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Saturday, December 9, 2023


Cougars survive thriller against Rice

The Cougars escaped their second straight thriller as they held off Rice’s attempted comeback to claim a 31-26 victory Saturday at Reliant Stadium.

The UH defense stepped up in the final minutes to prevent a game-winning drive from the Owls by forcing a turnover on downs. The Cougars have now retained the Bayou Bucket for the third consecutive year.

The Cougars attempted to go up 14 on a 40-yard field-goal attempt by senior kicker Richie Leone. The kick was blocked, recovered by Rice for a 62-yard touchdown return. The two-point conversion attempt by Rice failed and kept the score at 31-26.

“I was certainly weighing the options, and hindsight is 20/20. We kick the field goal we go up by 14,” said head coach Tony Levine said. “At that point, we go up by 14, but you just saw what happened. I contemplated going for it, but I wanted to be up by 14.”

Freshman quarterback John O’Korn threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns during his first collegiate start. | Justin Tijerina/The Daily Cougar

The Owls then managed to recover the onside kick and had one last chance to win the game, only to come up short on a fourth-down play that was close to being completed.

“We were trying to get them to over play to the field and hit him (Receiver Dennis Parks) on the backside. That’s one of those “we were inches away” from being complete,” said Rice head coach Taylor Bailiff.

Freshman quarterback John O’ Korn started his first collegiate game and passed for three touchdowns on 15-33 and threw one interception. He was often fortunate to not have more interceptions, as there were a plethora of balls he threw into tight areas that could have easily been intercepted, including one where he attempted to hit junior receiver Daniel Spencer on a long pass that was overthrown and nearly intercepted with less than four minutes remaining with a two-possession lead.

“Well, he made some freshman mistakes; I made some 40-year old coaching mistakes,” Levine said. “You had a throw at the end of the game where there’s four minutes on the clock, and he throws it right to a Rice safety that should have been intercepted when we’re trying to milk the clock.”

Sophomore receiver Deontay Greenberry eclipsed the 100-yard mark in receiving yards for the second consecutive game, hauling in six balls for 146 yards and a touchdown.

Greenberry has embraced his role playing as an inside receiver, as he already has 26 receptions in three games, compared to his 47 in 12 games last season.

Sophomore Ryan Jackson was forced to carry the load in the backfield without sophomore Kenneth Farrow, who was unable to play due to an ankle injury. Jackson had 145 all-purpose yards, including 88 rushing on 12 carries, and 57 receiving on four catches.

Freshman quarterback Greg Ward entered the game after O’ Korn seemed to get the wind knocked out of him, Levine said.

Levine said he intended to play Ward in the fourth series, similar how he planned to insert O’ Korn at quarterback against Southern and Temple when junior quarterback David Piland was the starter.

The Owls moved the ball with ease in the first half as they put up 303 yards on offense.

The Cougars surrendered a touchdown on their first defensive possession when running back Turne Petersen got open on a wheel route to capture a 57-yard catch-and-run touchdown to take a 6-0 lead with just 12:34 remaining in the first quarter. The Cougars’ defense initially forced a three and out, but a roughing the passer penalty on sophomore safety Trevon Stewart gave the Owls an extra set of downs.

The Cougars would score on their ensuing offensive possession, highlighted by Greenberry’s 38-yard catch-and-run that ended at the Rice 1-yard line. Jackson scored on the ensuing play on a bulging 1-yard touchdown run that gave the Cougars a 7-6 lead midway through the first quarter.

A questionable call came from Rice head coach David Bailiff when he asked his kicker, Chris Boswell, to attempt a 55-yard field goal with 58 second remaining in the first half. The Owls were up 13-10 with momentum, and their defense was playing well enough to limit the Cougars’ high-octane offense for the majority of the first half. Instead, the kick was wide right and gave the Cougar offense a short field to try and score before halftime.

Sitting at the Rice 25-yard line with 11 seconds remaining, Levine chose to keep his offense on the field and forego the field goal attempt. O’ Korn found junior receiver Daniel Spencer on a 25-yard deep post with five seconds remaining in halftime, which gave the Cougars a 17-13 lead.

The Cougars survived in what was the last Bayou Bucket until an undetermined date, but Levine said his team must move on and keep looking ahead, as his Cougars will travel to San Antonio next Saturday to face UTSA on an attempt to go 4-0 for the first time in two seasons.

“Our players will turn their focus on UTSA tomorrow. My focus is really quite honestly there right now,” Levine said. “I’m mentally on to the next one, but I certainly recognize the victory this afternoon and what it means to our program and what it means to the city of Houston.”

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