56-49: the Cougars clip the Golden Eagles in 1996

On November 9, 1996, the Houston Cougars beat #20 Southern Miss, 56-49, in an overtime game at Robertson Stadium. The win propelled UH to the Conference USA title in their first year in the league.

The setting was unlikely: Kim Helton came into the 1996 season just 4-28-1, and the Coogs were 5-4 heading into the Homecoming game with USM. The Golden Eagles had allowed only 52 points in their four C-USA games and did not expect much trouble with a UH team that had scored just 54 points in the last three games.

Instead, the teams combined for 1,049 yards of offense, trading points throughout the game. UH trailed by a score at the half but knotted it up in the 3rd. USM scored early in the 4th, but back came Houston with another TD. Southern Miss punted to pin UH deep, but Charles West ran it back 87 yards to take the lead, 49-42. USM scored in the last minute to force overtime, the first in program history for the Golden Eagles. UH received the ball, and after a first down, Antowain Smith scored from 12 yards out to make it 56-49. USM moved the ball, but their fourth-down play was stopped inches short of the goal line. The Cougars held on.

Smith ran for 231 yards and finished with a Houston-record six touchdowns (5 of them on the ground, also a UH record). In addition, USM QB Lee Roberts set a school record with 398 passing yards. Houston quarterback Chuck Clements also had a strong day, going 20/29 for 297 yards and two TDs.

Houston and Southern Miss broke at least eight school records between them: Smith’s rushing and total touchdown marks, the most points scored by a UH player, the longest punt return in UH history, most passing yards for Southern Miss, most receptions and receiving yards for USM WR Kendrick Lee (10 catches, 260 yards), and most total points in a game for USM.

All four UH records set that day still stand 25 years later.

The Cougars were in a prime position to win C-USA after the victory but needed to beat Louisville. UH hosted the Cardinals the following week at the Astrodome and jumped out to a 31-0 halftime lead before cruising to an easy win. Houston finished their first season in Conference USA with a 4-1 league record, tying USM. The Cougars won the league and accepted the Liberty Bowl invite based on the head-to-head win.

The ’96 Southern Miss game was UH’s first real Homecoming, meaning the first held on-campus at the University of Houston. UH has played every Homecoming on campus since then, except in 2013, when TDECU was being built.

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