Besides those within the walls of the Houston locker room, the 2021 Cougars football team had been heavily doubted, as general consensus that another year full of losing was in store in the program’s third year under head coach Dana Holgorsen.
After allowing 31 unanswered second-half points in a season-opening loss to Texas Tech, these outside voices criticizing Houston reached an all time high with many calling for a complete change within the program from the head coach to finding a new starting quarterback.
But one player-led meeting after the first practice following the season-opening loss changed the course of the season.
UH began to string together win after win until the streak reached 11 games.
Even through the success, UH players still felt like they were being overlooked and not getting the respect they felt they deserved week after week.
Linebacker Donavan Mutin, a team captain and the vocal leader of the defense, expected more of the same as the Cougars headed to Birmingham, Alabama to take on an SEC staple in Auburn.
“People doubt us in the conference. We’re going to play big boy football (against ) a big-time SEC (opponent), we can just imagine what people are thinking we’re going to do,” Mutin said during the week leading up to the game. “Like I said earlier in the year, it stays true, it rings true still. We don’t worry about that. You take care of the pennies, the dollars take care of themselves.”
Yet as they have done all season, UH drowned out the outside noise and let their play on the field speak for itself Tuesday afternoon.
The Cougars’ defense held its ground like it has done all season, causing problems for the Auburn offense all afternoon even without cornerback Marcus Jones and defensive end Logan Hall.
Quarterback Clayton Tune made plays when he needed both through the air and with his legs.
Tank Dell came up with big catch after big catch, racking up 150 yards on 10 receptions.
Walk-on senior receiver Jake Herslow hauled in the game-winning touchdown pass, adding another chapter what Holgorsen called “one of the best stories in college football.”
“We compete and we’re hard to play against and we’re hard to beat based on being able to be consistent like that for 14 weeks,” Holgorsen said after the game.
The 17-13 Birmingham Bowl victory was the icing on the cake for Tune, who carried the sour taste of the 2020 season in his mouth all year.
“This was kind of the revenge tour to come out and have the season that we had and finish with a bowl win,” Tune said.
With the win, the 2021 UH football team cemented its legacy in historic territory, joining the 2011 and 2015 teams as only the third team in program history to win 12-plus games.
“Winning this game solidified this 2021 football team at the University of Houston as a great football team,” Holgorsen said. “There’s only been a couple teams (in UH history) that have won more than 12 games, won more than 11 games and this is one of them. I’m very proud of this team.”
While the 2021 season was the turnaround the UH football program needed, Holgorsen and those within the program believe this is just the stepping stone for better things to come for Cougars in the years that follow.
Holgorsen noted how Cincinnati’s has gone 22-1 since its Birmingham Bowl victory two years ago and the Houston head coach believes his team is capable of doing the same thing after a victory which he described as being a propellor into 2022.
“We’re on track to do something special,” Holgorsen said.