The 59-point first half tied the mark set by the 1989 squad that put up 59 points against SMU for the most points scored in the opening half.
With the offensive explosion in their annual rivalry game, the Cougars concluded the regular season with 539 points scored, trailing only the 1989 squad who scored 589 points for the program record. Ironically enough, the 1989 team was in attendance as they were honored during halftime for the 20th anniversary.
With the majority of the Cougars' starters sitting the second half out, Houston still managed to tack on two more scores. In the third quarter, backup quarterback Cotton Turner connected with Kierrie Johnson on a 19 yard touchdown strike, and after two Charles Ross rushing scores for the Owls, UH's Bryce Beall capped the evening with a one-yard plunge for the final points.
The 73 points posted by the Cougars in a Conference USA game are the most for Houston since joining the league in 1996. The total also is the second-most points scored by a league team, trailing the 77 points Tulsa (vs. UTEP) and Rice (vs. North Texas) scored in big wins in 2008.
Houston will try for its third C-USA title next week, traveling to Greenville, N.C., to take on East Carolina in the Conference USA Championship Game on Saturday, Dec. 5, at noon ET on ESPN. The Cougars won the outright title in 1996, and later knocked off Southern Miss at home to win the 2006 crown.
"This was one of our primary goals - to win the West. We haven't been perfect but we've gotten better and have gone through quite a bit but our guys keep fighting," Sumlin said. "They have put our team in a position to win a championship and as a coach and program, that's where you want to be. The only way to do that is to win games. These guys have fought to do that and that's where we're at right now but the season isn't over yet."