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Houston rallies in second half to upend Navy, 28-20

Cougars win their third consecutive game and start 1-0 in AAC play.

NCAA Football: Navy at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Things looked dire in the second half, but the Cardiac Cougars urgently addressed the issue. Tested by a winless Navy (0-3) squad, Houston (3-1) rallied behind 21 unanswered second half points to erase a 10-point deficit to win 28-20. The Cougars’ prolific finish resulted in their third consecutive victory and a 1-0 start AAC play. Sitting a perfect 3-0 since future Big 12 membership was announced, Houston’s victory over Navy signifies the longest win streak of the Dana Holgorsen era.

“It pretty much played out like I told those guys it was gonna play out,” Holgorsen said. “(Navy) did the same thing last year. They had a bye week and went on and won three conference games prior to us playing them. Everything that happened out there does not surprise me at all. At the end, our guys made enough plays to win.”

Navy provided an initial scare and a possible indication that it could be a long night for the Houston defense. The Midshipmen entered the night without scoring more than seven points in a single game this year, but that was threshold was reached three plays after kickoff. Navy scaled 76 yards in the first 63 seconds of the contest, and quarterback Xavier Arline wound up in the end zone on a 40-yard QB keeper. That drive alone collected more yards than the Midshipmen managed in their prior game.

The offense stalled to open the night, forcing the special teams unit to be responsible for Houston’s entire first half scoring output. All-American punt returner Marcus Jones backpedaled for a sky punt in the first quarter, made the initial tacklers miss with his agility, and returned it 73 yards to the house. Special teams scores are becoming a trend for Houston, and it was the second consecutive week Jones converted a punt into a touchdown. He’s the only player in the country with two punt return scores in 2021.

“I trust my blockers. I trust my teammates. They know they just have to hold them up for a little while because they love seeing me return and I love them blocking for me,” Jones said regarding his punt return success. “Usually whenever I make the first couple guys miss and I hit a seam or I see a crease, or I see something outside, that’s when I feel like I can take it the distance.”

After Jones tied it at seven apiece, the events to conclude the first half did not bode well for Houston. The Cougars yielded 10 consecutive points on extended, clock-eating drives by the Midshipmen. And when presented with a field goal opportunity to enter the break, egregious game management kept Houston off the scoreboard. From the Navy 28-yard line without the luxury of a timeout, quarterback Clayton Tune took off and ran seven yards inbounds. With no time to bring out the field goal unit, Houston entered halftime trailing Navy, 17-7.

“We’ve definitely been behind before. It was one of those situations where we got to talk to ourselves and come as a brotherhood — just calm down and breathe,” Jones said about the halftime vibes. “(Strong safety) Hasaan Hypolite talked to us at halftime and said we have to be a championship team so we know what it takes, and we got to finish.”

Right when a shanked 32-yard field goal on the opening drive of the third quarter seemed destined to doom Houston, the Cougars feverishly responded. Houston’s offense finally showed signs of life and rattled off three-straight touchdown drives on its next three possessions. The first and third touchdowns in that sequence were attributed to short runs by Texas Tech transfer halfback Ta’Zhawn Henry, who provided 55 rushing yards in his best game as a Cougar.

The other touchdown sandwiches in between the Henry runs was a 47-yard touchdown pass from Tune, who launched it to deep to Jones while absorbing contact. Jones, with nobody in his vicinity, fielded the pass like a punt and scored his first offensive touchdown of his college career. Typically the team’s starting cornerback, Jones handled a full-time offensive role for the second time in three weeks and accrued 58 yards on three receptions. But seeing Jones in an offensive light was more circumstantial than a permanent fixture according to Holgorsen.

“We’re not gonna be able to keep doing this with him,” Holgorsen said. “He’s one of our better cover guys. It just worked out against Rice and against Navy. We were in a position where we didn’t need to use him much on defense.”

Houston’s second half dominance was built on a foundation of defensive dominance. The Cougars prevented Navy’s option attack from running clock by forcing three-and-outs on the Midshipmen’s first two drives of the half. Upon taking the lead on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Cougars continued their surge. They recovered a mishandled snap on the Navy 26-yard line — a crucial takeaway which catapulted Houston to its first double-digit edge of the night. Defensive end Derek Parish was the star of the unit, blowing up the triple option offense with one sack, two tackles for loss, and a team-high 12 tackles.

“Our defense is smash mouth too so they had to match our energy to come play,” Parish said. “And I think we held the standard.”

Offensively, Houston solved Navy’s zone-oriented defense with a series of check down throws which allowed Tune to gain a rhythm. The quarterback completed 18 of his final 21 passing attempts, often finding wide open teammates in the flats. Consistently chipping away at the Navy defense, Tune finished 22/30 with 257 yards — remaining free of an interception. Houston’s offense out-gained Navy 238-64 in the second half with Tune nailing every short throw.

“They dropped eight a lot so we had to run the ball better — we did in the second half — and we had to stay patient,” Holgorsen said. “One of the adjustments we made was just put the ball in play. Put it in play. And (Tune) did a great job of that in the second half.”

A short week looms for the Cougars. No stranger to weeknight games, Houston continues its AAC slate Friday night on the plains in Tulsa, searching for its longest win streak since 2018. After four games in three different venues in the city of Houston, this will be the first time the team leaves the confines of its hometown this fall.