USM falls in title game

Published 11:51 pm Saturday, December 2, 2006

Kevin Kolb threw his second touchdown pass in the Conference USA championship, then jogged to the sideline and high-fived quarterbacks coach Philip Montgomery.

The real celebration began a few minutes later, when the Houston Cougars ended nine years of struggles with a 34-20 victory over Southern Mississippi.

Kolb threw both of his touchdown passes to Biren Ealy on Friday night and ran for another score as the Cougars won their first league title since 1996, the conference’s inaugural season.

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

After winning their first C-USA title, the Cougars 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 career passing leader, leapfrogging Louisville quarterback Chris Redman. Kolb, who made his 49th career start, now has 12,578 yards passing.

Houston (10-3) has matched its highest win total since 1990 and heads to the Liberty Bowl on a six-game winning streak.

“You don’t have a lot of chances to be a champion,” Briles said. “These guys captured the moment.”

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.

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 chosen as 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.

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,” Eagles coach Jeff Bower said. “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.

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

The game drew 31,818, the largest crowd in the history of Robertson Stadium, 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 yards after the break.

“We made some big plays in the first half,” Bower said, “but we didn’t in the second half.”

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.