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Five takeaways from Houston’s thrilling 37-35 triple overtime victory over UTSA

Houston’s offense is most dynamic when Clayton Tune is a runner, and other thoughts from the Alamodome showdown.

Houston V UTSA Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

The prevailing theme of college football’s first full opening week was chaos. Chaos reigned from Boone, NC to New Orleans, LA to Pittsburgh, PA all the way to San Antonio, TX. In the latter of the aforementioned sites, Houston and UTSA traded punch-for-punch, unable to declare a winner until the third overtime period.

The Cougars won on a leaping finish over the goal line by quarterback Clayton Tune, while the defense broke up UTSA’s two-point try on the other end. There was plenty to digest in the elongated game, and here are five takeaways from Houston’s 37-35 victory in Week 1:

Mobile Clayton Tune is a good Clayton Tune

For the second consecutive season, college football operates under a revised set of overtime rules. Teams are forced to attempt two-point tries following touchdowns in second overtime, and in the third overtime, the game turns into a hockey-style shootout, but with no possessions; instead, alternating two-point attempts.

When Houston and UTSA couldn’t gain separation from each other, the opener at the Alamodome wound up in this frantic two-point shootout. When it was Houston’s turn to draw up a critical play to draw the first blood of triple overtime, they put the ball in the hands of the playmaker who got them to that point — quarterback Clayton Tune. Lining up from the 8-yard line due to a false start, Tune circumvented an oncoming blitz by rolling out right. With daylight in front of him, he targeted the right corner of the pylon.

UTSA safety Kelechi Nwachuku stepped in front of the goal line to obstruct Tune from the end zone, but the quarterback had a plan. He leaped off two feet, flying over Nwachuku and front-flipping into the end zone. Tune did not stick the landing, but he stuck two points on the board for Houston — which would ultimately seal a 37-35 victory.

“I knew he was gonna hurdle him. I knew he was jumping,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “If he’s put in a situation where the game’s on the line, he’ll do whatever he has to do.”

Houston V UTSA
Clayton Tune scrambled for 51 yards in Houston’s opener, despite four sacks from UTSA’s defense limiting his rushing output.
Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Tune’s mobility has been on full display before, most notably when he attained 100 rushing yards in a 2019 triumph over North Texas and 120 in a 2020 annihilation of South Florida. But the quarterback was hampered by an early-season lower-body injury last fall, keeping him cooped up within the pocket for the majority of the season.

On Saturday, Tune’s mobility was Houston’s trump card. Any time the Cougars desperately needed a crucial pickup, No. 3 reliably utilized his legs to salvage his team from any alarming situation. The senior finished with a team-high 51 rushing yards (net of the yardage from the four sacks he took) and scored one touchdown on a QB draw in the second overtime period.

“He did way too much with his feet than I’m comfortable with,” Holgorsen said. “We called a few designed runs, some of them was being in the scoring zone area as much as we were due to three overtimes. We don’t want to do that with him that much. But at the end of the day, this kid’s gonna do what he’s gotta do to win the game.”

Illegal substitution changed the outcome

In the waning minutes of the third quarter, it was code red for Houston. Any Cougar mistake for the remainder of the contest seemed destined to secure a UTSA win when the Roadrunners secured a 21-7 advantage. Facing the two-score deficit, Holgorsen felt the obligation to gamble on 4th and 1 from his own 34-yard line. Tune handed the ball to running back Stacy Sneed, who was immediately met by a horde of UTSA defenders at the line of scrimmage.

But while the Roadrunner defense was celebrating a turnover on downs, yellow laundry decorated the field. UTSA was flagged for an illegal substitution, injecting new life into a Houston team that would have otherwise been in a dire situation. Six plays later, the Cougars sliced the deficit to seven points when Tune found wide receiver Tank Dell in the back of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown.

“I flat-out told them, ‘We just got a break there. We need to capitalize on that,’” Holgorsen said of the illegal substitution penalty. “This is one of the first breaks that we’ve got this game and we need to capitalize on it, and we did.”

Frank Harris got the best of Houston’s secondary

The Cougars fielded the 19th ranked passing defense in 2021, yielding 194 yards per game to opposing aerial attacks on an impressive 55 percent completion rate. However, some of Houston’s most notable losses this offseason were ones that thinned out the secondary. All-American cornerback Marcus Jones and his counterpart Damarion Williams were selected in the third and fourth rounds of the NFL Draft, respectively, forcing defensive coordinator Doug Belk and his staff to trot out new starting corners.

The new-look secondary without Jones and Williams allowed 337 passing yards to UTSA quarterback Frank Harris in the opener — eclipsing the maximum amount of 305 it allowed in the prior year campaign. Harris tossed three touchdown passes as he continued to find downfield openings in the Houston secondary. Wide receivers Joshua Cephus, Zakhari Franklin, and De’Corian Clark proved difficult to contain all afternoon, and the trio combined for 276 yards and three scores on 23 catches.

