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Welcome home, Cougars: Big 12 bids welcome with reality check

UH football’s first-ever Big 12 game was anything but a storybook beginning to a new era. | Anh Le/The Cougar

The t-shirts read “Big 12 Homecoming.”

The game was a near-sellout, according to UH Vice President for Athletics Chris Pezman.

The team dropped its matchup with Rice the week before — it was said that the team was too focused on this game.

Yet when the clock hit zero on UH’s 36-13 loss to TCU, fans were left unconvinced the Cougars were ready for the big stage.

Three weeks into the 2023 season, trends are becoming clearer.

In UH’s 17-14 win over UTSA, both Houston touchdown drives began deep in enemy territory, one on an impressive punt return and the other following an interception. Both set-up plays were courtesy of senior defensive back Malik Fleming.

On Saturday, UH’s lone touchdown was a special teams score. Sophomore wide receiver Matthew Golden was the man to make things happen, returning a second-quarter TCU kickoff 98 yards for six points.

The UH offense has failed to convince fans. Steps in the right direction in the second half of UH’s loss to Rice feel like a distant past after the stagnation of UH’s debut on the Big 12 stage.

The run game entered Saturday searching for an identity. Leaving Saturday it feels cloudier than ever, with Houston’s rushing offense one of the worst among Big 12 teams in total yardage, yards per rush and yards per game.

Sophomore Stacy Sneed is Houston’s leading rusher in yardage, with 103 yards in 26 carries. Junior quarterback Donovan Smith has 15 more carries than Sneed on the season as the team’s leader.

“It didn’t look very good,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said bluntly of the run game versus TCU.

Holgorsen’s assessment sounds true enough. UH tallied 55 net rushing yards against TCU. Meanwhile, TCU came to Houston and netted 250 yards on the ground, over four times as many as the home team.

Houston’s passing offense was similarly bleak on Saturday night. Smith completed less than half his pass attempts, with TCU intercepting two passes in the evening.

The offense as a whole gained 12 first downs all night. TCU netted 35 first downs, nearly three times as many.

Holgorsen suggested he would be open to offensive changes, while also describing the offense as a whole as “embarrassing.”

“Let me study the video,” Holgorsen said. “Have a few personnel discussions.”

Despite the offensive struggles, the defense played competently. Sack Ave got to TCU quarterback Chandler Morris three times in the game — one a forced fumble that resulted in a four-and-out turnover on downs. Malik Fleming got his third interception of the season.

Holgorsen defended his decision to seek a fourth down conversion on both those drives. Both were 4th and 1.

“I thought the fourth down situations we’ve been in…based on how the game was going, it was smart,” Holgorsen said. “We’re going to be aggressive with fourth downs.”

For a decent portion of the game, the Cougars looked to be within an arm’s reach of the Horned Frogs. The score was 7-3 after one quarter. At halftime, it was 20-13.

Still, no life from the Cougars.

Still, zero points in the second half.

Saturday’s second-half shutout may remind fans of UH’s 38-21 opening week loss to Texas Tech in 2021. Holgorsen’s Cougars led 21-7 at halftime.

Less than one week after that loss, UH accepted an invitation to join the Big 12, to compete alongside Texas Tech.

Maybe Saturday will also remind fans of Houston’s 35-20 loss to Cincinnati in the AAC Conference Championship game, when UH was behind just 14-13 at halftime before an ugly second half ended its title dreams. Cincinnati is a fellow Big 12 newcomer.

It could also remind fans of UH’s 43-26 loss to yet another fellow Big 12 newbie BYU in 2020, when Holgorsen’s Cougars led 20-14 at halftime before a disastrous second half handed Houston the loss at TDECU Stadium.

After Saturday’s loss, Holgorsen is now 0-11 versus current Big 12 teams as Houston’s head coach.

Holgorsen extended credit to TCU following the loss.

“Quality opponent,” Holgorsen said. “Let’s not forget this opponent played in the national championship last year.”

That quality opponent now moves to 2-1 on the season, comfortably defeating the Cougars as part of its rebound from a 45-42 opening week loss to Deion Sanders’ Colorado, who will join the ranks of the Big 12 one year from now.

UH has questions to ask, and a date with FBS newcomer Sam Houston State awaits before its Big 12 tour is fully underway. Time is running out — the Big 12 is here, and fans are forced to wonder if the Cougars are here with it.

For now, Houston must look at the Big 12 conference standings with the Cougars in dead last. 

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