Houston Claims C-USA Title With 34-20 Win Over Southern Miss

Dec. 1, 2006

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HOUSTON (AP) - As their fans spilled onto the field, the Houston Cougars took turns hoisting a trophy that marked the end of a decade of mediocrity.

Kevin Kolb threw two touchdown passes to Biren Ealy and ran for another score to lead Houston to a 34-20 win over Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA championship game Friday night.

"A lot of people doubted us and said it couldn't be done," said Kolb, who completed 19-for-31 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns. "It was done tonight and hopefully, for the program, it will continue to be done."

The Cougars (10-3) won their first C-USA title in 1996, but went 37-66 over the next nine seasons. Houston hired Art Briles in 2003 and he lured Kolb, the quarterback Briles coached in high school.

On Friday, Kolb became the conference's all-time passing leader, leapfrogging Louisville quarterback Chris Redman. Kolb, who made his 49th career start, now has 12,578 passing yards.

Kolb also had a 46-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that gave the Cougars the lead for good. His two TD passes moved him into second place on the league's career list, two behind Redman's record of 84.

After the game, Kolb only wanted to talk about the championship.

"I've been telling people since the beginning of the year that that's all that matters and that's the truth," he said. "This means a lot more to me than any records."

Vincent Marshall, Houston's career receiving leader, caught eight passes for 100 yards and had a touchdown run on a lateral for the Cougars.

Marshall, a senior, was named the game's Most Valuable Player. He finished with 224 all-purpose yards - 100 receiving, 18 on his first career pass, 22 on the TD run and 102 on three kickoff returns.

"The only thing I was thinking about was all the hard work we've put into this," Marshall said.

Houston has matched its highest win total since 1990 and heads to the Liberty Bowl on a six-game winning streak.

"It's very gratifying," Briles said. "We've battled our tails off now for four years and got this thing where it needs to be."

Jeremy Young had a touchdown run and threw a TD pass to Chris Johnson to lead the Golden Eagles (8-5), who will play Ohio in the GMAC Bowl.

Southern Miss was denied a fifth Conference USA championship, but will play in a bowl game for the ninth time in 10 years.

"Our guys played hard and I am proud of our football team for getting to this game," said Eagles coach Jeff Bower. "We certainly would have liked to have won it, but I'm proud of them for what they've done this year."

The Cougars trailed 17-13 at halftime, but came from behind to win for the sixth straight game.

Early in the third quarter, Kolb faked a handoff to Battle and sprinted for a touchdown, the longest run of his career.

Kolb, Conference USA's career leader in total offense, went 6-for-6 on Houston's next drive and found Ealy for a 33-yard touchdown with 2:52 left in the third quarter.

While Kolb hit his stride after a sluggish first half, Houston's defense held Southern Miss to 46 yards and two first downs in the third quarter.

Darren McCaleb kicked a 31-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter to cut Houston's lead to 27-20.

But Kolb drove the Cougars to the Southern Miss 32, then lofted a TD pass to Ealy down the sideline with 4:25 left. After the touchdown, Kolb jogged to the sideline and high-fived quarterbacks coach Philip Montgomery.

Southern Miss had beaten Houston in seven of the previous eight meetings, including a 31-27 victory on Oct. 14.

The game drew 31,818, the largest crowd in the history of Robertson Stadium, which was built in the 1940s and expanded in 1999.

The Golden Eagles came into the game with the league's top rushing offense, but mustered only 44 rushing yards after the break.

Southern Miss freshman Damion Fletcher, the league's second-leading rusher, finished with 90 yards, 13 below his average.

Southern Miss also had the top scoring defense in Conference USA, but Houston's point total was the most allowed by the Eagles since a 36-6 loss to Virginia Tech on Oct. 21.



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