Football Sports

Cougars’ ugly win was beautiful in its own way

Transfer quarterback Donovan Smith threw for both of UH’s touchdown in the team season-opening win over UTSA. It was an uneven performance for Smith and the rest of the offense, but Dana Holgorsen praised Smith’s poise during the game. | Anh Le/the Cougar

Head football coach Dana Holgorsen had just sat down for his postgame press conference after UH’s 17-14 season-opening win — the team’s first win as a Big 12 member — against UTSA when Vice President of Athletics Chris Pezman walked into the room to greet the winning coach.

Pezman gave Holgorsen a quick handshake and, with a satisfied grin, uttered three words:

“Great f—– win.”

That was the sentiment from Holgorsen and the UH football program after the Cougars’ win over UTSA. It was a beautiful night despite its downright ugliness.

The game never seemed to get into a rhythm for either team. The Cougars’ offense in junior quarterback Donovan Smith’s debut was disjointed. If not for some foolish penalties from the Roadrunners that shortened a half-ending field goal and extended a touchdown drive in the third quarter, UH may not have scored in double digits.

It took 15 plays and over five minutes of game time for either team to complete a first down. UTSA’s Frank Harris’ bizarre run of three interceptions in three pass attempts should have proved catastrophic for the Roadrunners, but UH was only able to score a single touchdown off of them. UTSA still had a chance after closing the gap to within three with five minutes, but a razor-close measurement after a third-down run from Smith with 1:45 to go — during which the ball and marker both seemed to be nudged mid-measurement — gave UH the game-clinching first down.

While UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor furiously protested the ruling, Holgorsen triumphantly held a first-down signal at midfield.

Simply put, the game was a mess, and the team itself might have more questions than answers, but it was about more than that. 37,000 excited fans showed up at TDECU to watch the Cougars in their first game as a Big 12 team, by far the most in Holgorsen’s tenure. It was exactly what the program hoped for.

“This place was awesome today,” Holgorsen said in his first postgame statement. “It’s been a vision of our athletic department. Can’t thank the fans enough, the student section enough, they turned out, and they made a difference.”

Both of UH’s touchdowns were scored in the South endzone, right in front of a packed and erupting student section. The atmosphere was as good as it has been since the Tom Herman Era in 2016, and the players felt it.

“Coming out of the tunnel you really feel the energy,” Smith said. “The fans stayed in it the whole game and just kept us going.”

In his first game as a Cougar, Smith had an up-and-down but solid performance, going 22-34 for 233 yards and two touchdowns. He was sacked three times and made some ill-advised throws that ultimately fell as incompletions. Holgorsen, however, was most impressed with his quarterback’s ability to stay even-keeled through an uneven game.

“The thing about Donovan is just how poised he is. Nothing bothers him,” Holgorsen said. “Got a long way to go. But I was very pleased with just his overall demeanor and how he takes control of the huddle.”

While the offense struggled to stay consistent for much of the game, a group of unexpected heroes stepped up to ensure the win and keep things from tilting in UTSA’s favor.

When senior defensive tackle Chidozie Nwankwo was carted off with an ankle injury, UTSA quickly took advantage of his absence, marching 80 yards down the field to tie the game at seven apiece. It seemed like Nwankwo’s injury would be the turning point of the game, and the Cougars would be unable to stop the Roadrunners’ run game.

However, redshirt freshman Anthony Holmes Jr., junior Hakeem Ajijolaiya a sophomore Amipeleasi Langi Jr. — the latter of which had just four career snaps under his belt entering the game — all did enough in the interior to slow down the UTSA run game.

Sophomore receiver Samuel Brown’s experience at TDECU Stadium had so far been a tough one. In his first-ever appearance at TDECU was marred by a sideline scuffle with fellow receiver Joseph Manjack IV in a loss to Kansas. In his most recent home game before Saturday, Brown was shown on camera slapping a Tulsa player following another loss.

Against UTSA, Brown showed out. Hauling in six catches for a game-high 106 yards, Brown was the most reliable offensive player for the Cougars and seemed to have a good connection with Smith. After the game, Holgorsen praised Brown for his growth over the offseason.

“I was very proud of him,” Holgorsen said. “I’m very proud of how he’s overcome things and he went out there and helped his team win.”

Senior cornerback Malik Fleming was undoubtedly the best player on the field. A transfer from East Carolina, Fleming came to UH looking to follow the footsteps of other undersized corners-slash-returners like Marcus Jones. In his debut, he did just that.

On his first and only punt return of the game, Fleming found a seam and ran the ball back 48 yards, setting up the first points of the game on a Smith touchdown pass to Manjack, his first completion at UH. In the second half, Fleming picked off not one, but two consecutive passes, the latter of which set up what ended up being the game-sealing touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Matthew Golden.

After the game, teammates did not seem surprised by Fleming’s dynamic play.

“He’s electric,” Brown said. “From punt return to defense, he’s a playmaker. You can’t say too much about it.”

All those pieces; the atmosphere, the overlooked players stepping up and the win itself made Saturday night a perfect first step for the UH football program in its Big 12 journey. There is still a lot of work to do between now and the next two weeks, when Houston plays intra-city rival Rice on the road and hosts TCU for the team’s first Big 12 game. But for now, the Cougars can enter these next few days knowing that they are building something.

[email protected]

Leave a Comment