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Houston • Case Keenum, who hasn't played in a meaningful game since he was in college back in January 2012, will start at quarterback for the Houston Texans this Sunday in one of the tougher environments in the NFL.
Keenum will make his first appearance in a regular-season game against the rugged defense of the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, where the fans just set a Guinness record as the noisiest outdoor stadium in the world.
So be it: Keenum will start for Matt Schaub, who is out dealing with injuries to his right ankle and foot, and will try to help the Houston Texans snap a four-game losing streak.
"We're struggling, and we're looking for a spark," coach Gary Kubiak said. "I think he deserves an opportunity to go out there. It's a tough place to play. It's a tough place to get your first start and all that good stuff. But I'm not sending him out there by himself. I'm sending him out there with his football team and the guys understand that."
Keenum was a record-setting quarterback at the University of Houston before spending last season on the practice squad. The undrafted free agent has played in several preseason games, but hasn't played in a game that counted since leading the Cougars to a 30-14 win over Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl on Jan. 2, 2012.
Keenum said he prepares for practice and preseason games the same way he got ready for games in his college career, so nothing will change for him this week.
"It means just as much to me every rep I take, but obviously the games are definitely different," he said. "I guess I can officially say this is the best NFL defense I've ever played, so this is going to be a big test."
The Texans (2-4) have been hurt by penalties, turnovers and other mistakes during their skid. Kubiak chose to go with Keenum over backup T.J. Yates, who led Houston to its first playoff win two years ago when Schaub was hurt. He struggled Sunday after Schaub was injured, throwing two interceptions, the first of which was returned for a touchdown.
Now they'll look to Keenum to help them get back on track. He isn't daunted by the challenge and is used to being the underdog. He said that people have doubted him his entire life.
"I've had a lot of people tell me I can't do a lot of things. I'm too short or this or that, but you can't believe a lot of that stuff," said the 6-foot-1 Keenum. "You just have to be given an opportunity and you have to be ready when you get that opportunity."
Keenum joked about his height several times on Thursday, but the best quip came when he was asked if it's difficult to see over the much taller defensive linemen in the NFL.
"It's different, but my receivers are taller so I can see them and they're faster," he said. "I've tried to grow, but I think I'm done."
In college, Keenum tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the third game of the 2010 season. Houston appealed for a medical redshirt and Keenum was granted one more season to take aim at the NCAA's career passing records with the team's ultra-quick offense. He led the Cougars to a 12-0 start in 2011 before a loss in the Conference USA championship game. He left Houston as the NCAA's all-time leader in career total yards (20,114), yards passing (19,217), passing touchdowns (155) and total touchdowns (178).
Now he'll face a defense which is allowing a NFL-best 10.8 points a game, leads the league with 30 sacks and has forced 12 more turnovers this season than their opponents, which also tops the league.
"We just want him to go out there and react," Kubiak said. "That's the reason he's on this team because of what he's capable of doing when he gets in those situations. He'll get ready to do his part and everybody needs to do theirs."
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, who coached Keenum at the University of Houston, said he Keenum will be "extremely prepared" and that he expects him to play well on Sunday.
Keenum's teammates also expressed confidence in him on Thursday. Receiver Andre Johnson raved about the quarterback.
"Case just has sort of like an aura about him," Johnson said. "When he's out there, he's real excited, having fun."