Houston’s offensive explosion falls short in 34-31 loss to SMU
On a rainy night at TDECU Stadium that saw the Cougars nearly complete a comeback against the 16th-best team in the nation, Houston dropped its matchup against in-state rival SMU 34-31.
UH, who went into the game after its first American Athletic Conference win with a 24-17 decision over UConn, dropped to 3-5 overall and 1-3 in conference.
Although SMU was favored going into the night, Houston went neck-and-neck with one of the few remaining undefeated teams in the nation.
Thrice the Cougars were within a score of one of the hottest offenses in the nation.
SMU, who went into the game ranked No. 7 nationally in yards per game with 521.1, allowed 510 total yards for Houston.
“We didn’t muster up enough points on offense,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said following the game. “I knew that was going to be a little bit of a challenge with what we’re dealing with.”
Sophomore quarterback Clayton Tune, in his first game back from a hamstring injury that has nagged at him since the Cougars’ 46-25 win over North Texas and held him back from UH’s 24-17 victory against UConn, completed 18 of 35 passes.
Led by Tune, UH found the end zone twice, both to junior wide receiver Marquez Stevenson.
His first score of the night came early in the third quarter. With junior wide receiver Marquez Stevenson in stride, Tune connected for a 75-yard touchdown pass that put UH within eight points of the Mustangs.
In the fourth-longest play in the Cougars’ history, Tune again hit Stevenson for a long touchdown pass, this time for 96 yards late in the fourth quarter.
“Once I got the ball in my hands,” Stevenson said, “I just scored the ball.”
Tune finished with 407 yards, a career-high in his second year with the Cougars.
The Cougars’ defense held Mustang senior quarterback Shane Buechele to 203 yards in the air and sacked him twice.
On the rush, senior running back Mulbah Car, third in Houston’s depth chart heading into the game, led the Cougars.
Car, the fifth Houston rusher to rush for at least 100 yards in 2019, finished the night with 141 yards, a season-high.
“They got me ready,” Car said. “They got all of us ready.”
The Austin native’s longest run of the game came in the first play of the second quarter, a 44-yard rush up the middle.
Houston scored the next play after sophomore Bryson Smith, playing quarterback in wildcat formation, found the end zone on a 1-yard keeper.
Because of Car, Tune said, Houston’s offense was able to perform at a higher level.
“He’s a great running back,” Tune said. “It’s awesome to have a running back that can do that and open up the passing game.”
Courtney Lark also played well in the Cougars’ loss.
The senior wide receiver, who had just two receptions heading into the matchup, caught a season-high five passes on five targets, three of which converted for first downs.
Kicker Dalton Witherspoon also had a season-high, booting three field goals for Houston that tied the junior’s totals against Prairie View A&M and Tulane.
The breakout on defense was sophomore safety Amaud Willis-Dalton, who recorded his first career interception amid some shuffling around on defense due to injury.
“It felt really great,” Willis-Dalton said. “I’d love to have been on the other side of the win, but we have to keep grinding and keep pushing forward.”
Special teams shine
Witherspoon’s effort aided in an already well-performing special teams squad.
Along with the Oklahoman’s three field goals, senior punter Dane Roy helped the Cougars with five punts, averaging 46.4 yards.
Roy recently had a career game against Cincinnati, where he averaged a career-high 54 yards.
The special teams’ shining moment came during the third quarter after sophomore linebacker Donovan Mutin took a direct snap on a fake punt 12 yards for a Houston first down.
“That’s been available all year,” Holgorsen said. “We made the adjustment at halftime, and I gave them the greenlight to go ahead and do it.”
Holgorsen laments, however, that the Cougars were not able to make anything out of the trick play’s aftermath.
“Yeah, that was fun to watch,” Holgorsen said, “but when you don’t go out there and capitalize on it, then you’re not going to win.”
With the loss, UH dropped to 3-5 heading into its away game against UCF, 2018’s American Athletic Conference champion.
The Knights, 5-2 and second in the American East behind the Cincinnati Bearcats, are coming off a 41-28 win over ECU in Week 8, take on Temple on Saturday on the road.
Willis-Dalton, who believes the defense has steadily improved through eight games, is prepared to take on the Knights on Nov. 2.
“It’s a very, very good UCF team we play next,” Willis-Dalton said. “We’re just going to keep practicing hard and listen to our coaches to get better and make improvements.”