It was the result Houston waited all season for.
From start to finish, Houston took full control of a game and finally won without the need for crunch-time heroics or late-game pressure. In the first half of the regular season alone, the Cougars took part in three separate overtime contests (UTSA, Texas Tech, Tulane) and two tightly-contested additional games which were essentially decided on the final play (Rice, Memphis). Fresh off a bye week, Houston left zero doubt in Annapolis by coasting past Navy, 38-20, to improve to 4-3 overall and 2-1 in AAC play in a wide-open conference race.
“How we won in Memphis, that game is momentum going into the bye week,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “Having two weeks to prepare for these guys was huge, critical. I don’t know how you prep for them in six or seven days. We use that in our favor. Any scheduling advantage we can grab onto we certainly will.”
The Cougars entered Saturday’s bout with Navy with a laundry list of to-do items. One of those checkboxes included winning in convincing fashion, which was accomplished in the three-score victory. Another objective involved securing the team’s first halftime lead of the year. After dwelling in a -56 first half scoring margin in its first six games, Houston finally reversed course and started fast offensively.
“We practiced starting fast, we talked about it,” Holgorsen said. “I know this has been a hot topic in the media and deservingly so... Our kids talked about it all week. We started fast in the hotel this morning which was step one. We were alert, had good meetings, good walkthroughs, and then starting fast in the football game as well.”
Clayton Tune delivered a career-high five touchdown passes in a 261-yard, interception-free showing. The fourth-year starting quarterback started firing out of the gate, leading two immediate touchdown drives where wide receiver Tank Dell reaped the benefits in the end zone. Dell obtained a team-best 93 yards on eight receptions, picking apart a Navy secondary which ranked fifth-to-last in yards allowed per pass prior to Saturday. The combo looked borderline unstoppable for moments in the game, demonstrating the full potential of the Houston offense.
“Having an experienced quarterback in Clayton Tune gives you a whole lot of comfort to when you snap that ball and it’s in his hands, he can figure out what’s going on,” Holgorsen said.
With Tune and Dell establishing an early connection, Houston entered the break with a commanding 21-7 lead, signifying the first time it amassed more than 14 points in a first half this season. While the passing game demonstrated its advantages, the Cougars also established a run game with freshman Stacy Sneed, who began the year buried on the depth chart. Sneed enjoyed his first 100-yard outing at the collegiate level and the young back was fed the ball 20 times in a memorable performance.
Houston typically saves its best offensively for the second half, but the start of the third quarter could not have fared worse for the unit. A lack of ball security helped Navy creep back into the game as Tune was strip-sacked by Jacob Busic, and the fumble was recovered by Jianni Woodson-Brooks for a Midshipmen touchdown. But fortunately for the Cougars, coughing up the ball inside their own 35-yard line three times in the first five minutes of the half didn’t end up as catastrophic as it could have been. Navy only managed a missed field goal attempt from Dell’s fumble and a fumble by Jayce Rogers on a kickoff return was recovered by Houston.
The Cougars eventually put aside their fumbling phase and returned to their first half level of execution on offense. Tune sent his final two touchdown passes in the direction of West Virginia transfer wide receiver Sam Brown, who has carved a larger role for himself in the offense with the absences of true freshman Matthew Golden and USC transfer Joseph Manjack IV. Brown now has 13 receptions and 150 yards in his last three outings, proving to be a viable secondary to Dell in this offense.
Navy’s triple option scheme caused Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk to demand a high-level of focus from his front seven, and that attribute was observed in Annapolis. Inside linebacker Donavan Mutin has always been a tackling machine since first suiting up for Houston in 2018, but his previous four years never saw a game like Saturday. Mutin was omnipresent on the gridiron in a career-high 13-tackle performance, oftentimes preventing Navy fullback Daba Fofana or quarterback Tai Lavatai from breaking away with explosive runs.
Houston’s secondary, particularly the cornerback group, flew into the eastern time zone shorthanded this week due to injuries to Alex Hogan (out for season) and Abdul-Lateef Audu. But even with a lack of depth, the unit stepped up to make a handful of plays when the Midshipmen tried to ignite the passing game. Rogers came up with his second interception of the year while cornerback Art Green stalled a key Navy drive in the third quarter, providing Houston the field position needed to extend a 24-14 lead to a 17-point gap.
“We played great defensively,” Holgorsen said. “We did a great job stopping the run and forcing them into some passing situations. We felt like this Navy team and that quarterback could throw the ball pretty well but man we covered them. We didn’t have any busted assignments and made some plays in the defensive pass game.”
The Cougars remain alive in the AAC race after winning their second consecutive conference matchup. The team still radiates off the energy accumulated from a 19-point fourth quarter comeback in Memphis, and will look to carry that momentum and discipline into the last five matchups of the regular season. Coming up next is a home clash against South Florida, which will provide Houston an opportunity at its first 3-game win streak of 2022.