Under four minutes of clock remained. Backs against the wall and trailing by a field goal, Houston’s defense needed one more stop to keep the door ajar. The Cougars forced incompletions on first and second down, and the defense’s energy cranked up a notch when forcing a false start to set BYU at the 18-yard line, facing 3rd and 15.
But quarterback Zach Wilson wasn’t rattled by the down and distance on the road. With a clean pocket, the junior quarterback did what he did all night. He delivered an over-the-shoulder dime right into the waiting hands of wide receiver Dax Milne, who beat one-on-one coverage in the middle of the end zone.
Even in 25% capacity, you could hear a collective shatter among Houston faithful at TDECU Stadium. As BYU celebrated the dagger touchdown in the end zone, the defense dejectedly exited the field knowing the upset bid had run out of steam in the 43-26 loss.
“We did a lot of good things,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “When the game got tight in the fourth quarter they whipped us. They elevated their game and we didn’t... I give BYU a lot of credit. I’m not down on our football team right now.”
It was a quarterback duel for the ages. In the first half, Houston quarterback Clayton Tune caught fire. He completed 15 of his first 16 pass attempts and experienced a stretch in the second quarter where he was invincible. Tune completed a sequence of 11 consecutive passes in the half for 175 yards and a pair of touchdowns, setting the Cougars up for a 20-14 lead heading into the locker room at halftime.
“I credit that to the receivers and o-line, but we need to learn how to finish down the stretch,” Tune said of his performance. “When it counts, we need to continue what we did in the first half and third quarters, and it starts with me.”
Tune was the hero of the first half, but Wilson matched his energy in the final 30 minutes of game time. The three-year BYU starting quarterback set a career-high 400 yards passing and similarly to Tune, there was a period where everything he launched ended up as a reception — landing 15 of 16 passes over a stretch in the second half. Wilson delivered four touchdown passes on the night, and neither quarterback threw an interception in the offensive duel.
Houston dominated the second and third quarters, but BYU started the game on fire and provided the closing effort at TDECU Stadium on Friday night. In the team’s first play from scrimmage, Wilson airmailed a ball down the sideline to Milne, who won a 1-on-1 jump ball and ran 78 yards for an easy touchdown. It was Milne’s first of three touchdowns on a night where he was responsible for 184 receiving yards on nine catches.
“That dude’s a playmaker, I love that guy,” Wilson said. “He’s one of my best friends and I’m so happy for him — the ups and downs of being a preferred walk-on kid and taking on the challenge when nobody believed he could do it. When you hit a spot like 3rd and 15, it’s like, ‘where’s my guy at?’”
BYU scored on its second possession as well, firing out of the gate to a 14-3 lead. In its first eight plays, BYU registered 163 yards and two touchdowns. But the momentum quickly turned 180 degrees — over the next 27 plays, BYU had zero points and 120 yards, opening the passageway for a Houston comeback.
Tune dominated the second quarter, hooking up with tight end Christian Trahan for the team’s first touchdown of the night. The Cougars extended the lead on another Tune touchdown strike to Nathaniel Dell and closed the half on a 49-yard field goal by Dalton Witherspoon — the program’s longest kick since 2014. While Tune was phenomenal with a 21/31, 310-passing yard outing, he also delivered as a scrambler. With 3:05 remaining in the third quarter, Tune escaped a sack, juked a BYU defender, and dove past the goal line to secure a 26-14 lead. An interception on the 2-point attempt would mark the final breath of Houston’s 23-0 scoring run.
BYU’s comeback, which featured 29 unanswered points, was a mixture of dominant BYU offense and Houston special teams errors. As a response to Houston’s double-digit lead, BYU flew down the field to the tune of a 5-play, 75-yard drive. Then, the game took another sharp turn when Kalani Sitake elected to gamble with a fourth quarter onside kick, an attempt which his team would recover.
“We know in the fourth quarter, we’re stronger than most teams,” Sitake said. “We focus on trying to be bold. We want to have that mindset of being aggressive and swinging for the fences.”
Special teams was a glaring issue for Holgorsen’s team. Gaffes from the second half Friday night included failing to recover the onside kick, calling a fair catch on the 1-yard line, a kick-catch interference penalty, and a 12-yard punt which landed on Houston’s own 23-yard line.
The 12-yard punt led directly to BYU’s go-ahead touchdown with 10:35 remaining in the fourth quarter. BYU added two more end zone appearances in the final 3:06, capping off its fifth-straight win.
“I feel like the statement that we made is that we’re a big time team,” Wilson said. “Average teams are inconsistent, they can’t finish games off, and there wasn’t a moment of that tonight. The guys had the same mentality even when adversity hit.”
Houston, after an energetic season-opening win against Tulane, suffered its first defeat of the season. While the team is crushed by letting a 12-point lead slip away against the No. 14 team in the country, the focus now shifts to conference play where the Cougars are presented with a clean slate.
“When it gets into game 3, game 4, game 5, you are who you are, and BYU is a pretty damn good football team,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve got two games under our belt. I’m not going to keep making this as an excuse not to be successful, but we’ve got to keep playing. We’ve only played eight quarters and we’ve got a lot of stuff ahead of us.”