The trifecta was established. Offensively, defensively, and on special teams, the Houston Cougars couldn’t be stopped from scoring in any facet of the game. Houston (3-3, 3-2 AAC) left zero doubt at TDECU Stadium on Saturday afternoon, handing a 56-21 shellacking to South Florida (1-7, 0-6 AAC). The 56 points set a new record for the highest scoring output of the Dana Holgorsen era and the Cougars enjoyed their largest margin of victory against an FBS opponent since 2017.
Houston’s offense was a force to be reckoned with from the opening kick. The Cougars didn’t even allow South Florida to blink on the opening drive. Mulbah Car stormed out of the gate with a 26-yard run and quarterback Clayton Tune followed it up with a 21-yard scramble. Then, Tune fired a dart to Bryson Smith for a 28-yard touchdown to put an exclamation point on a 3-play drive which lasted 56 seconds.
“We came out, we were excited, played hard and played with a passion,” Tune said. “It’s something we had been talking about and something we had worked on, so it’s good to actually get it done.”
Tune showed out with the best performance of his career, and it wasn’t just with his arm. The junior quarterback was unstoppable as a scrambler, attaining a season-high 120 yards on the ground to become Houston’s first 100-yard rusher of the season — a feat he accomplished in just the first half. Tune cashed in touchdown runs of 26 and 13 yards in the first two quarters, racking up multiple rushing scores for the first time of his Cougar tenure. Tune even operated as a receiver on a double pass play, catching a 21-yard pass from Bryson Smith for his first career reception.
“He’s always gonna be in the run game,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “The defense determines that. If they’re gonna account for him, I’m never gonna run him. If they’re not gonna account for him, we have things built in where we’re gonna run the football. He’s a good runner.”
Through the air, Tune was just as potent. The quarterback completed 14/25 passes for 165 yards and three touchdowns in a solid bounce-back performance. With star wide receiver Marquez Stevenson sidelined due to injury, Tune allowed the other receivers to enjoy strong outings. He sent Smith his first receiving touchdown since 2018 on the opening drive and delivered a 33-yard bomb into the waiting hands of Keith Corbin, who also scored his first touchdown of the season.
As a team, it was the most promising showing on the ground for Houston of 2020. The Cougars entered Saturday with a season-high of 165 team rushing yards. That threshold was eclipsed before the midway point of the second quarter in a 319-yard explosion. Tune led the charge, but running backs Mulbah Car, Chandler Smith, and Kelan Walker combined for 185 yards on a collective 7.7 yards per carry. Houston entered the contest with just one 20-yard rush all season but broke off for four such runs in the first quarter alone.
“I was trying to get Mulbah going. He’s been injured, he’s a senior, he means a lot to the program,” Holgorsen said. “Kudos to Chandler Smith. Kid went in there and ran his tail off. I was really excited to see him and there were some yards after contact for a little bitty guy... All this stuff happens up front, it begins up front. The tight ends are a big part of it.”
After scoring one offensive first half touchdown in the previous two weeks combined, Houston was in desperate need of a fast start. For the first time in 2020, the Cougars entered the second quarter with a lead, shutting out South Florida 14-0.
Defensively, Houston recorded stop after stop. In the first half, South Florida was forced to punt six times. On the lone drive the Bulls didn’t punt, they attempted a 4th and 8 in Cougar territory. That attempt was quickly thwarted as outside linebacker Jordan Moore flew in on a blitz and sacked quarterback Jordan McCloud. Defensive success translated into offensive firepower all game, but Moore’s fourth down sack was the best example all afternoon. Houston’s offense scored three plays and 53 yards later, marking its second 3-play touchdown drive.
“Last week against Cincinnati, we put ourselves in position to make some plays in the backfield,” defensive end David Anenih said. “We just didn’t finish them so we emphasized all throughout the week about finishing plays and that’s what we did today.”
South Florida made a quarterback swap at halftime, substituting McCloud in for freshman Katravis Marsh. Not much changed offensively, as the Bulls went three-and-out in an instant. On the ensuing punt, Houston’s electric return man Marcus Jones slipped past Bulls tacklers and tiptoed down the sideline for a 72-yard score. The play went in the record books as the first true punt return touchdown (excludes blocked punts) in TDECU Stadium history and the first of Jones’ career.
“It was just a matter of time before he was gonna do that,” Holgorsen said of Jones. “He’s one of the best ones in the country. He’s pretty special.”
The defense didn’t let up after producing a halftime shutout. South Florida progressed into the red zone for the first time in the middle of the third quarter, reaching as far as the Houston 7-yard line. But on 3rd down, the Cougars sent immense pressure. Anenih hit Marsh in the backfield and the ball popped out into the waiting hands of Derek Parish. With an open pasture ahead, Parish sprinted for an 85-yard touchdown to secure a 42-0 lead. All points Houston scored in the third quarter were the result of non-offensive touchdowns.
“I was in the middle of the rush and (Anenih) smacks him and after he fumbled it, it just landed in my hands,” Parish said, designating it as his touchdown since eighth grade. “At that point, the option’s just run. It was really emotionless, more just instinct.”
Even though the game was out of reach, South Florida made an interesting comeback in the second half with 21 unanswered points. The Bulls molded consecutive touchdown drives on offense and a returned an interception to the house to slice the Cougars’ once 42-point advantage to 21. Houston responded, however, contributing two fourth quarter touchdowns to close the victory.
“It kind of got sloppy there in the second half, but when you’re up 42-7, you shouldn’t complain too much,” Holgorsen said. “We’re not good enough to be complacent and just go out there and play and be dominant.”
Exhibiting promising play in all facets of the game, Houston returned to .500 after convincingly steamrolling the AAC’s only winless team in league play. The schedule quickly amplifies for Holgorsen’s team, as it will face three AAC powers — SMU, Tulsa, and Memphis — to finish the season.