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Five takeaways from Houston’s stunning 33-32 fourth quarter rally in Memphis

The Cougars become the first team to wipe away a 19+ point deficit in the fourth quarter this season.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Houston Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

There was no shortage of chaos under the Friday night lights at the Liberty Bowl.

Ten seconds into the final frame, Memphis wide receiver Gabriel Rogers delivered a 41-yard dime to running back Asa Martin in the end zone on a trick play to hand the Tigers a commanding 26-7 lead over Houston. No margin that wide had been overcome in a fourth quarter in 2022, but Rogers’ touchdown strike did not seal the deal.

Memphis scored on its two remaining possessions, yet, the next time the Tigers possessed the ball, they found themselves trailing. Houston wound up on the right side of an improbable comeback, utilizing a 100-yard kick return touchdown by Jayce Rogers, a 12-play drive which overcame two 4th and long conversions, and an onside kick recovery to register three touchdowns in the final eight minutes of a wild finish.

Houston defensive lineman Atlias Bell sacked Seth Henigan on the final play from scrimmage to secure a 33-32 victory over Memphis, giving a victorious sendoff to the Cougars in the last edition of the AAC rivalry. Heading into Friday night, teams trailing by 19+ at any point in the fourth quarter were 0-129 this year, but Houston finally bucked the trend after a jaw-dropping rally. Here’s what we learned from the most impressive comeback of 2022:

Houston cannot play a normal game this season

Change the outcome of two plays this year and Houston is 5-1. Conversely, change the outcome of three different plays and Houston is 0-6. That being said, Friday night marked the fifth time this season the result of a Cougars’ game was determined on the final play.

Houston’s 2022 season has been nothing short of bizarre. The Cougars went to overtime on three occasions in the first five weeks and fared 1-2 in those contests, despite holding leads in the final minute of regulation each time. And to force two of those overtimes, the Cougars rallied from 14-point second half deficits. Meanwhile, Houston’s lone regulation win prior to Week 6 featured a pass breakup in the end zone to stave off an upset-minded Rice squad.

That’s more than enough nail-biters for an entire season, much less, half a season. But Friday night’s 19-point comeback only added to the madness surrounding the most exhilarating college football team of 2022.

“Just when you think you can’t get any crazier — man, I don’t know what to say,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I’ve never been around a group that’s resilient. Obviously we’re sitting here at 3-3 and every game was like that.”

Houston V UTSA
Houston’s trend of chaotic finishes started in Week 1, when quarterback Clayton Tune flipped over a UTSA defender to win 37-35 in triple overtime.
Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

In overtime losses to Texas Tech and Tulane, Houston stood one fourth down stop from emerging victorious in both contests. This time, the Cougars played the reverse role as Memphis stood one play away from victory countless times in the fourth quarter. After several shortcomings in ‘do or die’ situations this year, Holgorsen was impressed with his players’ resiliency while staring down a potential 2-4 record until KeSean Carter’s go-ahead touchdown with 18 seconds remaining.

“I’m sure a lot of people turned it off, but our guys just keep playing,” Holgorsen said. “They were resilient after last week with losing the way that we did last week. Lot of noise, deservingly so, but our guys blocked it off and just practiced their butt off.”

Factoring in the visible heartbreak from the Week 5 overtime loss to Tulane, Houston’s perseverance in the midst of adversity was nothing short of impressive. After a fifth down-to-the-wire finishes in six outings, the Cougars receive a much-needed bye week to regroup. They’ll hope to restore health within a nicked up roster and also figure out how to win in the absence of late-game chaos.

Memphis needs greater consistency on defense

Memphis had long established a brand of fielding potent offenses since joining the AAC, but that was never the case on defense. In each of the seven previous seasons, the Tigers failed to crack the top 60 in fewest yards allowed, but they contributed a top 35 offense every time.

That strong offense, subpar defense trend continued in non-conference play as Memphis defeated the likes of Arkansas State and North Texas, 44-32 and 44-34, respectively. But tremendous defensive progress was demonstrated the first week of October when suffocating Temple’s offense to the tune of a 24-3 result. Memphis forced three interceptions, held the Owls to 2-of-16 on third down and 0-of-3 on fourth down, stifled the run game to 2.4 yards per carry, and limited Temple to a sub-50 percent completion rate in the decisive victory.

Plenty of that progress translated into the first three quarters of Friday’s contest as Houston entered the final frame with just one touchdown on the scoreboard. But when the defense needed to step up and record a crunch-time stop, Houston was met with little resistance. Memphis’ 125th ranked pass defense yielded a 75-yard drive in less than three minutes, allowing Houston to convert 4th and 11 and 4th and 7 opportunities in the sequence. Then after the onside kick, the Cougars marched down the field in six plays without facing a single third down. Memphis’ high-caliber defense from the Temple game was sorely missed in that moment.

“The reality is we have not shown to be a consistent team in all three phases of the game for four quarters,” Memphis head coach Ryan Silverfield said. “I’ve got to find a way to make sure we’re doing that, make sure we’re practicing the right way, and the focus level has to continue to be there. We know we’re capable, but that’s on me as a head coach to make sure we’re playing consistent football for all four quarters.”

