GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Case Keenum and the Houston offense barely stopped long enough to call a play, much less allow No. 23 East Carolina to catch its breath. Now the Cougars are celebrating their first win against a ranked opponent in a dozen years.
Keenum threw for 399 yards and three touchdowns and the Cougars rolled up 621 total yards in a 41-24 win Saturday, ending an 18-game losing streak against ranked teams and sending the Pirates to a second straight deflating loss.
Patrick Edwards had 11 catches for 146 yards and a score for the Cougars (2-3, 1-0 Conference USA), whose last win against a ranked team was a 56-49 overtime victory against then-No. 20 Southern Mississippi in November 1996. It was Houston's first road win against a ranked foe since beating No. 3 Texas 29-15 in November 1984.
Houston had lost its past two games to Air Force -- which was moved to Dallas due to Hurricane Ike -- and Colorado State by three points each time. But the Cougars never trailed in this one, building a 21-10 halftime lead and then getting a long touchdown catch from Kierrie Johnson early in the fourth quarter to turn away the Pirates' rally hopes.
"We're a fast-tempo offense and we were able to get on them pretty quick," Keenum said. "Every time you looked up, somebody was making a clutch play."
Bryce Beall ran for 132 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Cougars' ground attack, which had not produced a 100-yard rusher all season and became the first to do it against East Carolina (3-2, 1-1). Houston's 621 yards were the fourth-most ever allowed by the Pirates and most since coach Skip Holtz took over before the 2005 season.
"Being on the road wasn't a big deal," Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said. "I liked our energy all week. I liked our energy in pregame. That carried over to the game. I think you can see the potential that is in this team."
East Carolina had upset Virginia Tech and West Virginia to open the season and earn a national ranking for the first time in nine years. But the Pirates lost last weekend in overtime to rival North Carolina State, ending all the crash-the-BCS talk and challenging them to regroup quickly enough to handle Houston's high-powered offense.
It wasn't the performance Holtz had hoped to see. East Carolina managed little offense and even less resistance on defense as the Cougars marched up and down the field, sending the Pirates into their bye week looking like a worn-out club.
"I thought overall we just didn't play with the same fire and the same enthusiasm and emotion," Holtz said. "I see guys who are putting it out on the field. But I don't think there was the same emotion or passion that we've had some other games this year."
The Cougars had something to do with that, starting with the way Keenum directed a no-huddle offense that looked ready to snap the ball as soon as it was spotted all day.
"After they'd run the first play, they'd hurry right back up to the line and run that next play," Pirates safety Van Eskridge said. "Sometimes it kind of caught us off guard and took us a while to get adjusted to it."
In fact, Houston's mistakes were the main thing keeping the Pirates in the game, with Keenum fumbling away the ball while diving at East Carolina's goal line in the first quarter then throwing an interception that Emanuel Davis returned 11 yards for a score later in the period.
East Carolina managed 275 total yards, with much of that coming after the Cougars had built a big lead in the final period. Its offense was so ineffective that Holtz pulled starting quarterback Patrick Pinkney at halftime in favor of backup Rob Kass, who directed a 70-yard scoring drive that ended with Brandon Simmons' 4-yard scoring run that made it 21-17 with 6:02 left in the third.
But the Cougars answered with a long drive to set up Ben Bell's 24-yard field goal. Then, after Houston forced a three-and-out, Keenum scrambled away from pressure to his right side and heaved a pass to Johnson -- who had somehow slipped behind the defense -- for an easy 84-yard score and a 31-17 lead with 14:06 left.
Houston essentially sealed the game a few minutes later, picking off Kass to set up Beall's 5-yard touchdown run for a 38-17 lead with 12:04 left.
"We wanted to get the season turned around on this game," Cougars defensive end Phillip Hunt said. "We knew they were a good team. They were ranked. We just wanted to set ourselves up for the rest of the season by coming out with a win this time."
Pinkney returned in the fourth quarter and threw for 100 yards and a meaningless late score for East Carolina.