For the sixth time in American Athletic Conference history, perfection has been attained. The Houston Cougars (10-1, 8-0 AAC) cleared through their entire conference slate, dismantling the final roadblock in their path Friday night.
In wire-to-wire fashion, Dana Holgorsen’s team rattled off their 10th consecutive win by upending the Memphis Tigers (5-6, 2-5 AAC) in a 31-13 result. This senior night win was especially significant to a departing class which had never taken down Memphis. The Cougars shattered their 5-game series losing streak and outlasted the Tigers to capture the final victory in their pursuit of finishing AAC play unscathed.
“It was my third time playing Memphis. Obviously, they won the last five games, but we were up 15-14. Now it’s 16-14,” outside linebacker Deontay Anderson said. “It’s a rivalry. Memphis is a tough football team — they’ve always got talent. And UH always has talent, so it’s a good game every year.”
Before the triumph, a moment of despair overtook the confines of TDECU Stadium. On the seventh play from scrimmage, Houston starting inside linebacker Donavan Mutin was knocked out while making his fourth tackle of the drive. The team captain laid motionless for an extended period of time. Eventually, a stretcher was rolled onto the field and Houston’s entire sideline surrounded the linebacker. After a lengthy break, Mutin was finally taken off the field and transported to a hospital. While exiting the stadium, he was seen moving his forearms hands per video from FOX 26 Houston.
“Donavan is an important piece to his team, an important leader, an important player. Everybody kind of shed a tear,” Anderson said. “First of all, you never want to see a guy go down like that, but especially Donnie... His body just froze and that’s not a good sign. I just keep praying for him. They say he’s doing good, responding well, so I hope it stays like that.”
Holgorsen stated in the postgame press conference that Mutin was moving and talking while carted off the field but did not provide any further update.
The game resumed in a more solemn manner following Mutin’s exit. Neither offense was able to rack up points in the first quarter. But right when the second quarter commenced, Houston created the spark needed to reenergize the stadium. Ja’Kori Morgan flew in to block a Memphis punt and Elijah Gooden scooped up the loose ball. One play later, Houston’s offense struck with Alton McCaskill’s longest touchdown run of the season. The true freshman juked away a defender behind the line of scrimmage and then left the Memphis defense in the dust on a 36-yard run.
“I was proud of our team with being able to put that behind them and go play,” Holgorsen said. “Especially defensively, being without our emotional leader and team captain, we had guys like Deontay Anderson step up, Marcus (Jones) made plays, Derek (Parish) had a couple sacks. We just had to overcome that early.”
After McCaskill set the fireworks up, quarterback Clayton Tune lit the fuse. The junior opened Houston’s lead to 14-0 in the second quarter by airing a 19-yard touchdown to Nathaniel Dell in the end zone. Tune’s arm collected 264 yards, but that wasn’t his only area of strength Friday night. His mobility has seen increased utilization as of late, and that facet of his game was on full display right before halftime. Tune scrambled 20 yards into the end zone for his longest rushing touchdown of the season to hand the Cougars a 21-3 lead at the break. He accumulated a season-best 59 rushing yards in the victory.
“We haven’t schemed anything up for him in the run game for him in 10 games, since Rice,” Holgorsen said. “We needed that tonight and we were gonna do whatever we had to do to win this game. We needed him to be able to do that.”
Instead of going out easy after an 18-point halftime deficit, Memphis became an irritant for the Cougars in the third quarter. With an opportunity to extend the lead from the Tigers’ 25, Tune fired a slant to Jake Herslow. However, Memphis cornerback Sylvonta Oliver disrupted the pass and deflected it into the sky. Rodney Owens intercepted it to shatter Tune’s streak of 192 consecutive throws without a pick, a streak dating back to Oct. 1. The flags also began to pile up after the turnover. Houston committed seven penalties for 82 yards in the third quarter. As a result, Memphis capitalized with 10 unanswered points to slice the deficit to 21-13.
“After the first half, I thought potentially this was going to be our best all-around football game, and then the third quarter went to hell in a hand basket,” Holgorsen. “Flat on offense. Gave up some plays on defense — that’s about the only play that we didn’t play great defensively. We had 100 yards in penalties and they were all in the third quarter it seemed like. It was bad. I called them up and told them we worked too hard to let this go bad.”
Houston eventually ran away with the victory with Texas Tech transfer Ta’Zhawn Henry taking over the offense. McCaskill suffered a mid-game stinger, forcing Houston to move Henry into the lead back role to finish of Memphis. Henry totaled 76 yards and punched in a late touchdown to ultimately disintegrate the Tigers’ hopes.
Operating without Mutin’s leadership, Houston’s defense still strung together a strong showing. The Cougars stormed out of the gate with a sack on the game’s first play and sustained the intensity through the finish. It was the second week in a row where a Houston opponent failed to produce a first half touchdown. And in critical moments, the unit almost always prevailed. Houston stifled Memphis 12 out of 14 times on third downs and the Tigers only got one taste of the end zone in defeat.
“The rest of the game was for him because he’s one of our team captains and leaders of the defense,” Parish said. “I shed a tear for him and I prayed for him, I played for him, and it’s tough but I think he will be alright.”
One highlight play which illuminated the unit transpired in the third quarter, when cornerback Marcus Jones reached out for a one-handed interception. Jones also enjoyed the liberties of sealing the contest with a statement, picking off a deep ball in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter.
“Everybody calls him Mr. Versatile now which is perfect for him,” Tune said of Jones. “He’s ridiculous. He makes plays where you’re just like ‘Wow!’ When he made that one-handed interception, the offense was in the huddle waiting to go out on the field. I looked at (tight end) Christian Trahan and go, ‘That was like a Madden animation.’ It looked straight out of a video game.”
It was Jones’ fourth consecutive week picking off a pass, adding to a Heisman-worthy résumé which features four special teams touchdowns and one receiving touchdown. Memphis’ offense couldn't escape No. 8, who tallied six tackles and three deflections along with his pair of takeaways. Holgorsen believes Jones has produced the results needed to be a Heisman finalist come December.
“He’s the most versatile player in college football. You can’t deny that,” Holgorsen said. “Everybody holds their breath when he punt returns. Defensively, he’s the best cover guy that I’ve been around. I’ve had corners get drafted high, but he’s just special though. He’d probably be our best receiver. How is that not one of the best players in college football? Is the Heisman Trophy not the best player in college football?”
One common feature of Heisman candidates is that nearly every one stems from a good team. After generating 10 consecutive victories and wielding their highest AP Poll ranking since 2016, Houston fits that mold. The Cougars are the sixth team in AAC history (2013 UCF, 2017 UCF, 2018 UCF, 2020 Cincinnati, 2020 Tulsa) to breeze through league play unblemished. Awaiting the first week of December is a reservation in the AAC Championship Game against an opponent to be determined.
“Going undefeated in conference is something that’s not been done a lot here, so we’re really excited to write our names in the record books,” Tune said after Houston clinched its first undefeated conference record since 2011. “We’re definitely excited to play in that conference championship and looking forward to it for sure.”