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Third-and-one: How the upset of a generation almost came to fruition

Sophomore wide receiver Matthew Golden was handed a face mask penalty after getting into a scuffle early in the fourth quarter. | Anh Le/The Cougar

The Houston Cougars were 24-point underdogs entering their contest with the Texas Longhorns, then the No. 8-ranked team in the country.

“Beating Texas is going to be hard, we know that,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said prior to last Saturday’s matchup.

Indeed, beating Texas would be hard. The Longhorns were coming off a bye week, a chance to breathe and recover after their first slip-up of 2023, a 34-30 loss to Oklahoma.

For the Houston fanbase, matchups with Texas are stained with bitterness and a history that traces back as far as practically any other rivalry.

“I’ve gotten a lot of comments,” Holgorsen said. “‘Just beat Texas,’ they said. ‘Don’t care if you win any of them, but you have to win that one.'”

Despite passion behind the Texas matchup that included a historic sell-out of TDECU Stadium, expectations for Houston’s date with the Longhorns remained low.

Nonetheless, as Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers was downed in the backfield as time expired in the first half of Saturday’s game, it was the Cougars’ fans in the stands roaring with energy. Houston was roaring back from 21-0 deficit.

“It helped us out, having the city behind our back,” sophomore wide receiver Matthew Golden said of the crowd during halftime.

Enter the final quarter, when a field goal would tie Houston with Texas at 24-24, and Ewers was out of the game with an injury.

With just under six minutes left in the game, a Texas touchdown would put the Longhorns ahead 31-24.

Quarterback Donovan Smith had been here before. Last year at Texas Tech, Smith had helped orchestrate a thrilling 37-34 overtime win over the Longhorns. As the clock winded down at TDECU, Smith was asked to work his magic once again.

For the next four minutes of game time, it looked like he would do just that.

A third-and-1 rush would change everything.

Smith hands the ball to sophomore running back Stacy Sneed. Sneed runs left, reaching ahead as he is taken down.

“That surge looked to be enough,” the television commentator said.

The chains come out. Sneed is marked short, and by a decent margin at that.

The commentators are baffled. Holgorsen is asking for a review. But play continues.

On the fourth-and-1 that follows, a deflected pass resulted in a turnover on downs.

Texas wins, and The Cougars are left with a bitter taste in their mouths.

“I think the spot was horrible,” Holgorsen said of the measurement. “I think we got the first down…every time I think something is reviewable, I can’t get them to review it.”

It is a play that will more than likely go down in infamy within Cougar lore. It will spawn countless ‘what-ifs’ and only add to the bitterness with which Houston looks upon the Texas it could have defeated on Saturday.

On Monday, Holgorsen had a few what-ifs of his own.

“I think we would’ve scored,” Holgorsen said.  “I think we would’ve run ‘horns down’, went for two and won the game 32-31.”

There were mistakes that cost Houston. Perhaps most notably, two of UH’s three second-half timeouts had to be used in the third quarter after one too many Cougar defenders were sent to the field on two straight play. Those timeouts could have bought UH one final possession in the closing seconds if they managed a stop.

Yet the timeout debacle will more than likely be forgotten.

That third-and-1, on the other hand, will not.

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