David Piland was at home watching on television as his University of Houston teammates played UCLA at the Rose Bowl two years ago.
A true freshman, he was expected to redshirt that season, and learn in practice from watching record-setting Cougars quarterback Case Keenum.
But just a few minutes after the game ended, Piland’s cellphone started convulsing.
“Coaches were texting me and calling, saying, ‘We need you here tomorrow,’ ” Piland recalled in a phone interview Tuesday. “It was a pretty chaotic situation.”
Keenum had been injured as had his backup, Cotton Turner. The Cougars needed every other quarterback available.
So Piland ditched those redshirt plans and ended up starting his first college game just two weeks later. And by the end of the season he had passed for 2,641 yards and 24 touchdowns in earning honorable mention as a freshman All-American.
All of which earned him prime seating as a spectator last season after Keenum was granted a medical redshirt and sixth year of college eligibility.
Only now that Keenum has finally moved on — he’s on the practice squad of the NFL’s Houston Texans — has Piland taken over for good. He will get his own shot against UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
Houston comes into the game 0-2, but Piland said, “I feel like we’re close to being in these games. We’re moving in the right direction.”
The Cougars lost their opener to Texas State, 30-13. And that’s the Texas State that became a Division I football program a year ago, not the fictional Texas State football power house from the film “Unnecessary Roughness.”
Houston offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt quit two days after that loss, but Piland and the Cougars offense didn’t miss a beat in a 56-49 loss to Louisiana Tech last week.
Piland, a 6-foot-3, 192-pound sophomore, passed for 580 yards and four touchdowns in that game, completing 53 of 77 passes — a record for most passes in a college game without an interception. “We had to move on,” he said.
Adapting on the fly seems to be one of Piland’s specialties.
Houston was building toward a big season in 2010, his first year in college. The Cougars were ranked No. 23 when they met the Bruins in Pasadena. But they left battered and bruised.
Keenum, a Heisman Trophy candidate, sustained a serious knee injury. Second-stringer Turner suffered a broken collarbone. Both were lost for the season.
Terrance Broadway mopped up in a 31-13 loss, but soon Piland was put in charge.
“You don’t have much time to absorb something like that,” Piland said. “It’s a crash course, like cramming for a final every week.”
The Cougars, who had dreams of a Bowl Championship Series bowl invitation, finished with a record of 5-7. Piland, though, showed his potential. He threw for 301 yards in his first start, against Mississippi State, and averaged 330 yards passing per game the rest of the season.
Last season, with Keenum back, the Cougars finished with a 13-1 record, including a 38-34 victory over UCLA in the season opener.
“Last year was one of the most fun seasons ever, and I didn’t even play,” Piland said. “Working with Case, knowing I’d get another chance, made it fun. I learned from one of the best.”
The team Piland now leads is one in transition. Coach Kevin Sumlin left for Texas A&M; and many of the Cougars’ best players also moved on.
Houston’s receiving corps is a prime example. There are two freshmen and a sophomore among the top five.
“None of our receivers were starters last year,” Piland said. “I try to tell them, ‘Keep your cool and be the playmaker that you are.’
“I know how easy it is to get flustered.”