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UH pushes past UTSA 17-14 in defense-driven season opener

UH football defeated UTSA in its season opener for the second straight season on Saturday with a 17-14 victory at TDECU Stadium. | Anh Le/The Cougar

Dressed in Houston Oiler baby blue, the Houston Cougars began a second straight season in the victory column over UTSA, this time with a 17-14 scoreline at TDECU Stadium.

The opening drives for both offenses fizzled out relatively quickly.

With under nine minutes to go in the first quarter, a monstrous 48-yard punt return by senior cornerback Malik Fleming moved the needle of momentum in UH’s favor.

Set up just outside the red zone, junior quarterback Donovan Smith captained his first scoring drive as Houston’s QB1, ending with an eight-yard touchdown toss to sophomore wide receiver Joseph Manjack IV.

UTSA’s following drive was an impressively orchestrated answer: a nine-play drive capped by a four-yard rush into the endzone to tie the game at 7-7 in the first quarter.

UH took the ball back on its own 25-yard line, opening the new drive with a 47-yard bomb to sophomore wide receiver Samuel Brown. A 13-yard tuck-and-run from Smith led into a deflating 4th & 1 turnover on downs.

The first quarter clock reached zero with the teams tied 7-7.

UH got the ball back in the second quarter, advancing the ball into UTSA territory before stalling around the 35-yard line.  An overthrow nearly ending with an interception and an incompletion down the middle led to a wayward field goal miss from junior kicker Jack Martin.

UTSA failed to capitalize on its starting field position, missing a field goal of its own from 44 yards.

The Cougars made one final effort at entering the half with the lead, driving down the field as the clock winded down. A UTSA sack on Donovan Smith was negated by an unnecessary roughness call on a late hit, setting up a 31-yard field goal to move UH ahead 10-7 entering halftime.

The Roadrunners came out of the half with a newfound ferocity — or so it appeared for a moment.

On a drive propelled by a 44-yard rush from Kevorian Barnes, UTSA made its way near the red zone with relative ease before being stopped dead in its tracks by sophomore linebacker Treylin Payne, who snatched an interception to hand his offense the ball.

UH failed to create anything from the turnover, but got the ball back moments later courtesy of a sideline interception from Malik Fleming.

Another failed UH fourth down conversion returned possession to the Roadrunners.

Once again the UH defense had something to say about that, with Fleming grabbing his second pick of the night off a second consecutive pass from the senior quarterback.

While the Cougars stalled on the following drive, an illegal formation penalty on 4th down gave Houston a second shot at the endzone. Smith launched a pass towards sophomore wide receiver Matthew Golden, who pulled the ball in for six points.

The fourth quarter began with UH up 17-7 over the Roadrunners.

After a disastrous stretch of offensive possessions, UTSA orchestrated a productive drive into UH territory propelled by a fourth-down conversion near midfield. With 5:42 left in the game, Harris found the endzone with a 20-yard pass down the middle.

Before the PAT Malik Fleming, UH’s star on both defense and special teams throughout the night, left the field with an injury after several minutes on the ground.

Up 17-14, UH iced the game away in the final minutes to seal its second consecutive opening week victory over UTSA.

In his first game as a Cougar, Donovan Smith passed for 233 yards and two touchdowns. His favorite target on the night, sophomore wide receiver Samuel Brown, caught six passes for 106 yards.

“Very spotty,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said of Smith’s debut. “He’s poised. Nothing bothers him…got a long way to go, but very pleased.”

Malik Fleming pulled in two interceptions and returned one punt for 48 yards. His performance set up two touchdown drives for the UH offense.

“Nothing he does surprises me,” Holgorsen said. “I watched him for two years at East Carolina…I was sitting there on the sideline saying ‘I want that guy on my team’.”

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