Green Wave outlasts Houston in AAC opener

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HOUSTON – The only thing darker than the uniforms in Houston’s #BlackOut Friday night matchup against AAC foe Tulane was the Cougars’ on-field performance. The black garb was appropriate considering the onlookers watched the Houston football team’s 2022 funeral. A season began with high hopes for Dana Holgorsen’s program officially crashed to the ground in a 27-24 loss to the Green Wave that dropped the Cougars to 2-3 on the season. Houston only lost two of its 14 games in 2021. 

Houston found itself in its third overtime session of the 2022 season, a school-record only five games into the season. The Cougars erased a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit to take a 21-14 lead with 3:04 left in the game after Clayton Tune found star receiver Nathaniel Dell for the pairs second touchdown connection of the contest. The Third Ward Defense couldn’t close the deal, however, as Tulane marched down the field to tie the game on a shovel pass on 4th-and-goal with 42 seconds left. 

Houston elected to be on offense first in overtime, as it did in the win over UTSA in Week 1. The Cougars settled for a field goal in its only overtime possession. Tulane quarterback Kai Horton, who entered the week as third string at the position, found Tyjae Spears for a 10-yard score to clinch the win. 

The game was tied at seven at halftime with both teams scoring on touchdown passes. Houston quarterback Tune completed a one-yard pass to Dell for the Cougars’ only offensive touchdown of the first half, and it came on 4th-and-goal. Houston was shut out in the first quarter for the third time in five games. 

The offensive slump continued in the second half. Tune didn’t reach 100 yards passing until the fourth quarter as Houston entered the fourth quarter trailing 14-7. A defensive touchdown provided the Green Wave with the lead as a Tune fumble was returned 57 yards for a score. Houston kicker Bubba Baxa missed field goal attempts in the first and third quarters. 

THREE TRUTHS 

Nothing comes easy for the Houston offense: The 2021 version of the Houston Cougars created explosive plays on a regular basis. That’s not true for the 2022 squad. The offense struggles and fights for every yard. The Cougars entered the fourth quarter with 28 yards after the catch on 14 completions. That increased in the fourth quarter, and by no coincidence, that is when the offense went on two scoring drives that accounted for more than 150 yards after struggling to score for the first three quarters. Houston had six explosive plays in the loss, and four of those took place in the fourth quarter. 

Dinking and dunking your way to victory only works for teams that limit mistakes. This Houston squad is a walking error. The Cougars’ offense accounted for as many points though the first three quarters (7) as it allowed thanks to the Tune fumble that was returned for a touchdown. The team committed nine penalties for 70 yards. Multiple holding calls put the Houston offense behind the chains, and the unit isn’t explosive enough to make up for the lost yardage. 

The rushing attack averaged 3.6 yards a play. Tune averaged less than 10 yards per completion and 6.3 yards an attempt. The only rush for longer than 10 yards was by Tune, so no running back created a double-digit rush on 33 carries. The passing game only accounted for one completion over 20 yards and that came on a scoring drive in the fourth quarter. 

The defense shrank in crunch time: Houston’s defense kept the Cougars in the game through 57 minutes of the matchup with Tulane, albeit against a third-string quarterback. The defense only allowed seven points with the other touchdown allowed coming on a defensive score by the Mean Green. Tulane only ran 36 plays through three frames, generating 169 yards of total offense. The rushing attack averaged 3.2 yards a carry and the passing game only accounted for eight completions and 96 yards on 13 attempts. 

Houston took a 21-14 lead with 3:04 left, and the only thing separating the Cougars from a comeback win was one more defensive stop. The Third Ward Defense failed as Tulane marched down the field with relative ease, tying up the game with 42 seconds left on fourth-and-goal with a beautifully executed shovel pass. It was an 11-play, 75-yard drive that took 2:25 off the clock. It was the first touchdown drive by the Tulane offense since 12:42 was left in the second quarter. 

The touchdown drive in overtime only required two plays to cover 25 yards. 

2021 looks like a mirage: Holgorsen is now 21-18 overall and 13-10 in AAC play since taking over at Houston to start the 2019 season. The program won four games in 2019 and three games in 2020 before breaking out for a 12-win season in 2021. The trajectory of the program looked tremendous with Tune and a host of star players returning. Add in excitement over a move to the Big 12 in 2023 and the possibility of a New Year’s six bowl bid as the nation’s best G5 team in 2022, and the Cougars were as hot as the grease at Frenchy’s Chicken. 

Flash-forward a month and those hopes are dashed. Houston lost both of its non-conference games against future Big 12 opponents, falling to Texas Tech in overtime on the road in Week 2 and by 18 points to Kansas at home in Week 3. The only wins came in triple overtime against UTSA and by seven points against Rice. 

Houston parted ways with Major Applewhite after two seasons despite the Cougars winning seven games in 2017 and eight in 2018. The Cougars had six-straight winning records prior to Holgorsen’s hire. The team had a losing record in his first two seasons, and sits at 2-3 after five weeks of 2022. The good news for the Cougars is that the schedule becomes easier down the stretch. Houston’s first five opponents entered Week 5 with a 17-7 record. The next seven opponents hold a combined 13-14 record. 

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