DALLAS – When Case Keenum received Houston’s game plan for Monday’s TicketCity Bowl, he had a twinkle in his eye.
“Before the game we knew we were going to throw the ball a bunch,” he said, “and talked about breaking records.”
Keenum let his arm do the talking at Cotton Bowl Stadium, where he carved Penn State’s defense for 532 yards and three touchdowns in a convincing 30-14 victory before an announced crowd of 46,817.
Keenum, the most prolific passer in NCAA history, broke six stadium postseason records, which date to 1937. He completed 45 passes in 69 attempts, both records for Nittany Lions opponents in any game.
“I think he’s a really good quarterback, probably the best one we’ve seen all season,” said co-defensive coordinator Larry Johnson. “He really has a good eye. He really knows where to go with the ball. He’s precise in what he’s doing.”
Penn State (9-4) dropped back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1975-76 and finished its tumultuous season with its third loss in four games.
Former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted on 40 counts of sexually abusing children in November, which led to the firing of Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno and the departures of president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley.
“I don’t think the distractions got to us at all,” wide receiver Justin Brown said. “We were used to them from the whole season.”
One other distraction might have hurt Penn State more than the scandal.
Quarterback Matt McGloin and wide receiver Curtis Drake fought after a Dec. 17 practice in the locker room. Neither one played Monday, McGloin because he did not receive medical clearance after suffering a seizure and concussion and Drake because he did not make the trip for personal reasons.
With Rob Bolden replacing McGloin, the Nittany Lions struggled and were unable to keep the ball away from Keenum and the Cougars (13-1).
“You play the cards you have,” interim coach Tom Bradley said. “I think we could have helped Rob today. We dropped some passes. We didn’t make plays when we had to make them.”
Making his first start since Oct. 15 against Purdue, Bolden was, to put it kindly, ineffective. He completed just 7-of-26 passes for 137 yards, was intercepted three times and saw Houston defenders drop three other passes.
“There were some balls I wish I could have had back,” Bolden said, “and some balls that could have been caught. I think I did pretty well.”
Keenum played on another level than Bolden did. In the first quarter alone, he completed 21-of-29 passes for two touchdowns and 227 yards, which broke an NCAA bowl record.
He found Patrick Edwards behind D’Anton Lynn for a 40-yard touchdown on Houston’s first series and later hit Justin Johnson on an 8-yard score, helping give the Cougars a 17-0 lead.
Bradley worried about the game about how the defense would adjust to Houston’s pace in the first quarter, especially with All-American tackle Devon Still hobbled by turf toe.
“They were snapping the ball before the chains were even set,” defensive tackle Jordan Hill. “It was hard to keep our composure. It was very frustrating.
“When you pass the ball that many times and are that efficient, it’s hard to stop. I got through twice, but I didn’t have a chance (to sack Keenum) because the ball was coming out so fast.”
Penn State, though, gained some traction in the second quarter. Devon Smith’s diving 43-yard catch set up Stephfon Green’s 6-yard touchdown run, giving the Lions some life.
But a few minutes later, Keenum avoided the rush and found Edwards at least 20 yards behind the defense after safety Drew Astorino slipped. The 75-yard touchdown play gave the Cougars a 24-7 lead with 1:43 left in the half.
“That just broke our back,” Bradley said.
The Lions played better in the second half, but they were too far behind. Brown’s terrific 69-yard touchdown catch pulled them within 27-14 in the third quarter, but that was as close as they got.
“We just felt bad because the seniors couldn’t go out with a win,” Hill said. “With either a win or a loss, there were going to be some tears. The loss just made it worse.”