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Houston cannot overcome disastrous first half in 28-14 New Mexico Bowl loss to Hawaii

Cougars lose their fourth consecutive bowl game, finish 2020 with a 3-5 record.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 24 New Mexico Bowl Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For the first time in history, the New Mexico Bowl kicked off in the Lone Star State. A festive contest between red and green teams broke out on Christmas Eve in Frisco, TX — a suburb in the Dallas metroplex.

But Hawaii (5-4, 4-4 Mountain West) unwrapped the early Christmas gift, besting Houston 28-14 in the Rainbow Warriors’ first bowl game in the contiguous United States in 13 years. Houston (3-5, 3-3 AAC) continued its recent trend of bowl struggles, losing its fourth consecutive postseason contest dating back to Major Applewhite’s head coaching debut in the 2016 Las Vegas Bowl. This time, it was Dana Holgorsen’s first bowl game at the helm, but the result was Houston’s fifth loss of a twisted 2020 season.

“Glad 2020’s over,” Holgorsen said as his opening statement at the postgame press conference.

The running game was a struggle all afternoon, and the team managed just 58 yards on 38 carries. Mulbah Car finished with a team-high 47 yards while quarterback Clayton Tune — often a lethal weapon in the running game — finished with -16 yards rushing due to an influx of sacks. Tune excelled more in the passing game with 216 yards, but three interceptions without a single defensive takeaway provided the Rainbow Warriors a gateway to victory.

“We gave them about four or five different coverage looks on every first down,” Hawaii head coach Todd Graham said of his defensive strategy. “We brought pressure from different places and our players deserve the credit. They’re smart and they’re able to execute a lot.”

Houston came out as flat as possible in the first half. The Cougars’ first offensive possession resulted in a pass batted at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by Hawaii. Capitalizing on advantageous field position, the Rainbow Warriors scored immediately on a swing pass to running back Dae Dae Hunter.

“We talked about batting the ball. We brought pressure on that third down. We knew what they were gonna run. We knew they were gonna throw the slant pattern,” Graham said. “We want to be a team that gets takeaways, TFLs, sacks, and it’s a fun brand of football to watch.”

The Cougars’ offense matriculated down the field early but they couldn’t finish drives. Houston invaded Hawaii territory three times on its first five possessions, but the Cougars punted twice. On the other drive which landed in plus territory, quarterback Clayton Tune endured contact while launching the ball downfield and the result was an easy Hawaii interception.

“We had a great gameplan, but they came out hotter than us,” tight end Christian Trahan said. “A slow start again dinged us. We can’t start slow.”

While Houston struggled to generate points, Hawaii’s offense succeeded in attacking the middle of the field. Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro fired a dart at midfield to New Mexico Bowl MVP, wide receiver Calvin Turner, who completed a 75-yard catch and run to put Hawaii up 14-0. The scoring barrage continued in the second quarter when Cordeiro threw his third touchdown pass of the first half to put the underdog Rainbow Warriors at a commanding 21-0 lead.

“The team that we played was gonna play with effort, was gonna play with energy, and they strained their tail off,” Holgorsen said. “We did not do that in the first half.”

Halftime adjustments were evident for Houston. After registering just 87 first half yards, the Cougars ignited a 17-play, 75-yard drive to open the second half. The drive culminated in a quick slant touchdown from Tune to wide receiver Nathaniel Dell, who finished with a team-high 112 receiving yards. The defense followed suit by forcing a three-and-out and Houston sustained the momentum. The Cougars snuck within one possession after a 26-yard touchdown pass to Trahan, and everything was turning in Houston’s favor — for about a minute.

Then, calamity ensued. After positive showings offensively and defensively in the third quarter, special teams would thwart Houston’s comeback effort. Turner, the same player who burned Houston’s secondary on a 75-yard touchdown, struck again with a 92-yard kick return for a touchdown.

“That killed us,” strong safety Deontay Anderson said. “I was in on that play. I kind of missed a tackle and other people kind of didn’t do their job as well. That killed us. That hurt us as a team.”

A 28-14 gap opened back up, and the Cougars’ offense failed to respond. Tune had another pass batted at the line of scrimmage and subsequently intercepted — his third and final turnover of the afternoon. Even with the offense in a funk, Houston’s defense made stops and allowed zero second half points, thus granting the Cougars additional opportunities. However, the most promising fourth quarter drive concluded in an ugly manner — a 14-yard sack on 4th and 6 from the Hawaii 25-yard line.

“We can’t handle success because every time we have success, we turn around and look like crap,” Holgorsen said.

Concluding 2020 with a 3-5 record, Houston will suffer consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 2001 and 2002. Hoping for a turnaround in his third year as the program’s head coach, Holgorsen didn’t mince his words when sharing his disgust of the 2020 season.

“I’m sick to my stomach and tired of it. We played spurts of good football. Still inconsistent and that’s not gonna get it done,” Holgorsen said. “Glad 2020’s over.”