It was about damn time.
It was ugly. It was beautiful. It was a headache. But at the same time, it was marvelous.
The Houston Cougars football team showcased what it can do last Thursday night against West Virginia. It was excellent and terrible, and some of it was downright putrid. But when it was all said and done, Houston got its first Big 12 victory, which is all that matters.
At first, it seemed like the Cougars would come away with a relatively easy win. Then West Virginia got within three, then the offense failed to ice the game, and the Mountaineers scored a fourth-down, 50-yard touchdown with 12 seconds left.
The camera on the FS1 broadcast panned to Dana Holgorsen, and it looked like it was straight out of a script from a Hollywood movie—a tragic comedy. Color analyst Spencer Tillman had just commented minutes prior about a feeling around the program that the head coach needed a win to save his job. And then suddenly, it looked like Houston was headed for a devastating loss.
Holgorsen looked downright broken. He didn’t scream. He just took his headset off and looked like a scolded child.
But he caught a break: WVU was penalized for taunting, meaning they’d kick from the 20. Then he got a nice catch on the sideline from freshman Dalton Carnes. And then, the improbable happened.
Quarterback Donovan Smith connected with receiver Stephon Johnson for a 49-yard Hail Mary touchdown, and the Cougars escaped with the 41-39 victory. Holgorsen said he was as happy as ever in his 30-plus years in coaching.
Despite the win and the field-rushing, let’s be clear: Houston still has multiple issues it needs to address. They were made apparent in the final five minutes of the game. However, the win is more than just one lucky play to end the game.
It was the culmination of a team that worked its tail off throughout the game. It began with Matthew Golden’s 100-yard kickoff return touchdown. Despite collapsing in the final five minutes, Doug Belk’s defense kept the Cougars within striking distance when the UH offense struggled to move the ball in the first half.
Smith caught fire and torched the Mountaineers through the air and on the ground as he helped lead UH to crucial touchdowns in the second half.
And it wasn’t just one player that shined, either. It was an actual team performance. Defensive linemen Nelson Ceaser, Chidozie Nwankwo, and David Ugwoegbu made plays up front for the defense.
Defensive back Isaiah Hamilton came away with a game-shifting interception early in the third quarter. Samuel Brown made a Randy Moss-esque, go-ahead touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. Houston’s special teams’ coverage was phenomenal all game long.
Johnson was the player of the game with not only the Hail Mary but also his first touchdown in the fourth quarter that gave UH its double-digit cushion.
The game epitomized Dana Holgorsen’s Cougars perfectly — a scrappy, sort of crazy, definitely maddening team. In the end, the win offers a semblance of hope. UH now faces the toughest challenge of the 2023 season — Saturday’s game with the Texas Longhorns.
Houston’s first Big 12 win proved one thing for sure — the Cougars’ players still trust and respect their head coach and are willing to fight for him. Does it always translate to good football? No. But the Cougars are not ready to be written off just yet.