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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Football

In Cincinnati’s success, Dana Holgorsen sees blueprint for UH football’s future


Dana Holgorsen paces along the UH sideling during Saturday's AAC Championship Game at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

Dana Holgorsen paces along the UH sideling during Saturday’s AAC Championship Game at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

CINCINNATI — Students filed in hours before kickoff. They taunted Houston players during pregame warmups. When kickoff arrived, the sea of black at Nippert Stadium was deafening — and it lasted until well after the clock hit triple zeros in the fourth quarter.

Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder, who has been with the program since 2017, said he’s never experienced an atmosphere quite like Saturday night during his career as a Bearcats.

“Yeah I would say so,” Ridder said when asked if that was the best atmosphere he’s experienced at Nippert Stadium. “That was pretty rowdy and I’m going to miss it for sure.”

The game day atmosphere and sustained success that Luke Fickell has built Cincinnati, which won its 27th consecutive home game on Saturday to win the American Athletic Conference title and is set to become the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff, is the blueprint of what Dana Holgorsen wants to build at UH. And he believes the Cougars got a step closer to accomplishing that goal in 2021.

“What I look at out there is what I want our team to look like and our stadium to look like next year,” Holgorsen said after the game. “And I think we can get that done. I think we can accomplish that.”

Holgorsen knew going into a hostile environment with a conference championship on the line would be the toughest challenge his team would have to face since he took over at UH.

“(Cincinnati) hasn’t lost (at Nippert Stadium) since 2017,” Holgorsen said. “That’s four years.”

The Cougars hung with the Bearcats in the first half, trailing by just a single point heading into halftime.

While the first half was all UH could have hoped for, everything unraveled minutes into the third quarter when Marcus Jones was called for pass interference on fourth-and-3.

Instead of getting off the field and swinging the momentum in the Cougars’ direction, Cincinnati received new life and delivered a gut punch that UH would not be able to recover from, scoring 21 points in a span of four minutes, 22 seconds.

Despite all this, the Cougars never threw in the towel and Holgorsen was proud of his team’s fight.

“They haven’t lost there in four years and we took them toe-to-toe for as long as we could and kept fighting until the end,” Holgorsen said. “I’m just very proud of our team and I think we’re on track to seeing the same thing in Houston next year.”

While the disappointment on the UH players’ faces after the game was evident, they agree with Holgorsen that the program is headed in the right direction.

They believe that the 2021 season as a whole was just the stepping stone of what is to come for the program.

Jones, who will be on an NFL roster come next year, believes playing in a game like this is monumental for the younger guys on the team and will pay dividends down the road when UH plays in other big-time games.

“It was definitely one of those situations where the younger guys get to see what this atmosphere is about,” Jones said. “You get to see Cincinnati, a great environment with the fans and everything, you get to see how the game flows. So that’s good for the younger guys to see that.”

While the sting of defeat will stay with the Cougars for a while, linebacker Derek Parish hopes that experiencing what it is like to lose a conference championship game will motivate the team even more.

Parish, who could return to UH in 2022 if he chooses to, never wants to experience what he felt after the game again and is confident the rest of his teammates feel the same way and will do everything it takes to make sure a loss like Saturday night’s does not happen again.

“I’m not going to get on a soapbox but it hurts,” Parish said. “Losing sucks. You never want to experience this but maybe it builds a fire.”

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