Back and forth contest provides perfect Bayou Bucket sendoff

Head coach Tony Levine is 2-0 against Rice in the Bayou Bucket. | Justin Tijerina/The Daily Cougar

Head coach Tony Levine is 2-0 against Rice in the Bayou Bucket. | Justin Tijerina/The Daily Cougar

On the way to his 17-minute postgame press conference, head coach Tony Levine saw his friend and mentor, Rice head coach David Bailiff, who paused, shook Levine’s hand and muttered three words to his 60-minute adversary: “What a game.”

Despite the emotions and buildup to what could be the final Bayou Bucket for many years, the game exceeded expectations. In a contest filled with momentum changes, the Cougars escaped Reliant Stadium on Saturday with a 31-26 victory that got close in the waning minutes.

“When you don’t win, it hurts,” Bailiff said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in the same conference or not.”

The two coaches worked together at Southwest Texas (now Texas State) before taking different paths, becoming opposing head coaches of Houston’s two major universities.

“Coach Levine takes this game very personally,” said sophomore receiver Deontay Greenberry. “We went out there and had to get a win for him. It’s the Bayou Bucket.”

For the Cougars, it was their third consecutive victory in the rivalry, but not one that came easily. The Owls recovered an onside kick with 2:19 remaining when a touchdown would have given them the lead.

It seemed as if the Cougars would cruise to an easy win until Rice senior quarterback Taylor McHargue led a 65-yard touchdown drive with 10:52 remaining.

The Cougars led 31-13 and had just scored touchdowns on consecutive possessions. The defense held Rice scoreless for 10 straight possessions and was getting consistent pressure on the quarterback.

Then McHargue capped off a drive with a 1-yard touchdown. On the ensuing possession, Rice blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown to narrow UH’s lead to 31-26. After Rice recovered an onside kick, a UH defensive stand sealed the game.

Rice struck first, though, with a 79-yard touchdown drive that was punctuated with a 57-yard touchdown reception by Turner Peterson, but UH immediately responded with a touchdown drive of its own.

Rice seemed to have control of the game with less than a minute remaining before halftime and a 13-7 lead.

Then, a missed field goal by Rice kicker and Lou Groza Award contender Chris Boswell shifted the momentum.

Freshman John O’Korn took the Cougars 62 yards in 46 seconds, allowing his team to grab a 14-13 lead heading into halftime and spurring 24 consecutive points by the Cougars.

Immediately following the game, despite its heavy momentum shifts, Levine had moved on to the next game — something UH fans may have to do from the entire rivalry. After UH joined the American Athletic Conference, the two cross-town rivals won’t play each other until a non-conference agreement is reached between the two schools.

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

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