For the final time after a decade-long run, American Athletic Conference logos, branding, and signage adorned TDECU Stadium in Houston, TX. The 2022 Houston Cougars’ sendoff AAC season had been a farewell tour of sorts, as they played many well-acquainted opponents for the last time in the foreseeable future.
One of those opponents was Tulsa, which traveled one state south in hopes of spoiling the Cougars’ last AAC game and senior day. The Golden Hurricane, ineligible for bowl contention with seven losses, still enjoyed a triumphant finale to the 2022 season by stunning Houston on the road, 37-30.
“I thought we could get this win and finish winning six of the last seven and putting ourselves in a position to where we could keep our head high and be proud of how we finish and we couldn’t do it,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “The players are disappointed. The coaches are disappointed that we didn’t finish it the way we wanted to.”
Houston rode a hot streak during the second half of the season by winning five of six games, starting with a season-altering 19-point comeback at Memphis in October. But coming off their strongest performance of the year at East Carolina, the heavily-favored Cougars couldn’t conclude their final AAC contest of 2022 in victorious fashion.
“That’s one thing Coach Holgorsen stresses to us — anyone can be beat on any given night,” Houston defensive end Atlias Bell said. “I think our mentality needed to switch a little bit on how we approached these guys because they didn’t have a very good record, weren’t a very good team, so I think if our approach had been a tad bit different... any given team can lose on any given night. You see that every week in the country. Teams that are supposed to win, they lose.”
Tulsa entered the matchup on a one-game win streak thanks to a career-night by freshman quarterback Braylon Braxton last Friday against South Florida. In that contest, Braxton passed for a career-high 302 yards and accounted for three touchdowns in the victory. But one week later in Houston, Braxton reset his career numbers, one-upping that passing output to 316 yards, rushing for a personal-best 51 yards, and accounting for four total touchdowns — his most to date — in Tulsa’s most impressive win of the year.
Braxton clawed Tulsa out of a 24-13 hole in the second quarter with the help of sixth-year senior wide receiver JuanCarlos Santana, who suited up for his final collegiate game. Santana caught six passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns. After a 37-yard touchdown run from Braxton cut Tulsa’s deficit to one-score before the half, the Braxton-to-Santana connection struck in the early third quarter.
Two minutes after the halftime kickoff, Santana burned man coverage en route to a 52-yard touchdown reception to hand the Golden Hurricane a lead which would not be relinquished. After the Cougars tied the ballgame at 27 apiece, Santana thrived in one-on-one coverage again, and the senior got an extra step on his defender for a 25-yard go-ahead touchdown grab in the back of the end zone.
“To me, if I’m being honest, we just didn’t capitalize on plays enough,” Bell said. “We just didn’t simply make enough plays — a lot of missed tackles, not executing, a lot of bad communication. They pretty much just capitalized on our mistakes.”
Tulsa’s offensive surge coincided with arguably the best defensive half the team played all season. The Golden Hurricane completely held Houston’s top 15 scoring offense out of the end zone for the final 30 minutes of action and only let up two red zone field goals in the final two quarters. When the game was tied at 27, the Cougars gambled on a fourth down from the 21-yard line, but Clayton Tune’s pass to Christian Trahan was intercepted by the Golden Hurricane defense in the end zone. Following the crucial turnover — the only one by either team — Tulsa stifled Houston to six collective yards on the next three series, and each one concluded in a punt.
“They played a bend, don’t break defense and dropped eight,” Holgorsen said. “We gotta be patient. It gets harder the more condensed the space becomes in the red zone. We’ve been really good this year about executing in the red zone with touchdowns. We didn’t execute worth crap in the red zone when it came to scoring touchdowns. Is that the difference in the game? Probably.”
Saturday night at TDECU Stadium marked the last home game of several accomplished seniors in the Houston program, most notably quarterback Clayton Tune. One of three active 11,000-yard passers in the FBS, Tune added to his impressive career total by attaining 386 yards on the Golden Hurricane defense. It was his fourth 380+ yard showing in his last five games, and by tossing touchdowns to Tank Dell and Matthew Golden, he enters the postseason tied with Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud atop the passing touchdowns leaderboard with 37 on the year.
“After the game, we hugged it out and told each other we loved each other and stuff like that, but it just didn’t end how we wanted it to end so there wasn’t too much really to say,” Dell said of Tune. “We’re gonna get together later though. There just wasn’t too much to say after.”
It was also possibly the final run at TDECU Stadium for Dell, who despite wielding additional eligibility could be NFL bound after a spectacular junior campaign. Dell is one yard shy of the nation’s receiving yards leader at 1,354, and he ranks second in receptions and tied for first in touchdowns among FBS wide receivers. He opened the scoring effort Saturday night with a 63-yard house call on a punt return — the first special teams score of the potential All-American’s college career. Dell declined to comment postgame if he made a decision regarding a return to Houston in 2023.
“That’s good, but we lost,” Dell said of his impressive statistical season. “The biggest goal is to win. I wanted to go win a championship. We didn’t do that. We didn’t get close to doing that.”
Tulsa’s 2022 campaign ended on a two-game win streak, but the Golden Hurricane won’t kick off their next game until September 2023 due to missing out on bowl eligibility for the first time since 2019. Houston, which fell to 7-5 on the season, learns of its bowl destination next Sunday following the weekend’s conference championship slate.
“It was a disappointing season obviously. We didn't meet expectations,” Holgorsen said. “I thought we had enough left in the tank to win this last one and finish 6-2 and tied for second which isn’t the goal. I thought it was obtainable. We got out-coached. We got outplayed.”
During the postgame festivities, Houston wide receiver Sam Brown was shown on the ESPN2 broadcast camera slapping Tulsa free safety Bryson Powers. Houston Vice President for Athletics Chris Pezman and Holgorsen released a joint statement regarding the matter.
“We are aware of an incident that took place following tonight’s game involving one of our players,” the statement read. “This type of conduct is taken very seriously, and the behavior is not reflective of our values or the standards of our program. We are in the process of gathering more information and will take the appropriate steps moving forward.”