NORMAN -- Houston coach Dana Holgorsen leans forward in his seat at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium as he takes questions from the press after his Cougars debut, a 49-31 loss to No. 4 Oklahoma that wasn’t quite as close as the final score.
A reporter asks Holgorsen what making a coaching debut against a perennial powerhouse like Oklahoma, a program that has achieved everything that Houston hopes to accomplish.
“Piece of cake. Piece of cake.”
Obviously, that was some classic Holgorsen sarcasm. Oklahoma took hold of the game in the first quarter and never really let go.
A revamped Sooner defense held star quarterback D’Eriq King without positive passing yardage through the first 1.5 quarters. New Oklahoma starter Jalen Hurts exploded for 508 total yards and six touchdowns, the most by a Sooner in a debut. Houston allowed 49 points, the most allowed in a season opener since 1993. Oklahoma averaged 11.2 yards per play – more than a first down every time they snapped the ball.
“Oklahoma is a really good team,” King said. “They’re a tough team to beat in their place. They rarely lose here.”
Generally speaking, very little was surprising about this game. Oklahoma was a 22-point favorite headed into Holgorsen’s Houston head coaching debut on Sunday; technically, the Cougars covered. But to be fair, there are few places tougher to make a coaching debut.
Holgorsen has yet to beat the University of Oklahoma as a head coach. If you want to get down into the weeds, Holgorsen hasn’t beaten OU as a coach since he was offensive coordinator at Texas Tech in 2007. Holgo has a career 2-15 record against the Sooners as a coach, including a cool 0-8 record at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. OU has lost just one home game since Lincoln Riley took over the program in 2017.
Despite the results, Holgorsen thinks it’s critical for his program to get to play these games and see how elite programs operate.
“Not just for our players, but everyone involved – players, coaches, administrators, fan base,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. I think everyone understands that.
"We're talking Oklahoma, won a whole bunch of national championships. They've got top notch facilities, real good tradition, that sort of thing. We're going against another top 25 team in two weeks. That's how the University of Houston schedules. We've got a million things to correct."
In the way that they responded to adversity, Houston’s football team seems to have gotten the message. After getting held to just 10 points and 153 total yards at the half, the Cougars played Oklahoma to a 28-21 dogfight in the second half.
“That’s what he told us to do: keep fighting, keep playing,” King said.
Houston built some momentum with havoc plays, an essential part of defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen’s game plan. The Cougars forced four fumbles and sacked Oklahoma quarterback three times. With two minutes left, Houston scratched and clawed to make it an 11-point game.
Holgorsen was pleased with the progress. After the game, he stuck outside the visiting team locker room to give every player an embrace.
“A lot of people can catch the stigma of being a big team or big game,” nickelback Grant Stuard said. “After the first snap, you realize this is just people against people. Once the ball is on the ground, once they get rolling, it’s just football.”
Sunday night on national television was a baptism by fire. The toughest test on Houston’s schedule is now behind them. From here, it should only get easier.
“We’re a team that’s going to get better week-to-week,” Stuard said. “We’re a team with a lot of new guys at new positions, so we’re going to get better. What we did today was definitely not a product of everything that we’ve gone through and everything that we’re capable of.”
The University of Houston hired Dana Holgorsen because it wanted to play in these games. The university wants to be a perennial 10-win team. It wants to produce Heisman Trophy winners. It wants to compete for College Football Playoff appearances.
Houston, like the vast majority of programs in the sport, aspires to be like Oklahoma. Playing these games is how it starts.
“Everyone needs to understand that that’s a top five team that’s been in the CFP three of the last four years,” Holgorsen said. “We want to get there. It’ll just take time to be able to get there.”
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