7:30 PM ET, September 30, 2003
Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Greenville, NC
Only the Cougars are savoring the moment.
Will Gulley had two interceptions for the Cougars (4-1), who won their Conference USA opener for the first time in three seasons. Under new coach Art Briles, Houston is off to its best start since winning the first eight games of the 1990 season.
"It's real big," Gulley said. "But we've just got to keep going. We've got to get to 2-0, then to 3-0."
On the other sideline, the feeling was much different for the Pirates (0-5, 0-2), who are off to their worst start since losing their first six games to start the 1986 season. Despite a career-high 118 rushing yards from Marvin Townes, the Pirates lost their seventh straight game dating back to last season.
"The record speaks for itself," said quarterback Paul Troth, who completed 2 of 13 passes for 42 yards. "Everybody is sick of losing."
The Cougars turned in a solid all-around effort, holding the Pirates to 200 total yards. Troth and starting quarterback Desmond Robinson combined to complete 10 of 27 passes with three interceptions, drawing some boos from the crowd of 33,250 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Kolb, a true freshman, completed 18 of 27 passes for 263 yards. Perhaps more importantly, Kolb -- who has thrown just one interception this season -- avoided making drive-killing mistakes.
The Pirates had struggled all season in just about every area, being outscored 160-29 and committing 16 turnovers in four games. The Pirates had committed five turnovers in each of the last three games.
They continued that trend Tuesday, with Robinson throwing two first-half interceptions before being pulled for Troth. The Cougars scored a touchdown and field goal on the ensuing possessions, helping them to a 20-10 halftime lead.
That deficit proved too much to overcome.
"This team is plagued with a lot of mistakes," first-year Pirates coach John Thompson said. "We keep making the same mistakes over and over. We work, we go, but we're not getting it done."
The Pirates clawed to within seven on a Cameron Broadwell field goal early in the fourth quarter, but the Cougars sealed it with Evans' big scoring run down the right sideline. It was the second big scoring play for the Cougars, who got a 65-yard scoring pass from Kolb to Middleton in the second quarter.
Middleton finished with five catches for 135 yards.
"I'm glad we have the big-play capability," Briles said. "It's hard to have sustained long drives. But we were able to do that some, too. It was a good win in a tough environment."
The Pirates scored on their opening drive, ending a 12-play drive with a 26-yard field goal from Broadwell for a 3-0 lead. It was the first time the Pirates had scored in the first quarter all season.
The Cougars came up empty on the next drive when Dustin Bell missed a 42-yard field goal. But the Pirates couldn't take advantage, as Gulley intercepted a Robinson pass to set up Houston's first scoring drive late in the first quarter.
Kolb got the Cougars on the board when he found Middleton, who outjumped Donald Whitehead in the end zone, for a 30-yard pass and a 7-3 lead.
The Pirates answered with a 63-yard touchdown drive, ending with Robinson's 1-yard keeper for a 10-7 lead with 12:20 left before halftime.
But the Cougars needed just 10 seconds to retake the momentum. On the first play, Kolb found Middleton over the middle for the 65-yard TD pass and a 14-10 lead.
Robinson's second interception led to a 21-yard field goal from Bell, who added a 22-yarder as the half ended for a 10-point lead at the break.