Houston Cougars receiver Nathaniel Dell celebrates for the Cougars during the 2021 American Athletic Conference championship game. (Courtesy Sean Thomas)
For Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen, the Cougars’ season opener against UTSA was a tough challenge but one that proved his team is at a point where it is ready to compete at a high level.
With the Roadrunners holding a 14-point cushion towards the end of the third quarter, it seemed like all the momentum was in UTSA’s favor when the Cougars got a break on a failed fourth down rush by running back Stacy Sneed that would have been a turnover on downs in UH territory had the play held up.
Instead, an illegal substitution penalty granted No. 24 UH five yards, and more importantly, an arguably game-saving first down. Following the penalty, Holgorsen reiterated to his team they needed to take advantage of it.
“We just got a break there; we need to capitalize on it,” Holgorsen said.
The Cougars went on to score 17 unanswered points against the Roadrunners. After a 23-second UTSA drive that forced the game into three overtime periods, UH ultimately prevailed behind the heroics of quarterback Clayton Tune, who scored the final go-ahead score in 3OT.
Despite the win, Houston’s performance was far from perfect, Holgorsen acknowledged after the game. From dropped passes by receivers to penalties and sacks given up by the UH offensive line and missed tackles and sacks on defense, Holgorsen is raring to watch the film of the first game and coach his players up.
Holgorsen attributed a lot of the errors to first-game jitters, but he knows for the Cougars to reach the goals they have set forth, they need to be much cleaner in those areas going forward.
“Nothing that happened surprised me,” Holgorsen said. “I knew it was going to be a tough game, and I knew we were going to have to fight hard. There was going to be first game mistakes, and we were playing a good opponent.”
What Holgorsen said he was excited about from his team was the resiliency of his players. He recalled a game during the 2020 season when Houston was hosting ranked BYU at TDECU Stadium.
Entering the fourth quarter of that game, UH led 26-21, but BYU had managed to turn the momentum in its favor. Holgorsen said two seasons ago when he told his players the game was far from over, he could see in their eyes that they were not in a spot mentally to overcome BYU’s run. BYU outscored Houston 22-0 in the fourth quarter of that game to seal the win.
Fast forward to 2022, and Holgorsen found himself in a position where the roles were reversed. His team was down 14 entering the fourth quarter, and Holgorsen once again found himself telling his team the game was far from over. This time, he could tell his team believed it.
“This program is at a different place now, and they had that look in their eye, which is what I wanted to see,” Holgorsen said.
Houston’s attention now turns to future Big 12 rival Texas Tech, an opponent that has had UH’s number in the last few head-to-head matchups. While the Cougars will look to have a cleaner outing against the Red Raiders, Holgorsen is proud his team was able to battle through adversity to enter that matchup 1-0.
“Credit our team for hanging in there and not panicking when we were down and just fighting until the end,” Holgorsen said.