Houston Cougars quarterback Clayton Tune during warmups of the team's game against Temple on Nov. 12 at TDECU Stadium. (Courtesy Houston Athletics)

Houston Cougars quarterback Clayton Tune during warmups of the team's game against Temple on Nov. 12 at TDECU Stadium. (Courtesy Houston Athletics)

Houston Cougars football survives Temple rally as Tune stays hot, qualifies for bowl game

The Houston Cougars football team orchestrated a final go-ahead drive against Temple to defeat the Owls on Saturday 43-36.

The victory was the sixth of the season for Houston (6-4, 4-2 American Athletic), which makes the Cougars bowl eligible for the third straight year.

“That’s a big milestone this season to us to become bowl eligible,” said Houston defensive back Thabo Mwaniki. “That’s another opportunity for us to compete with the team and my brothers, so that’s great. We appreciate that.”

Houston overcame another shaky defensive performance. Temple quarterback E.J. Warner threw for 486 passing yards against the UH defense, which was coming off the heels of giving up 379 yards and nine touchdowns to SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai. Houston also gave up 77 points in that loss.

Warner had managed to lead a go-ahead drive of his own that had been kickstarted by a fumble loss from Houston running back Stacy Sneed. The Owls marched down the field on a 12-play, 73-yard drive that was capped off with a six-yard touchdown catch by receiver Zae Baines. The score put the Cougars down 36-35 with 1:22 left in the fourth quarter.

The stage was set for quarterback Clayton Tune and the rest of the UH offense to become the heroes of the game, and that is exactly what they did. The drive started with a 12-yard completion to receiver Samuel Brown, and a couple of plays later, Tune hit receiver Matthew Golden for a gain of 12.

Houston got the home run play a couple of plays later when Tune found a streaking Golden up the middle of the field for the 44-yard touchdown. The play itself had a post route with a corner route underneath it, Tune said after the game.

When the play went live, one Temple safety was too far to the left side of the field, and the boundary safety was not deep enough, which allowed Golden to get behind him and gave Tune the opportunity to air out the pass for his receiver, the quarterback said.

Tune, overall, continued his strong play. He threw for 289 yards and three touchdowns on the afternoon. He also added one rushing touchdown. He did have one interception on another deep ball to receiver KeSean Carter. What should have been a touchdown instead ricocheted off his body and into the hands of Temple defensive back Muheem McCargo.

Since the fourth quarter of Houston’s game against Memphis, Tune has been sensational, slinging the ball and making plays all over the field both with his arm and legs. Tune has gotten more comfortable throughout his time with UH at moving around the pocket and making plays through the air.

“I feel like early on in my career, there were times where at any sight of pressure, I’d be quick to get out and run,” Tune said. “I’m confident in my ability to run the ball, so I always kind of leaned on that.

“But, I realized that, like I said earlier, we have playmakers all over the field that can do a lot better things with the ball in their hands than I can, so my job is to maneuver the pocket, and I’ll have to make guys miss every now and then, but ultimately, it’s to get those guys the ball.”

With only two games left in the regular season and the chances of making the AAC Championship game slim, with Tulane, Central Florida, and Cincinnati all sitting at 5-1 in the conference, Houston’s bowl eligibility is a bit of a bittersweet milestone.

The team entered the season as favorites to win the AAC, and some national pundits had Houston as the Group of Five school to play in a New Year’s Six Bowl Game. Several players on the team said their goal for this season was to win the AAC Championship, something they came just short of a season ago.

When asked if qualifying for a bowl game meant as much after the struggles throughout the season with those expectations after the win against Temple, head coach Dana Holgorsen said he is proud of his team for fighting.

“You talking about preseason expectations that we don’t put on ourselves and that other people do?” Holgorsen said. “I mean, every season is different. Every team is different. I’m proud of the fact that our team just fights and plays, and we won. We will celebrate that.”

Tune echoed the comments of Mwaniki about being proud to qualify for a bowl game, but he also acknowledged the team’s high expectations heading into the season.

“Definitely proud to say we’ve won enough games to be bowl eligible, but … our goals before the season were pretty high, and I feel like maybe we’ve fallen short on a couple of those goals,” Tune said.

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