NCAA Football: Memphis at Temple
Memphis shut Temple completely out of the end zone in a Week 5 defensive masterclass. Prior to the fourth quarter Friday night, the Tigers allowed just 10 points in a 7-quarter span.
Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

But it wasn’t just defense which allowed Houston to roar back from the three-score deficit. Special teams played a major factor as well. The Cougars’ first spark came from nickelback Jayce Rogers on his 100-yard kick return. Had Memphis’ kickoff coverage halted Rogers, Houston likely would not have enough clock to spare to complete the comeback. Additionally, the Tigers’ special teams woes factored in again when failing to secure the onside kick, injecting life into a revitalized Houston offense instead of sending the Memphis offense into victory formation.

“Tonight we took a step backwards and certain units have got to improve upon,” Silverfield said postgame. “Our kickoff coverage unit continues to be one of the worst in the country and that’s very, very concerning.”

Slow offensive starts continue to plague Houston

Houston has yet to lead at halftime this year and trailed going into the break in five of its six outings. Overall, that data agglomerates to a -56 first half deficit. Although the Cougars upended Memphis in unthinkable fashion to get the win, they cannot afford these slow offensive starts to remain a theme for the second half of 2022.

“The last thing I said to them when we left the hotel was we need to start a little bit better and we didn’t, we need to play a little bit faster, we need to play more aggressive, and we need to really focus on finishing,” Holgorsen said. “We didn’t finish two drives offensively worth a crap, which hurt our team, but we finished the game.”

Holgorsen referred to two visits inside the 5-yard line where Houston came up empty-handed. But after those initial shortcomings, the Cougars proved once again that they are the essence of a second half team. Excluding overtime periods, Houston has outscored opponents by 39 points after halftime this year. Holgorsen has shown his ability to adjust on the fly several times this fall, and that was the case once again in Memphis.

“We didn’t have a big plan with 10 personnel,” Holgorsen said. “You know, 11 or 12 is kind of what we’ve been doing the last couple weeks. We’re thin at receiver, but we did it before the half and we marched it all the way down there in 10 so we talked about it at halftime.”

But in order for Houston to avoid entanglement in a weekly thriller, the Cougars must sustain drives in the early going. Houston punted three times, tossed one interception, and shanked a chip shot field goal in a clumsy first half. To ameliorate this trend and open up the offense earlier, the unit must demonstrate the aggression it typically does in the fourth quarter — taking more deep shots and trusting receivers downfield.

Memphis can’t let a loss like this snowball again

The 2021 Tigers started 3-0, but a promising season was quickly derailed by spectacularly blown leads. Memphis surrendered a 21-0 head start when facing UTSA last September, and one week later, the Tigers watched a 17-0 advantage slip away against Temple. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Friday night’s squandered lead is not unfamiliar territory, but this time, Memphis can’t afford to let the disappointment of a gut-wrenching defeat snowball into something worse like it did last year — finishing 6-6 after a 3-0 start.

“This one’s gonna hurt,” Silverfield said. “Normally I’m pretty good about coming up and saying I’m going to put this one to bed. But the great news about our guys is they know the challenge is ahead for East Carolina. Like we’ve talked even in wins — even after the Navy game — it’s just putting those blinders on and focusing on one game at a time no matter what happens.”

East Carolina v Memphis
Coming off a heartbreaker vs. Houston, Memphis looks to avenge its 2021 loss to East Carolina next Saturday in Greenville, NC.
Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Boasting a 4-2 overall record with a 1-1 standing in a wide-open AAC, Silverfield realizes Memphis still has plenty of goals within reach. The Tigers battle three .500+ opponents in their next three games, but despite this uptick in strength of schedule, the team believes it can learn from last year’s midseason collapse to provide a stronger finish in 2022.

“Hope is not lost,” Silverfield said. “Lack of execution is what led us to where we are right now, but our guys will be mentally focused on the task at hand of East Carolina. The one thing I know about those guys in the locker room is that they’re gonna be okay.”

The entire complexion of Houston’s season changed

Houston checked in at No. 1 in the preseason poll at AAC media day this summer. And for the past five seasons, winning an AAC championship has resulted in a de facto complementary New Year’s Six bowl appearance. At 3-3, that coveted New Year’s Six bowl is essentially off the table for the Cougars. But by staging the 19-point comeback, Houston recouped some of their losses and several of their preseason goals remain attainable.

The good news for Houston is it escaped the toughest portion of its schedule without a losing record. Looking ahead, not a single one of the Cougars’ six remaining opponents currently hovers over .500. At 1-1 in AAC play with a favorable schedule ahead, making a return trip to the conference championship game is still within reasonable reach thanks to overcoming that daunting 26-7 deficit at the Liberty Bowl.

“We’re 1-1 in the conference and we’re alive,” Holgorsen said. “Hopefully we can continue to build on this.”

2021 American Conference Championship - Houston v Cincinnati
Dana Holgorsen led the Cougars to the 2021 AAC Championship Game in his third year at the helm. In order to book a return trip, Houston must run through its remaining schedule, which features zero teams above .500.
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

After several deflating losses this year, the most important thing this win does is give the Cougars a kick of momentum. Houston enters a bye week after an inspiring win, knowing its capabilities in all three phases after a stellar fourth quarter. Now the Cougars look to leverage that newfound confidence in order to turn around their season, as the energy appeared to shift after completing an unlikely 33-32 comeback in Memphis.

“This thing was gonna go one way or another after this game,” Holgorsen said. “Next week was about to be challenging. Sitting at 2-4, regardless of what the score was or whatever, it was gonna be challenging. We were gonna have to reassess a lot of things. Now we got momentum.”