Earlier this month, the capitals of the sports world were Houston, TX and Philadelphia, PA, when the Astros and Phillies engaged in a thrilling World Series to conclude the 2022 MLB season. But this time it was on the gridiron where a Philadelphia team traveled to Southeast Texas to test its mettle, and just like earlier in the month, Houston emerged victorious.
After downing Temple (3-7, 1-5 AAC) in a 43-36 crunch time finish at TDECU Stadium, Houston (6-4, 4-2 AAC) attained bowl eligibility and simultaneously denied Temple of a postseason opportunity. But it wasn’t easy for the cardiac Cougars, which required a last-minute touchdown to surge past the visiting Owls. It was the fifth time a Houston game featured a tie or lead change in the final minute of regulation this year, and the second time the Cougars emerged victorious in such a situation.
“We don’t quit. That’s the mental makeup of who we are,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We don’t quit, so I commend our coaches and our players for just attacking it and not quitting. Are we happy that it came down to the last play of the game? No. Am I surprised? No.”
Temple captured its first lead of the second half thanks to a critical fumble by Houston running back Stacy Sneed. The Owls gained control of the loose ball at their own 27-yard line and methodically drove down the field in a 12-play drive. Temple’s go-ahead score materialized with 1:22 remaining on a do-or-die 4th and 3 when Zae Baines brought a tunnel screen into the end zone to put Houston behind, 36-35.
“You can’t sit here and hope that the defense gets a stop because that’s the wrong mindset,” Houston quarterback Clayton Tune said on his mindset after the costly fumble. “Because if it doesn’t happen, you’re caught off-guard. You just have to assume the worst and get your mind right. My whole mindset after that happened was it happened, there’s nothing we can do to change it but focus on the next drive.”
Led by a poised veteran quarterback in Tune, Houston won the game on a calm and collected game-winning possession. Tune ignited the offense by completing a pair of 12-yard passes to get the Cougars across midfield. Then the fourth-year starter went for paydirt. He heaved a 44-yard bomb to a streaking Matthew Golden, who fled several steps behind the Temple secondary. The true freshman dove to snag the pigskin in the end zone, corralling a clutch touchdown reception with 40 seconds remaining on the clock.
“They put me out there because they trusted me,” Golden said. “I came out there and took my opportunity, and came out there to do what I was supposed to do. Safety dropped down and I knew I was gonna get open, so I ran a post.”
An elusive scramble by Tune provided the Cougars a 2-point conversion to secure a 7-point lead. Then, during Temple’s final gasp, the defense held firm to lock up the victory.
Fumble aside, whenever Houston’s offense needed a boost Saturday, Sneed delivered on a consistent basis. Sneed utilized his speed en route to a career-high 143 rushing yards, averaging 13 yards per carry in his best performance to date. There were five occasions where the redshirt freshman running back broke free for a gain of 20 yards or greater — proving his ability to succeed in a primary running back role.
“Stacy’s real good,” Golden said. “He didn’t really have a big opportunity at the beginning of the season, but every time he gets in, he comes in and does what he’s supposed to do and take advantage of the opportunity.”
Temple, which entered Saturday one of 18 FBS teams averaging under 20 points per game, coasted into halftime with a 19-14 advantage on the road. The Owls’ offense found its groove last week with a 54-point outburst against South Florida, and some of that success translated to Houston. True freshman quarterback E.J. Warner was exceptional in the opening two quarters, attaining 232 passing yards on an 18-of-23 showing. But Warner also replicated that offensive clinic in the second half, finishing 42-of-59 with 486 yards and three touchdowns to guide Temple to its second-highest scoring output of the season.
“That quarterback is a really good player,” Holgorsen said of Warner. “He’s going to be a heck of a player. He doesn’t do anything dumb, so give those guys some credit. They came in with some momentum and we knew we were gonna have to play.”
While the Cougars’ stopped the run with ease, a shorthanded secondary was unable to produce an effective counter against Warner — only taking him down once in the backfield. After yielding 77 points and nine touchdown passes to SMU the prior week, Houston remains in search for answers after allowing Temple its most productive aerial performance in 2022.
“I think a lot of it has to do with play calls and Warner getting the ball out of his hands,” Holgorsen said, referencing Temple’s status as top 10 in the FBS in fewest sacks allowed. “We knew we wouldn’t be able to rack up a bunch of good numbers and stuff like that. I don’t think we’re disruptive to the point where we made him uncomfortable which is why we gave up so many yards and points.”
Houston escaped several dire situations in the first half where Temple’s lead could have ballooned. The Cougars adopted an aggressive mindset on fourth downs and attempted three before the break. But fortunately for Holgorsen’s squad, they converted all three (including two on one possession) thanks in part to Tune’s ability to extend plays and find openings downfield. The Cougars’ ‘no risk it, no biscuit’ approach was the impetus for their only two first half touchdowns, keeping them in striking distance heading into the third quarter.
“That’s something I’ve put an emphasis on,” Tune said on his ability to extend plays. “My job description is to distribute the ball. I’m not a running back. I felt like earlier on in my career, there were times at any sight of pressure, I’d be quick to get out and run. I’m confident in my ability to run the ball so I always lean on that, but we have playmakers all over the field that can do a lot better things with the ball in their hands than I can.”
Houston extended its lead to multiple scores in the third quarter when Sneed sparked an a quick scoring drive coming out of halftime and Tune subsequently tossed his first touchdown of the day to Christian Trahan. After a quick Temple response, Tune went back to the basics and found his most trustworthy option in Tank Dell to kick off the scoring in the fourth quarter. The 13th end zone connection of the season between the quarterback and receiver opened the gap to 35-26. Dell’s presence was essential and the star receiver captured 12 receptions for 98 yards in the contest, leading the offense to its third consecutive 40-point finish.
“I think he legally wants to change his name to Tank,” Holgorsen said. “He wants to go by Tank because he thinks he’s tough. And I think he’s tough. For a guy that’s of that stature, he does a great job of not getting hit, which is why he can keep playing at the level that he plays at.”
Although clinching bowl eligibility occurred three games later than it did in the prior year, Houston is now assured it will participate in this postseason with its sixth win of 2022. The Cougars are catching fire at a favorable time, winning four of their last five games due to a surging offense captained by Tune. As Tune’s storied college career winds to a close, he looks to sustain this captured momentum throughout his final days donning a Houston uniform.
“I just had to block out all the noise and remind myself that I had been through too much, worked too hard, and seen too much not to go out and enjoy this last year and make the most of it,” Tune said. “Play free and see where the chips fall. I feel like we’ve done a good job of responding from some of the early-on struggles in the season.”