Houston Cougars head coach Dana Holgorsen celebrates with him team following its comeback victory over the Memphis Tigers on Oct. 7, at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium. (Courtesy Houston Athletics)
The Houston Cougars football team, led by head coach Dana Holgorsen, was on life support at the beginning of the fourth quarter against the Memphis Tigers.
Houston was on the verge of losing to Memphis, and quite possibly the 2022 season, when the Cougars did the implausible. They outscored the Tigers 26-12 in the fourth quarter en route to a shocking 33-32 victory.
“Now we can go into that bye week with some momentum,” Holgorsen said. “We’re 1-1 in conference, and we are alive.”
With 14:50 left in the fourth quarter of the game, it seemed like Memphis had put the final nail in the coffin against Houston. Quarterback Seth Henigan threw a lateral pass to receiver Gabriel Rogers, who scanned the field and was forced to run to his right.
Rogers then let loose a deep ball toward running back Asa Martin in the end zone. Martin had gotten behind Houston defensive back Hasaan Hypolite. The receiver connected with his running back for a 41-yard touchdown.
What followed was a testament to Houston’s mental fortitude. The Cougars drove down the field with big plays by receiver Samuel Brown, who took a pass up the middle by quarterback Clayton Tune and turned it into a 32-yard gain.
Running back Stacy Sneed also ran for 14 yards, and the drive ended with a six-yard touchdown catch by receiver Nathaniel ‘Tank’ Dell, his sixth of the season. The deficit was down to 26-13 after the Cougars failed to convert on a two-point conversion.
Then came the Houston defense. After allowing Memphis to convert on a third-and-8, Henigan was once again able to connect with Rogers. This time it was not for a trick play. It was on a 25-yard catch that moved Memphis to UH’s 15-yard line. However, Houston’s defense stiffened up and held Memphis to a 26-yard field goal that made it 29-13 with exactly eight minutes left.
Then came the kickoff. Back to receive it for Houston was defensive back Jayce Rogers, who was only serving as the returner because receiver Matthew Golden went out with a back injury, Holgorsen said postgame. It was his first time returning a kick all season long, he added.
Rogers took the kick from his own end zone and burst through the Tigers’ defense, which resulted in a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown. That score made it 29-19 with 7:47 left in the game. Houston failed to convert on the two-point conversion again. After the play was over, Rogers got to Houston’s sideline and found Holgorsen.
“‘I told you so. You believe in me now?’” Rogers proclaimed to the head coach, Holgorsen said.
“’Yeah, you’re right,’” Holgorsen responded to him. “’It’s my bad. I should have had you back there before.’ Jayce is a good kid. Competitor, one of the fiercest competitors that we got.”
After another eight-play drive by Memphis, the Tigers were able to add three more points off a field goal. That made it 32-19. On Houston’s next drive, the Cougars found themselves on two must-have fourth downs. On a fourth-and-11, Tune found a way to avoid several Memphis defenders that could have sacked him or stopped him short of the first down as he galloped and rushed for 15 yards to move the chains.
On a fourth-and-7, Tune once again navigated through Memphis defenders, this time to buy time as he made a play with his arm. He connected with Dell for a 13-yard pass that moved the sticks. A play later, Tune found receiver Kesean Carter for the touchdown. It was now a 32-26 Memphis lead with 1:17 left in the game. Houston had only one timeout.
“Just when you think you can’t get any crazier right?” Holgorsen said.
Houston went for the onside kick. After failing to convert one earlier in the quarter, the Cougars went with kicker Kyle Ramsey, who had the golden touch with his leg. The ball rolled and bounced at the perfect moment, which allowed tight end Christian Trahan to recover it.
Now with 1:14 left in the game, Houston found itself at midfield with the ball. Tune hit Brown for a gain of 21. Then he found Carter for 15. Then he found Brown again for 13. On second-and-goal, Tune found Carter open at the right side of the end zone for the touchdown. A Ramsey extra point made it a 33-32 Houston lead.
The icing on the cake came from Houston defensive lineman Atlias Bell, who sacked Henigan on the final play of the game to end any hope Memphis had at a last-second win. After struggling to close out games against Texas Tech and Tulane, Bell’s sack ensured no late-game miracles came from the Memphis offense.
“Man, I don’t know what to say,” Holgorsen said. “I am just so proud of our guys. Our coaches and players. I’ve never been around a group that is (as) resilient.”
A much-needed win
Holgorsen did not sugarcoat it. Houston was in desperate need of a win. There was not a bigger indication to how important the win was than the ESPN broadcast cutting to Holgorsen and defensive coordinator Doug Belk embracing in joy after the victory.
Following a conference game opening loss to Tulane and a sub .500 record brought a lot of unpleasant noise, Holgorsen said. Had the Cougars lost, they would have been left scrambling for answers.
“This thing was going to go one way or another after this game,” Holgorsen said. “This week was about to be challenging. Sitting at 2-4, regardless of what the score was, or whatever, it was going to be challenging. There is no doubt about it. We were going to have to reassess a lot of things.”
For now, Houston can take a break from the fire. The bye week could not have come at a better time, Holgorsen said. After six games, five of which came down to the final possession of the game, the team is exhausted; coaches are exhausted, Holgorsen said. There are even more starting players that could have season-ending injuries, he added.
While Houston pulled out a victory from the jaws of defeat, there is still a lot left to be evaluated, the head coach said postgame. Heading into the matchup, Holgorsen said there were going to be philosophical changes to how they did things on offense and defense.
The Cougars planned on throwing the ball more, taking more shots and being more aggressive overall in play calling, scheme and encouraging players to take chances, Holgorsen said. Now Houston can evaluate at the bye week with some momentum, he added.
“It obviously feels very good to be on this side of it,” Holgorsen said.