On July 1, 2023, Houston will remove the American Athletic Conference logo from John O’Quinn Field at TDECU Stadium in favor of a Big 12 logo. Although the Cougars don’t hold Big 12 membership status for six-and-a-half more months, Saturday’s home opener presented a preview of life in a new conference.
After battling through consecutive overtime thrillers to open the 2022 slate, Houston returned home to challenge a much-improved Kansas team. Heading into the week, head coach Dana Holgorsen said, “This ain’t the Kansas of old,” and the fourth-year Cougar head coach was proven right by Saturday’s result.
“Everybody’s excited about the (Big 12) transition. Everybody’s excited about the future. We’ve done this before. It didn’t take an offseason to get Big 12 ‘Power 5’ ready,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “Can we prove we can hang in there and compete with those guys? Yeah. Can we do it every week right now? No. Clearly couldn’t from last week to this week.”
Lance Leipold and the Jayhawk offense lit up the Houston defense in a 48-30 final, scoring on eight consecutive full drives in the process. With the victory, “Kansas of new” secured the program’s first 3-0 start since 2007 and tied the team’s highest win total since 2009.
Despite the brutal finish, Houston could not have asked for a better start on both sides of the ball. After failing to register a first quarter point through two contests, the Cougars forced consecutive three-and-outs and tabbed two explosive touchdowns before eight minutes of clock exhausted. Quarterback Clayton Tune connected with running back Ta’Zhawn Henry on a screen for a 34-yard score, and on the ensuing offensive drive, fellow running back Brandon Campbell raced past the Kansas defense for a 40-yard end zone appearance to hand the home team a 14-0 lead.
“People had been griping about us not being able to start fast and ‘do something different coach,’” Holgorsen said. “Well we started fast. That doesn’t mean the game was over just because it was 14-0. Give Kansas some credit. They’re pretty resilient.”
Kansas entered the contest No. 1 in the FBS in scoring at 55.5 points per game, and that was evident in the team’s poised response. On the precipice of a third consecutive three-and-out to start the afternoon, quarterback Jalon Daniels floated a pass left toward running back Daniel Hishaw Jr., who raced down the sideline for a 17-yard gain. That play would be the impetus of a 28-0 scoring run.
“They’re a good team,” Holgorsen said. “Same thing happened to them last week in Morgantown. They got down and just made plays. Their head coach, who out-coached me, he’s got their team’s attention to where they’ve gotten some confidence and they’re hot.”
Hishaw wound up posting Kansas’ initial points moments later, and the Jayhawks’ comeback was expedited by a Tune interception. Safety Kenny Logan Jr. snagged an overthrow on the third play of the Cougars’ third drive, and Kansas capitalized immediately with a rushing touchdown by Daniels.
At that point, the only thing stopping Daniels and Kansas’ electrifying offense was a lightning delay, which came into effect roughly six minutes into the second quarter. But on the first play after the 69-minute hiatus concluded, Daniels picked off where he left off by firing the go-ahead touchdown pass to slot receiver Luke Grimm.
Daniels continued to display his dual-natured abilities as a rusher and passer throughout the contest, accounting for three touchdowns with his arm and two with his legs. Through the air, his signature highlight involved slinging it deep to Torry Locklin for a 60-yard score to put the Jayhawks ahead 28-14. On the ground, Daniels posted a game-high 123 rushing yards. And due to his escapability demonstrated on many of those runs, the Houston defense — fresh off a 6-sack performance at Texas Tech — recorded zero sacks on Kansas’ elusive quarterback.
“They’re as good as advertised, offensively,” Holgorsen said. “We didn’t tackle the quarterback once. We didn’t stop them once after the first two drives. I’m not pointing a finger at the defense. Offense should have scored more and they didn't. There’s plenty of blame to go around.”
Utilizing a litany of motions, reverses, and other offensive distractions, Kansas exploded for 438 yards of offense and reached the end zone on six consecutive possessions, spanning from the first quarter to the end of the third — excluding a brief 15-second drive which wrapped up the first half. The Jayhawks had zero issue sustaining drives, converting 7-of-12 third downs and nailing their lone fourth down attempt of the contest.
In the second half, things transitioned from bad to worse for Houston. In the first two snaps after Kansas claimed a 35-21 advantage, star wide receiver Tank Dell left the game with an injury and then Tune was strip sacked by Jayhawk defensive end Jereme Robinson. Each moment of adversity ballooned, and Houston wound up yielding its most points since the finale of the 2019 season.
Emotions ran high for Houston throughout the contest. On the first possession of the second half, a sideline altercation broke out between wide receivers Sam Brown and Joseph Manjack IV. Additionally, unsportsmanlike conduct calls ran rampant for the Cougars. Overall, Houston was penalized 10 times for 74 yards while Kansas avoided committing a penalty until the final 30 seconds of the third quarter.
“It’s just stupid crap and penalties,” Holgorsen said. “There are some things that we did out there again — that was dumb. Sam got cheap-shotted and he responded the inappropriate way. When you retaliate, you’re gonna get caught. So I put that in the undisciplined stupid crap category. Manjack, who is a fierce competitor and one of the hardest competitors we got and is a team guy... he saw Sam retaliate and was pissed because all we do is talk about not doing that. We’ve gotta continue to get that stuff outside of our program.”
It was not Houston’s finest evening, and through three games, the team already matched its value in the loss column from the entire 2021 season, dropping its first game at TDECU Stadium since Oct. 31, 2020. Still in control of its own destiny for the AAC Championship Game due to a blank slate in league play, Houston hopes to build momentum next Saturday against cross-town rival Rice in its non-conference finale.
“We’ve gotta get back on track before we get this conference thing going, which is obviously the most important thing,” Holgorsen said.