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Inside UH football’s shocking comeback against Memphis

Jayce Rogers 100-yard kickoff return touchdown was the exact spark UH football needed to turn the tides in the fourth quarter against Memphis on Friday night. | Courtesy of UH athletics

Jayce Rogers 100-yard kickoff return touchdown was the exact spark UH football needed to turn the tides in the fourth quarter against Memphis on Friday night. | Courtesy of UH athletics

Improbable would be understating UH’s football’s chances to beat Memphis considering the score in the fourth quarter. With just 3 minutes, 30 seconds left, ESPN’s win probability gave the Cougars a .01 percent chance of coming out of Memphis with the victory.

It appeared as if UH’s chances of even competing in the American Athletic Conference championship game, a league the Cougars were picked to win entering the season, were about to be squashed.

“Next week was about to be challenging,” said UH head coach Dana Holgorsen.

Then came the Cougars’ saving grace — a game-changing special teams play.

Just as Marcus Jones provided so many sparks in the kickoff and punt return game that were integral to UH’s 12-2 2021 season, a special teams play on Friday night in Memphis saved the Cougars’ current season from spiraling out of control.

The Tigers had just kicked a field goal to go up 16 with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter when senior nickel back Jayce Rogers set up in the end zone to return the ensuing kickoff.

Rogers, who had not been on UH’s kickoff return team all season, was back there only because freshman receiver and return specialist Matthew Golden had suffered a back injury earlier in the game.

The opportunity had finally arrived for Rogers, who had been wanting a chance to be involved in the Cougars’ kickoff return game. 

He seized the opportunity as soon as the ball was kicked into his hands as 13 seconds and 100 yards later he was standing in the opposite end zone holding his finger to his helmet, telling the Memphis crowd to be silent.

“He came to the sidelines and said ‘I told you so. Do you believe in me now?’” Holgorsen said “Jayce is a good competitor, one of the fiercest competitors that we got. For him to spark us right there, good for him man.”

From that moment, the tides turned as the Cougars made big play after big play when it mattered most, something they had failed to do in earlier games this season.

Down 13 with under four minutes to go, UH faced a fourth-and-11 deep in its own territory. Clayton Tune looked like he was about to be sacked, which would have certainly sealed a Memphis victory. Somehow, the senior quarterback eluded the sack and picked up 15 yards for the first down, keeping UH’s hopes, though still slim, alive.

“(Tune) had a chance to shut things down there and he didn’t,” Holgorsen said.

Later in the drive, the Cougars faced another fourth down.

Once again, Tune extended the play with his legs before connecting with his favorite target, junior receiver Nathaniel Dell, for the first down. UH scored a touchdown on the next play to cut the deficit to six.

Then, special teams came up huge again — this time off the foot of sophomore kicker Kyle Ramsey.

Ramsey couldn’t have asked for a better bounce on his onside kick, which went right into the hands of senior tight end Christian Trahan, giving the Cougars a chance to win the game with 1 minute, 17 seconds left on the clock.

Six plays later, Tune connected with senior receiver KeSean Carter from 2 yards out, the duo’s second touchdown connection in a span of 1 minute, 1 second. A Ramsey extra point put the Cougars up 33-32 with 18 seconds remaining.

After crumbling in the closing seconds of the fourth against UTSA, Texas Tech and Tulane, the UH defense stepped up to the task against Memphis.

With the ball at the Memphis 42 with 11 seconds on the clock, senior defensive end Atlias Bell sacked Tigers quarterback Seth Henigan, sealing the fifth-largest comeback in UH football history.

“It’s what we’ve done all year,” Holgorsen told ESPN after the game. “It’s just the ball bounced our way today.”

Instead of going into the bye week at 2-4 with the season down the drain, the Cougars now have life. 

While the second half of the season will still be an uphill battle, UH’s hopes of getting to the AAC title game and winning it are still alive thanks to pulling off the unlikeliest of comebacks on Friday night.

“Now we can go into that bye week with some momentum,” Holgorsen said. “We’re 1-1 in the conference. We’re alive. Hopefully, we can continue to build on this.”

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