The Case of the undefeated Cougars

While quarterback Case Keenum continues to set records, Houston quietly remains undefeated.

Keenum and the No. 18 Cougars look to match the best start in school history with an eighth consecutive victory Thursday night in a Conference USA matchup against crosstown rival Rice.

Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have installed the Cougars as hefty 27-point home favorites, with the total set at a bloated 70 1/2.

One of eight remaining undefeated teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, Houston (7-0, 3-0) has not won its first eight games since 1990. With Keenum guiding the nation’s top-ranked offense, matching that start appears likely against a Rice team that has lost 10 straight conference road games since a 49-44 victory at UTEP on Nov. 1, 2008.

The Owls (2-5, 1-3) have also been outscored 212-94 during a four-game road skid against Houston since a 21-14 win there Sept. 1, 2001. The Cougars have lost two of the last three overall meetings with Rice, but Keenum did not play in last year’s 34-31 road defeat to the Owls.

Keenum is 70 of 103 for 973 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions in three career games versus Rice, posting a 2-1 record.

The senior became the FBS career leader in total offense – breaking the record of 16,910 yards set by Hawaii’s Timmy Chang from 2000-04 – when he threw for 376 yards and tied a career high with six TD passes in a 63-28 victory over Marshall on Saturday.

“It’s awesome, it’s incredible,” said Keenum, who is in his sixth year of eligibility after a torn ACL limited him to three games in 2010. “It’s very special.”

The nation’s leader in passing yards (2,685), Keenum guides an offense that ranks first in the nation with 606.1 total yards and 49.3 points per game. The Cougars have scored at least 56 in three of their last four contests.

“It’s a good spot to be in, and that’s what we’re trying to get to every game,” said Keenum, who is five career TD passes shy of the all-time record – 134 by Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell from 2005-08. “We practice at that level, try to get into a groove, and try and stay in that groove for as long as possible.”

Keenum and the Houston offense may be too much to handle for a Rice defense that ranks near the bottom of the league giving up 472.4 yards and 32.6 points per game.

“We’ve got to be physical,” coach David Bailiff told Rice’s official website. “You can’t make errors with Case. For us to have a chance, we have to make sure that we have the best tackling game of the year. They are just incredibly gifted. And they have an incredibly gifted man at the quarterback who gets the ball where it needs to go.”

Houston native Tyron Carrier is one of Keenum’s favorite targets.

The senior leads the Cougars with 46 receptions to go along with 553 yards. He’s caught a pass in 46 straight games – the longest active streak in the nation. Carrier, however, has a pedestrian six receptions for 66 yards and no touchdowns in his last two games versus Rice.

While Houston seems able to score at will, Rice is tied for 95th in the nation averaging 22.3 points per game.

Bailiff has yet to decide who will start at quarterback after senior Nick Fanuzzi replaced starter Taylor McHargue, who threw two interceptions and fumbled on the team’s first three possessions during a 38-20 loss to Tulsa on Saturday.

Fanuzzi went 20 of 37 for 234 yards with a touchdown in relief. He was 14 of 21 for 206 yards and three TDs against Houston last season.

Rice has dropped 19 straight games against Top 25 opponents dating to a 27-14 win over then-No. 21 BYU on Oct. 11, 1997.

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