When quarterback Clayton Tune struck his knee to the turf in the waning seconds, a red and white themed celebration ensued inside the confines of the brand new Protective Stadium. Head coach Dana Holgorsen was doused in a waterfall of Gatorade and seconds later, he was the centerpiece of a mosh pit comprised of his players. A remarkable season came to a spectacular conclusion for the Houston Cougars which attained 12 wins for the third time in program history.
Houston, in its winningest campaign since 2015, accomplished a feat the program also had not experienced since that memorable season. Entangled in a defensive slugfest with Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl, Houston emerged in 17-13 fashion to claim its first bowl victory in six years.
“You want to finish the season off with a win,” Tune said. “Last year I had a bad taste coming out of my mouth with the loss in the New Mexico Bowl. This was kind of a revenge tour to come out and have the season that we did and finish with a bowl win.”
The Cougars won the down-to-the-wire contest primarily due to defensive execution. Led by defensive coordinator Doug Belk, Houston limited Auburn to just one end zone appearance. Belk’s unit came up in critical situations by recording two fourth down stops. One transpired on 4th and 2 in the red zone in the first quarter. The other stop, occurring in the final three minutes, was a mirror image of the first — another 4th and 2 where Auburn resorted to a quick slant. Cornerback Damarion Williams broke up T.J. Finley’s bullet pass to Kobe Hudson, gifting Houston the ball with 2:42 remaining and a lead.
Prior to Williams’ clutch breakup, Houston’s offense needed to work some magic. The Cougars faced a shutout in the second half, but thanks to forcing three consecutive Auburn punts, they earned an opportunity to win. Tune, the Birmingham Bowl MVP, led the Cougars on an 8-play, 80-yard drive by completing all five of his passes during the sequence. His final completion landed into the hands of Jake Herslow on a corner route, and the senior receiver cut toward the goal line for a 26-yard go-ahead touchdown.
“Jake’s one of the best stories in college football,” Holgorsen said. “Jake’s a walk-on. He transferred in from Old Dominion. He kept telling me he could do things that I didn’t think he could do and I just kept telling him to shut up and mind his own business. After 14 games, I had to kick (Tune and Herslow) off the field after Friday’s walkthrough. These two guys have developed a relationship that’s very special on and off the field.”
In order to triumph in Birmingham, all Houston required was seven second half points. The Cougars squandered several offensive opportunities which allowed Auburn to gain a 13-10 advantage. Houston turned it over on downs in plus territory and committed a pair of second half turnovers. The team’s first interception was an overthrow by Tune in the third quarter. The other giveaway occurred on a trick play, where Tune lateraled the ball to tight end Seth Green, who was designed to pass it back to the quarterback. However, Tune was blanketed by Auburn defenders and linebacker Chandler Wooten corralled the pass at midfield instead.
“We played awesome in the first half. We didn’t play good at all in the third quarter. I don’t care if it was special teams or it was offense or it was defense. They controlled the clock, they had two long drives,” Holgorsen said. “Our field position was atrocious all game especially in the third quarter. To come back from that and get some stops in the fourth quarter and score when we needed to, that’s good team effort. That’s what this team has done all year.”
To combat Auburn’s defense, the Cougars relied on heavy utilization from Nathaniel Dell. The team’s leading receiver recorded a season-high 10 receptions for his fourth 150-yard showing of the year. Dell was responsible for moving the sticks in crucial moments, and he converted four third downs and one fourth down in a stellar performance.
“That’s kind of been our offense all season,” Herslow said. “When we’ve needed to make plays, we do. So there was no panic, there was no fret. We just trusted each other, trusted the o-line and the running backs.”
With the victory over Auburn, Houston sustains the AAC’s perfect bowl record of 3-0 — the conference’s second win against the SEC this postseason. After a stellar run which included an 11-game win streak, an AAC Championship Game appearance, and now a bowl win, the Cougars are set to finish 2021 with their first final AP ranking since the 2015 season. Holgorsen believes this special season can be the springboard into building a consistent winner at Houston.
“It’s going to go a long way,” Holgorsen said. “This was gonna be a good football season no matter what. If you want it to be great, go win against Auburn in SEC country in Alabama in front of their crowd... Now we can propel it into next year. What Cincinnati did two years ago, they went to a bowl game in Birmingham and won it and now they’re 22-1 since.”