What does a third-string quarterback do when they suddenly become the backup quarterback? Well, they prepare like they're one step closer to hearing the number called.
For Tulane quarterback Kai Horton, that hypothetical situation became a reality after a shoulder injury to Michael Pratt, their starter, sidelined him for their conference opener against Houston.
“I just came in like I was starting,” Horton told Underdog Dynasty. “Just preparing myself and making sure I was doing everything right in practice. Making sure I was watching extra film, making sure I was getting my body right to play.”
According to Horton, Tulane head coach Willie Fritz told him that “this week is different than this week” because instead of being two plays from getting in the game, he was only one play away from getting playing time.
That exact situation quickly became true in a situation that seemed straight out of a movie.
On the opening drive of the game, Justin Ibieta — the quarterback who started the game — rolled out to his left and was hit while going out of bounds. After getting up, the television broadcast shows Ibieta favoring his left shoulder.
“[Tulane wide receiver coach John McMenamin] came up to me and was like, ‘get warmed up and take some snaps,’” Horton said. “It was running through my head [that] this is an opportunity that everybody wants, and it’s coming into reality, so you just got to make the most of the opportunities that are granted.”
Soon, Horton was putting on his helmet, getting ready to take an extended amount of snaps for the first time this season.
“All the players just coming up to me and telling me, ‘we believe in you.’ That’s a really good feeling,” Horton said. “All your teammates believing in you, and when you hear that from your teammates, just saying ‘we trust in you. We believe in you, and we know you can get the job done.’ It’s a really good feeling. “
Although Horton had appeared in five games over his first two seasons, he only got significant playing time once, throwing the ball 16 times in Tulane’s loss against Cincinnati in Oct. 2021.
While Horton finished that game with just 79 yards and two interceptions, the game certainly played a role in the redshirt freshman feeling comfortable against Houston.
“Coming from high school to college, there’s a lot of differences, but the main difference is the game speed and how quick you have to go through your reads. How quick you have to be in the pocket. You can’t hold on to the ball too long because those gaps, holes, and zones are closing up super fast,” Horton said. “Just getting that experience last year and seeing what it’s like to play against a really good defense and seeing what needed to be done, it helped me out a lot.”
Against Houston, that experience played a role, for sure, as Horton entered the game with a calming aura.
“Honestly, not at all,” Horton said with a slight chuckle when asked if he was nervous. “This is the sport I love, and I’m super confident in myself. Going in with that mentality, it really does calm you down a lot.”
Moments during the game helped Horton feel comfortable too. On his second drive of the game, Horton rolled out to the right and connected with Duece Watts for a 13-yard touchdown, giving Tulane an early lead.
“The feeling of that happening is a really good feeling,” Horton said about the touchdown. “It gave me a lot of confidence for the rest of the game.”
3rd string QB, no problem!— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 30, 2022
First career TD for Kai Horton
After that drive, Tulane’s offense hit a lull and couldn’t find consistency for a while. However, as they have done throughout the season, the Tulane defense did its job and neutralized Houston’s potent offense.
“I went up to the defense, and I told them, ‘y’all keep balling out, y’all keep doing what you’re doing. I promise y’all we’re going to get it going soon,’” Horton said. “It’s a long game, it’s more than just one quarter, [and] it’s more than just one drive. I just made sure to keep my teammates focused and in the game.”
“This is just football.”
Still, Tulane’s defense could not keep Houston’s offense quiet all night long, and, with just about three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, a touchdown by Houston put them up a touchdown.
That, in turn, meant that Horton would have to go 75 yards in limited time to tie the game and force overtime. While the moment was high pressure, you couldn’t tell by looking at Horton’s face as the broadcast cut to him.
“My dad ... was saying that the TV kept putting the camera in my face. He said that he saw that I was just so calm, cool, and collected,” Horton said. “I’ve been in a lot of big moments. Last year against Cincinnati, that helped me out a lot.”
To Horton, that collected mentality was because this game “was just football,” and if he followed his training, everything would work.
With 42 seconds remaining, Horton had arguably the biggest moment of his young career.
After a timeout, Horton walked onto the field, facing a 4th-and-goal at the 3-yard line and a chance to tie the game and take it into overtime.
As the ball snapped, a Houston defensive end was left untouched off the edge by design as Tulane’s offense worked towards the second level. Despite that, Horton soft-tossed the ball to Tyrick James for a touchdown.
James was just one of the many players who made plays on the final drive. While he got the score, the likes of Tyjae Spears, Shane Wyatt, and Duece Watts also made their impacts felt.
“When you have playmakers like that, just give them the ball, and they’re going to do the rest,” Horton said. “Just go through your reads and get it to your playmakers, trust in them.”
“They messed up wanting to get the ball first.”
Despite the late touchdown, Tulane still had one job — finding a way to win the game.
For Tulane, their defense would have to come away with another stop after Houston chose to get the football first.
“I went up to the defense because I saw that they chose to get the ball first,” Horton said. “[I] told them when they were sitting down, ‘they messed up wanting to get the ball first. When y’all get a stop right here, I promise you we are not going home losing this game.’”
As expected, Tulane’s defense held Houston to a field goal, meaning that Horton would have a chance to write his name in history books with a walk-off touchdown.
Facing a 2nd-and-5, Tulane called a run-pass option, giving Horton a chance to read the defense and, depending on the matchup, run the ball himself or throw it to a pass catcher. Horton chose the latter, delivering a tight-window throw to Tyjae Spears for a 10-yard touchdown.
“I liked what I saw on the outside. Their corners looked like they had bad eyes, and as soon as I saw what I liked, I just knew that I had to give Tyjae a chance and put it away from the safety coming over the top,” Horton said. “He made an amazing play catching it, and it was just an exciting feeling.”
For Horton, the entire game was a dream come true and one that most will only imagine but not get to live.
“Leading the team down, making sure we get the win, It’s something that you can dream about, but you’ll never really feel it until it happens,” Horton said. “Just the feeling when I threw the touchdown to Tyjae and just seeing all of our fans, our band, the support staff, and the coaches so excited, it was an amazing feeling you want to relive.”
Following the game, Horton knew there was just one call he needed to make.
“I just made sure to call my family after. That’s all I was worried about. My family was super happy. They, unfortunately, didn’t make it to the game but of course, they were watching it. My sister just had her daughter, so they were back home helping her take care of her,” Horton said. “Just made sure to call my family, all my friends from back home, the people that have always been there for me and supportive of me and helped me and get to the place where I’m at now.”
On Twitter, Horton quickly became a trending topic. Not only did he catch the attention of national media, but a video of his final touchdown pass has upwards of 75,000 views.
Horton, however, mentioned that he didn’t pay attention to the social media buzz until Sunday.
As for the last touchdown, though, Horton admits to watching the play a few times from the broadcast angle.
“It was a good feeling to go back and watch … and see from a different perspective how it plays out,” Horton said. “It was a big-time moment that will definitely live with me for the rest of my life.”