It’s difficult to confirm, but history may have occurred at TDECU Stadium on Saturday afternoon... before Houston and East Carolina even commenced their AAC showdown.
Lightning struck not once, not twice, but on countless occasions with no signs of subsiding for hours. Its accompanying downpour drenched the surface at TDECU Stadium, disrupted the tailgates, and eviscerated the attendance. What was originally scheduled to be a 3:02 p.m. local kickoff suddenly turned into a guessing game concerning if and when the contest would transpire.
Five hours and 18 minutes later, Houston and East Carolina rushed onto the field for an 8:20 p.m. kickoff. Evidence of a longer weather delay without postponement cannot be found on the Internet, so perhaps Saturday’s barrage of lightning strikes will be preserved in the record books.
“We were just praying that we’d get to play because we were already looking at our radar saying it’s gonna keep raining until 9 or 10 o’clock, so we were just praying that we got to play,” Houston tight end Christian Trahan said.
After the initial wave of adrenaline long disappeared from the East Carolina and Houston locker rooms, a 3-hour and 25-minute battle on the gridiron served as the follow-up act to a delay which lasted longer than the game. The wait didn't faze the red-hot Cougars, which carried their momentum into a sixth consecutive victory to officially claim bowl eligibility. When the dust settled, Houston left TDECU Stadium with a 31-24 victory over East Carolina.
A game with a lengthy delay ended up taking even longer, as overtime was necessary to settle a tie. Houston made quick work of the extra period, as running back Alton McCaskill spun out of a defender and rushed for a 25-yard touchdown on the first play following regulation. East Carolina’s overtime possession was almost as expeditious, but the end zone was never attained. On the second play, Houston inside linebacker Donavan Mutin forced a fumble which was recovered by JoVanni Stewart. The defense sprinted across the field in celebration as the Cougars emerged triumphant in a game which lasted 8 hours and 43 minutes from the scheduled kickoff time to the final result.
“It’s only fitting that this game would go into overtime,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen joked. “We hadn’t been here long enough, so we just wanted to play a little bit more. It looked so good that I just didn’t want it to end.”
In a game which Houston held a constant 24-10 advantage from the late second quarter until under seven minutes to go, it seemed the Cougars would waltz to victory. But a missed field goal to extend the lead to three scores was followed by a 6-play, 71-yard East Carolina touchdown drive. Operating with a one-score lead, Houston immediately fumbled and the Pirates responded with a game-tying touchdown pass from quarterback Holton Ahlers to Audie Omotosho. Both ECU touchdowns occurred in an 80-second span and ultimately forced the game into an overtime finish.
Prior to the exhilarating conclusion, the offenses came out guns blazing in front of a fraction of the expected attendance. With ECU committing the first punch, the offenses combined for 27 first quarter points. After the team’s traded quick field goals, Ahlers launched a bomb into the end zone for Jsi Hatfield to complete a 40-yard touchdown and hand the Pirates a 10-3 lead. That lead lasted just 12 more seconds.
Houston’s instantaneous response didn’t even require the offense to take the field. Marcus Jones, an All-American selection in 2020, proved once again why he’s the most lethal return specialist in the sport. Jones recorded his third special teams touchdown of the year by fielding the kickoff 98 yards, and it marked the star’s first kick return touchdown in a Cougar uniform.
“This week we were taking about different returns. We have a field one and also a boundary one,” Jones said recalling his return. “We actually ran a boundary one and whenever I ended up getting the ball, I know I wanted to go vertical first, I didn’t want to go straight to the boundary because then they would lean that way.”
One of the budding traditions at Houston is the establishment of “Sack Ave.” The Cougars entered Saturday with the third highest sack rate in the country, coming off a victory at Tulane which featured eight sacks. East Carolina was the next team to become stranded on the one-way street and absorbed four sacks in the defeat. The most notable of the four stemmed from Houston defensive end David Anenih, who completed the trifecta on Ahlers in the first quarter — the sack, the forced fumble, and the recovery. Taking over at the ECU 32, the Cougars capitalized with a go-ahead touchdown pass to Trahan (team-highs 6 receptions, 68 yards) five plays later.
“It gives us confidence knowing we have a defense like that to bounce back on,” Trahan said about profiting from turnovers.
Houston’s defense, which entered Saturday allowing the fourth fewest yards in the nation, created an additional havoc play to hand the Cougars a 14-point cushion before halftime. Outside linebacker Deontay Anderson ripped the ball out of the hands of Pirates receiver Tyler Snead and recovered himself. Once again, it was a quick turnaround for the offense, and Nathaniel Dell captured an end zone bullet from Clayton Tune two plays later.
“To me, this is one of the best groups I’ve been around because we truly do this in practice,” Mutin said about the defense, which forced three takeaways. “We don’t have to get in the game and just turn it on. We do what we do in practice and it will just handle itself. The turnovers are just a result of guys who love each other and they strain, and they play hard, and they execute to the best of our ability.”
Although Sack Ave. brought heat to the opposing backfield, East Carolina’s defensive line established a street of their own. The front seven-led unit collectively chipped in five sacks and held Houston to 3-of-13 on third downs. Prior to McCaskill’s overtime run, Houston’s rushing offense struggled immensely, posting just 62 yards on 35 attempts. The Pirates’ defense didn’t yield a single point in the second half, providing the spark to roar back from the double-digit deficit.
“Coach (Mike) Houston’s good and that staff’s good and their kids play hard,” Holgorsen said regarding East Carolina’s defense. “They were putting more people up in there than we could block a lot of the times. It got to a point where I was just trying to run clock. We didn’t play good, I didn’t coach good. Their schemes were what they were. They didn’t do anything that we weren’t expecting.”
East Carolina dropped its second consecutive AAC contest after annihilating Tulane in the league opener. Bowl eligibility still remains in play for the Pirates, who aim to return to the postseason for the first time in seven years. The ensuing matchup is a Thursday night clash vs. South Florida, which is coming off its first FBS win in 728 days.
The Cougars have yet to defeat a team which currently boasts a winning record, but Houston will have the opportunity to down a nationally ranked, undefeated opponent next Saturday. In-state rival SMU travels south down I-45 in hopes of sustaining perfection against the streaking Cougars.