One month ago, Houston Cougars fans packed TDECU Stadium for their opener against UTSA, and the excitement in the air was tangible. It was a long-awaited brand new era of Houston football as the Cougars officially joined the Big 12 on July 1.
Fast-forward to the final day of September, and life in the Big 12 has been a reality check for Houston. The Cougars entered Lubbock having lost five consecutive matchups to Texas Tech, and the Red Raiders ensured they would sustain the upper hand on Saturday, pummeling the Cougars in a 49-28 result. Houston has not won a conference game since departing from the AAC and drops to 0-2 in Big 12 play.
“I just told the team this is Big 12 football,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said in his postgame press conference. “This is the second Big 12 football game where we competed... But it’s the second time we’ve got worn out in the second half. It’s Big 12 football. We’ve got seven more of them.”
Offensively, the first half was everything Houston had been waiting for all season. Conducted by former Texas Tech quarterback Donovan Smith playing on his old stomping grounds, the Cougars staged a 12-play, 75-yard drive to open the game, reaching the end zone for a 7-0 lead. It marked Houston’s first opening drive touchdown of the season, and the offensive fireworks did not stop there. Smith guided the Cougars on two additional 75-yard drives in the first 17 minutes of action, connecting with Sam Brown and Joseph Manjack IV to claim a 21-14 lead.
“It was clicking in the first half,” Holgorsen said. “It was a step in the right direction.”
But while Smith and the offense found first half rhythm for the first time this season, the defense and special teams did not contribute to the cause. Immediately after Houston snatched a 7-0 lead, Drae McCray countered with a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown for Texas Tech. The Red Raiders then traded punch-for-punch with Houston’s offense, scoring on two methodical 75-yard possessions to knot the game at 21 apiece.
“It’s missed tackles. It is flat-out missed tackles,” Holgorsen said of the defensive struggles. “It started on the opening kickoff, which is full of all defensive people. We missed a lot of tackles.”
Where everything changed was in the middle of the second quarter when Texas Tech’s defense recorded its first stop of the afternoon. Houston’s first punt in Lubbock was blocked and wide receiver Loic Fouonji scooped up the loose ball for the Red Raiders and handed them their first lead of the game at 28-21. The newly-acquainted Big 12 rivals traded a pair of offensive touchdowns to conclude the half, where Texas Tech claimed a 35-28 advantage. Houston failed to stop the Red Raiders once, and combined with a pair of special teams blunders, that set up a recipe for disaster Saturday.
“They’ve been good for four years and four games,” Holgorsen said of Houston’s special teams. “It wasn’t schematically. They just got after us. Their specialists were incredibly good. They did a better job of kicking and blocking and tackling, and it was as bad as we’ve had since we’ve been here.”
The fireworks slowed down in the second half for both teams, but Texas Tech’s offense created just enough explosive plays to pull ahead in convincing fashion. Myles Price and Cam’Ron Valdez reached the end zone for the Red Raiders in the final 30 minutes of action, handing the Red Raiders’ their first Big 12 win and first win over an FBS opponent in 2023. Meanwhile, Houston’s offense ran out of gas during that timeframe, completely stifled without a point after an explosive first half. The offense never turned it over all game, but the unit shifted from four first half touchdowns to four second half punts.
“We had opportunities to make plays in the third quarter and we did not,” Holgorsen said. “Did we wear out? Probably. Did they turn things up? Probably. They’ve been playing Power Five football for a long time here and they have Power Five bodies. They’re well-coached. They needed a win. This one meant a lot to them.”
Smith’s return game in Lubbock was his most spectacular as a Cougar to date. The former Red Raider shattered his season-high with 335 passing yards and tied his personal-best with four touchdown strikes. He never turned it over and remained efficient with a 72.5 completion rate. As a runner, Smith proved valuable with 59 yards on nine carries, moving the sticks for four first downs in the process.
“I thought Donovan handled this entire situation very well,” Holgorsen said. “It’s tough for him. Those were all his teammates last year in this game, but I thought he played well and handled things well and kept the focus on his play and our team with everything around him. I was very proud of Donovan. We’ve got to play better around him.”
But Texas Tech’s offensive stats were phenomenal across the board. Quarterback Behren Morton refrained from a turnover in his first start of the season — filling in for the injured Tyler Shough. He delivered two touchdown passes, but the Red Raiders primarily operated through their run game where Tahj Brooks and Valdez had matching 106-yard performances out of the backfield, combining for three touchdowns in the 21-point victory.
Finding that coveted conference win may be a challenge as Houston’s next three opponents sport a combined 12-2 record. But before the Cougars retake the field Thursday, Oct. 12 to host Holgorsen’s former program West Virginia, they take a bye week to regroup after losing three of their last four.