Houston was kept out of the Conference USA championship game last season by rival Rice.

With trip to the league title game on the line again, the 25th-ranked Cougars put away the Owls early and in record-breaking fashion.

Case Keenum led Houston to a school-record-tying 59 first-half points and the Cougars went on to score more points than any major college team this season in a 73-14 rout Saturday night.

Keenum threw for 323 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score in the first half to lead the Cougars to the C-USA West division title and a game at East Carolina next Saturday.

Tyron Carrier returned the opening kickoff 99 yards and Keenum and many of Houston's other starters didn't play after the break.

"We had that bitter taste in our mouth this whole year," Carrier said of last year's 56-42 loss to Rice. "So it was real important for us to come out and start early and I put it upon myself to set the tone for the rest of the game."

Charles Sims added a pair of scores for Houston (10-2, 6-2) and Carrier scored on a 37-yard run in the second quarter to break a two-game winning streak for Rice (2-10, 2-6).

Houston scored on each of its seven possessions in the first half. The Cougars' 59 first-half points eclipsed their previous season-high for points in a game.

"Our team has really played pretty well the last couple of weeks and we need that," Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Any time you're involved in any type of championship run, you've got to continue to get better."

Houston's 1989 team, including Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware, which previously held the mark for most first-half points was honored at halftime. Those Cougars set the record in a 95-21 defeat of a just-back-from-the-NCAA-death-penalty SMU team.

The Cougars had more touchdowns (eight) than Rice had first downs (five) before halftime and Houston outgained the Owls 465-144 in the first two quarters. The Owls' first-half passing yards (53) were less than Houston's score.

Tyler Smith ran for 113 yards for the Owls and freshman Charles Ross 105 yards rushing and both Rice touchdowns.

The Cougars scoring slowed in the second half with backups playing, but they added a pair of scores with Cotton Turner at quarterback to make it 73-14 early in the fourth. Sumlin put third-stringer Austin Elrod in at quarterback after that and Houston didn't score again.

"We pulled the guys that are critical to our success because the risk of injury at this point in the season is more than the reward of somebody patting you on the back for a stat," Sumlin said.

After Carrier put Houston ahead early, Keenum made it 14-0 with a 1-yard run with about 10 minutes left in the first quarter.

Brandon Brinkley returned the first of three first-half interceptions by the Cougars defense 45 yards for a touchdown to push the lead to 21-0 later in the first quarter. He dashed a few yards before stutter-stepping to avoid a couple of defenders and then bulling in for the touchdown.

"We caught some big breaks there early," Keenum said. "When you score a touchdown in all three phases pretty early like that, it says a lot about how we're playing as a team."

Jamal Robinson had the two other interceptions, one off Nick Fanuzzi and the other from backup Ryan Lewis.

"The hardest thing for me is that I feel like I let a bunch of seniors down," Rice coach David Bailiff said. "They have invested four or five years here at Rice and you do everything you can as a man to let them go out there and win it."

Houston was already ahead 24-0 after a field goal by Matt Hogan when Rice finally got a first down with 2 1/2 minutes left in the first quarter. Fanuzzi found Ross on a short pass that he turned into a 30-yard gain. They couldn't get anything going after that run and had to punt.

"They were ready to go and we weren't," Bailiff said. "So much of football is attitude and we got on our heels and never recovered."

Fanuzzi was 16 of 30 for 132 yards and with two interceptions.

Ross had a 48-yard run to get the Owls to the Houston 26 early in the second quarter, but Fanuzzi threw his second interception three plays later to kill that drive.

Keenum extended his streak of consecutive game with a touchdown pass to 28 when he hit Patrick Edwards in the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown pass that made it 38-0 about 11 minutes before halftime. Keenum also threw a 5-yard touchdown to L.J. Castile that made it 59-0 just before halftime.

Turner threw for 112 yards and a touchdown after replacing Keenum before he was relieved by Elrod.