When Houston returned to TDECU Stadium for the first time in about a month, it was all about the dynamic duo which has defined the Cougars’ offensive success over the past three seasons.
Ever since joining forces in 2020, quarterback Clayton Tune and wide receiver Nathaniel “Tank” Dell have established one of college football’s closest QB-WR rapports, and that chemistry was on full display in Houston’s 42-27 victory over South Florida.
Both longtime standouts witnessed career milestones in front of the home fans. In the second quarter, Tune became the third Cougar quarterback in history to eclipse the 10,000-yard passing mark, joining program legends Case Keenum and Kevin Kolb in an exclusive club. The senior pieced together an efficient and explosive stat-line by connecting on 31-of-37 passes for a season-high 380 yards and four touchdowns.
“It’s really special,” Tune said on his 10,000-yard milestone. “It’s a really cool thing to do. I didn’t even know, I kind of had an idea I was closing in, but I didn’t know how close I was because I try not to look at numbers or stats. Whenever they did that on the big screen during the game, it kind of caught me off-guard. It was awesome. It was such a cool feeling to have Coach Holgorsen present me with a ball after the game.”
Dell, who captured his ninth and tenth touchdown receptions from Tune in the first half, rose into fifth all-time in program history in the category. Dell’s first touchdown catch transpired on Houston’s first drive, and for his second end zone appearance, he beat a defender with speed to haul in a 52-yard delivery from Tune. The star receiver, who celebrated his 23rd birthday Saturday, accumulated 112 yards and also assisted Tune on Houston’s most thrilling play of the day — serving as the middle man on a 28-yard flea flicker touchdown pass to KeSean Carter.
“He and I definitely have a special connection and chemistry,” Tune said of Dell. “This is year three now. We spent a lot of time together throwing a lot of routes on air and routes outside of structured practice time. It’s showing and paying off.”
With numerous injuries holding out key skill position players, a new crop of talent was required to step up Saturday. Freshman running back Stacy Sneed attained 60 yards and two touchdowns out of the backfield. The youngster sprinted into the end zone untouched on an 8-yard carry for his first career score at the end of the first quarter. Later in the contest, Sneed drove his legs at the goal line to power through a defender and complete a 12-yard touchdown run.
“He’s a really, really dynamic player,” Tune said of Sneed. “He’s so elusive. Rarely does the first guy ever make a tackle on him. He’s always making guys miss and breaking tackles. It showed today.”
Wide receiver Peyton Sawyer entered the matchup with zero receptions on the season, but the junior was another contributor who saw a spike in production Saturday. Sawyer captured a 12-yard touchdown reception in the end zone approximately one minute before halftime to cap a 21-0 Cougar scoring run — the first of his college career. He finished the day with 40 receiving yards — joining Dell (112), Carter (102), and Sam Brown (86) in a stellar showing for the position group.
“He’s been getting better and better,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said of Sawyer’s rise to the occasion. “He’s been getting some confidence by playing. He hadn’t played a whole lot in his first couple years he was here... I’m very proud of him. It’s just been the motto of this team. We are a resilient team and we don’t panic when people go down and other people have to go in.”
Although Houston’s offense clicked on all cylinders, South Florida made things challenging for the Cougar defense in the first half. Running back Brian Battie torched Houston’s special teams in the prior meeting with two kickoff return touchdowns, and this go-around, Battie asserted himself as a force in the running game. He tallied 106 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries, playing a major role in handing South Florida a 14-7 advantage in the first quarter.
“South Florida’s dangerous,” Holgorsen said. “I know the wins haven’t been there, but they’re dangerous. They play hard and they’ve got great talent and they’re coached well. I didn’t want it to be us that they figured it out against. We knew they’d score some points and move the ball offensively. We knew we had to match that, which we did.”
Houston roared back from the brief deficit with a 21-0 scoring run led by Tune’s masterclass. When Tune and the offense got on its rampage, the defense simultaneously ramped up its execution with three consecutive stops. Free safety Thabo Mwaniki was the team’s breakout star over the course of this stretch, flying all over the field for a career-high 11 tackles — including a streak of five consecutive stops in the third quarter — in his strongest performance to date.
“The first half was a lot of runs, so we came to the sideline, we talked to the coaches — we have really great coaches — and we made some adjustments,” Mwaniki said. “We were just trying to keep our foot on the pedal. We took the coaching, went with the gameplan, and executed it.”
South Florida quarterback Katravis Marsh made his first start of the season, filling the void left by the season-ending injury of Gerry Bohanon. Marsh performed well in the first half while receiving ample protection form his veteran offensive line. But the Cougars’ renowned pass rush finally broke through the wall with three second half sacks. Nose guard Chidozie Nwankwo — the star of last Saturday’s game at Navy — controlled the line of scrimmage by notching his first sack of the season and totaling five solo tackles as the anchor of Houston’s defensive line.
“These guys don’t give up sacks,” Holgorsen said, referencing the Bulls’ six surrendered sacks in their first seven games. “They get the ball out. They’d rather throw it out of bounds or incompletion than sit in there and take a sack. We finally got that score to three touchdowns... which means they panic and start throwing it around a little more. When we know that’s coming, we’re gonna get guys back there to be able to sack the quarterback.”
Houston improves to 3-1 in AAC play after its highest-scoring outing of the year. The Cougars now ride a 3-game win streak into the final stretch of the regular season, hoping to sustain this wave of momentum as the AAC Championship Game remains in play for the second consecutive year.
“It all started with the Memphis game,” Tune said. “I feel like that was a huge confidence booster for us. We hadn’t been playing up to our standard up to that point. So being able to find a way to win that game at the end, it was huge for our momentum as an offense. We just continued to build on it with the game last week against Navy. Today, we played as clean and as confident as we’ve played all year, so that’s the trend. We want to continue to move in that direction.”