Houston V UTSA
Joshua Cephus finished with a game-high 106 receiving yards on seven receptions. He opened UTSA’s scoring effort this season with a 51-yard touchdown grab in the second quarter.
Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

When Houston captured a 27-24 lead with 23 seconds remaining, probability suggested the Cougars had the victory locked up. But Harris had other plans, as he completed a quick 30-yard strike to Cephus and another 25-yard dart to tight end Oscar Cardenas to set the Roadrunners in prime position for a tying field goal as time expired.

Houston’s pass rush repeatedly found real estate in the backfield, but Harris’ elusiveness prevented the Cougars from generating a high sack total. With Harris’ ability to extend plays, Houston’s secondary was tasked with remaining in coverage for longer periods — allowing ample time for UTSA’s receivers to gain separation.

“We did a very average job at getting that quarterback on the ground,” Holgorsen said. “We got there a good bit, but we didn’t get that guy on the ground. Give Frank Harris some credit for that. He’s a sixth-year senior, he’s played a lot of ball, he’s athletic, and he’s a good football player.”

The Alamodome factor is real

One of the loudest Week 1 atmospheres transpired in an indoor atmosphere in the nation’s seventh largest city, within close walking distance of the iconic Riverwalk. San Antonio’s Alamodome opened its doors for football for the first time in 2022, welcoming in Houston and UTSA squads fresh off 12-2 seasons. With the 2021 records certainly contributing to the hype, the Texas-based squads converged in the dome to form one of the greatest scenes in the venue’s history.

“This atmosphere is as good as anywhere,” Holgorsen said. “I commend the Houston faithful. The Spirit of Houston (band) was awesome, our fans were awesome. I knew we’d get a good bit of people here and we did. I said at some point in the summer that this felt like a preseason bowl game. That’s kind of the future of Week 0 and Week 1, and that’s what this felt like.”

It was the sixth-largest UTSA crowd in Alamodome history, as 37,526 spectators flocked in to watch the Lone Star State showdown. The raucous Alamodome crowd played a significant factor in the on-field product, forcing an onslaught of false start penalties for Houston. Overall, the Cougars were flagged 11 times for 75 yards, drawing five more penalties than the home team. In the game’s most critical moment, the UTSA faithful made their impact tangibly felt. When Houston lined up for its mandatory two-point try in third overtime, a false start occurred, setting the Cougars at the 8-yard line in a pivotal play.

Despite the setback for Houston, Tune ran eight yards to the end zone for a successful two-point conversion. Although the desired result was not attained, the rowdy UTSA crowd certainly made things difficult all afternoon for the Cougars.

“This is a hard opener, man,” Holgorsen said. “These guys won 12 games. They’ve got everybody back. They’re well-coached. They got a great atmosphere. This is a quality opponent and we got a quality win on the road. These guys were 11-1 here over the last two years, so it’s a hard one to go win, and our guys found a way.”

Houston V UTSA
Houston and UTSA played in front of one of the largest Alamodome football crowds in history, drawing over 37,500 fans.
Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Bubba Baxa is made for the moment

One crucial position battle that doesn’t generate the attention of a quarterback competition, or even a cornerback competition, is two kickers squaring off. After losing kicker Dalton Witherspoon after 51 field goals in four seasons, Houston looked to fulfill that vacancy by pitting Bubba Baxa against Kyle Ramsey in camp. Baxa, a former Miami (FL) placekicker and the Cougars’ kickoff specialist last season, won the job after an extended evaluation.

Baxa proved his reliability in his first game as Houston’s placekicker. As 23 seconds remained in regulation, he perfectly split the uprights on a 35-yard kick from the right hash to hand the Cougars’ a late 27-24 lead. Then in the first overtime period, Baxa was required to sink one from the same distance, and he executed, providing Houston a chance to eventually win the back-and-forth contest.

“You’ve gotta show you can make those things too so I’m kind of glad he was put in that situation,” Holgorsen said. “The kicking competition was extensive as a kicking competition as I’ve ever been apart of. That thing went for four weeks and we kicked a lot of field goals, and it was a tight race. At the end of the day, you just gotta kinda make a decision, and we made it with Bubba.”

Not everything went smoothly for Baxa in the opener. He launched two kickoffs out of bounds, setting the Roadrunners up with ideal starting field position on multiple occasions. But Holgorsen looked past that frustration and called on the senior kicker to deliver when the team needed him most.

“I was really not happy with Bubba when he kicked it, one, into the stands, and two, when (center) Jack Freeman got a stupid penalty after a score. We had to kickoff from the 20 in a challenging situation and he tried to boom it a little bit too harder and hooked that one out of bounds too,” Holgorsen said. “I yelled at him and I was about to put him on the bench, and it came down to a last second field goal and he was the one we needed to put out there. He drilled it.”

Confidence is a vital attribute needed to kick at the FBS level, and that is one thing Baxa certainly wasn’t lacking Saturday.

“I loved his reaction,” Holgorsen said. “He came at me and said, ‘I told you I can do this thing.’”