Dec. 5, 2009
Dwayne Harris also had a big day with 123 yards receiving and a 22-yard touchdown catch. He also had a 69-yard kickoff return to set up East Carolina's first touchdown to earn MVP honors, helping the Pirates (9-4) beat the mistake-prone Cougars (10-3) for their second straight league title that will send them back to the Liberty Bowl.
East Carolina is the first team to win consecutive C-USA titles since the league went to divisional play in 2005.
Case Keenum had a big day for Houston, completing 56 of 75 passes for title game-record 527 yards and five touchdowns. Most of those went to James Cleveland, who had 19 catches for another game-record of 241 yards to go with three scores.
But while Houston had stretches where it easily moved the ball, the Cougars repeatedly cost themselves with the kind of mistakes that East Carolina needed to hang around. Keenum threw three interceptions, including one in the end zone and a second while under pressure that Van Eskridge returned 30 yards to Houston's 7 to set up Lindsay's score that gave East Carolina a 31-19 lead early in the fourth.
Houston also lost a fumble that East Carolina converted into a field goal, while Matt Hogan missed two extra-point attempts and had a third blocked late in the game.
Then, after the Cougars defense stopped Lindsay on a fourth-and-1 to get the ball back with 1:47 to play, Keenum lofted a ball deep for L.J. Castile in the end zone that bounced off the shoulder pad of defender Travis Simmons and ricocheted to Eskridge for a game-clinching interception with 42 seconds left.
The Pirates, meanwhile, turned in the kind of steady offensive performance they seemed unable to muster earlier this season.
Coach Skip Holtz had said his offense would have to do its part to help the defense, whether it meant moving the chains to keep Keenum on the sideline or getting into the end zone. The Pirates did a little of all of that, with Patrick Pinkney throwing for 262 yards with no turnovers, Lindsay running for 75 yards and Ruffin running for 55 yards on seven carries.
The Cougars beat the Pirates 41-24 on the road last season, rolling up 621 yards in a dominating performance that left East Carolina's defense gasping for air. Keenum threw for 399 yards and three touchdowns in that game, but East Carolina had won seven straight home games against league opponents since, including last week's win against Southern Mississippi to clinch another East Division title and homefield advantage for the C-USA title game.
East Carolina got the clinching score when Ruffin had a brilliant scoring run, patiently waiting for the hole to develop before sprinting free to the right side and leaping for the pylon on a 20-yard run that made it 38-26 with 6:39 to play. Keenum connected with Cleveland on the next drive to cut the deficit to 38-32 with 3:24 to play, but couldn't get the Cougars back to the end zone again.