Spotty but icy: The UH win leaves many unanswered questions

Spotty but icy: The UH win leaves many unanswered questions


It wasn’t always pretty, but the Houston Cougars did the job. They defeated UTSA, 17-14, to open the 2023 season. UH looked icy fresh with their Columbia blue jerseys in the inaugural game as a Big 12 program.

The defense took the spotlight, forcing UTSA quarterback Frank Harris to throw three interceptions and be ineffective for much of the game. The performance was a welcomed sight after Houston’s defensive issues a season ago. ECU transfer Malik Fleming stole the show with his two interceptions and a key 48-yard punt return.

“Nothing he does surprises me,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I watched him for two years in East Carolina. I’m sitting there on the sidelines saying, ‘I want that guy on my team.’ I just have a lot of respect for him when we played against him and coached against him.”

After the game, reporters learned how much of a film scholar Fleming is. When asked about his two picks, the senior defensive back explained how he knew the slot fade was coming on the first interception because of the formations and tendencies he saw from the Roadrunners on film.

It was the same thing for the second interception. Because UTSA was playing without its top receiver, Fleming knew Harris would make it a point of emphasis to throw the ball to receiver David Amador II, he said. When the ECU transfer saw the three-by-one formation, he knew where Harris was going with the ball, and he broke and made the play.

“After watching the film, everything that is pre-snap was film-studied,” Fleming said. “I would be like, ‘they could give me this route out of this formation, so I am just really narrowing things down.’ Once the ball is snapped, that is my God-given ability, and I just let that take over.”

Malik Fleming had a huge game // Photo by Mario Puente

As mentioned before, however, not everything went perfectly for the Cougars. UH struggled to move the ball consistently and put points on the scoreboard. The running game struggles were eerily similar to what it looked like a season ago. Houston just narrowly topped 100 yards rushing, averaging just 2.7 yards per carry.

Quarterback Donovan Smith, who played in his first game as a Houston Cougar, had some good throws and some head-scratchers. While the Texas Tech transfer avoided throwing any interceptions against UTSA, he was fortunate with a couple of throws that should have been picked off but were dropped or fell harmlessly on the turf.

Overall, he completed 22-of-34 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. He also added 31 yards on the ground.

“Spotty. Very spotty,” Holgorsen said about his quarterback’s performance after the game. “The thing about Donovan is how poised he is. Nothing bothers him. He’s not wide-eyed. He’s in a new offense, and everything is new to him, but he was great in the run game. He was hit-or-miss a little bit in the pass game, although, he did have some fairly good offensive receiving plays. Got a lot of ways to go, but I was very pleased at his overall demeanor and how he takes control of the huddle.”

Receiver Samuel Brown was a bright spot in the passing game. Brown gave UTSA fits in the first half with five catches for 97 yards but cooled off a bit in the second. For the game, he ended with six catches for 106 yards.

Joseph Manjack IV was solid all game as he ended the game with six catches for 67 yards. Sophomore receiver Matthew Golden caught four balls for 36 yards. Both scored touchdowns.

Ultimately, the Cougars did what mattered the most, which was to win.

Arguably, Houston came away with two victories on Saturday as well. 37,862 people packed into the humid, toasty, and sometimes sauna-esque TDECU Stadium. According to the university, it was the largest home-opening crowd in six seasons and the ninth-largest crowd in the building’s history.

The Cougars will have many “the largest crowd” records this season. It did not go unnoticed against UTSA.

“This place looked awesome today,” Holgorsen said. “It’s been a vision from our athletic department, from administration, certainly myself. Can’t thank the fans enough, the student section enough, they turned out, and they made a difference.”

Now that week one is in the rearview mirror, the Houston Cougars can look ahead to Rice. After the scare the Owls gave UH a season ago, the game cannot be considered an automatic 20-point victory as in years past.

Houston has plenty more questions than answers now, but at least for now, they can seek to find those responses with a more upbeat mindset. Everyone who spoke after the UTSA win had two things in common: they were happy about the win and knew there was much room to grow.

“Everyone is excited about the win, and that’s the main thing,” Smith said. “We’re 1-0; that’s the biggest thing. We have a lot of stuff to prove that people haven’t seen, so we’re excited.”

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Andy Yanez
Andy Yanez
Andy Yanez is a Contributing Editor and columnist for He also hosts the weekly Pawd Slama Jama Podcast and Let's Rage Coogs after football and MBB games. In his spare time, he is a teacher and coaches youth basketball.

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