TDECU Stadium collectively rose to its feet as a nervous, but eager anticipation marinated throughout the October air. Houston was officially granted Big 12 membership on July 1, 2023, fostering in a new era of excitement within the fanbase. On this particular Thursday night, a landmark moment for the program was seemingly moments away from ensuing.
An entire fanbase and sideline, equally starved for the Cougars’ first-ever Big 12 victory watched in unison as West Virginia quarterback Garrett Greene fielded a snap for the visiting Mountaineers on a do-or-die 4th and 10 from midfield. Seconds later, the raucous crowd was stunned silent, and the internal heartbreak was far more deafening than the vociferous noise that preceded the snap. Greene delivered a downfield strike to Hudson Clement, who evaded three Houston defensive backs en route to an unlikely touchdown, spreading his arms out in celebration to erase a double-digit fourth quarter deficit. Twelve seconds remained as West Virginia appeared to eviscerate a moment the Cougars desperately strived for.
But enter Donovan Smith. Enter Joseph Manjack IV. And enter Stephon “Boogie” Johnson.
The Cougars gained advantageous field position by retuning the kickoff to the 43-yard line thanks to an unsportsmanlike conduct assessed to the Mountaineers in the midst of what was presumably the game-winning touchdown celebration. With one quick bullet to the sideline, Smith maneuvered Houston to the 49-yard line with three seconds remaining in the clock’s lifespan. Then, it was time to let it rip.
“Just before that play, just getting into a manageable situation to throw the ball downfield and understanding that there’s 12 seconds on the clock,” Smith said of his mindset at the moment. “A lot of people might think we’re out of it and stuff like that, but my biggest thing — I give all glory to God. Leaning on God has been my devotion today. ‘Do not fear for I will help you’ was my devotion today. Just saying that in my head on the sideline and being relaxed, because we still had time to play. My mom always says, ‘The game’s not over until the fat lady sings.’”
Smith rolled out to his right to escape an oncoming Mountaineer rush and the 6’5”, 247 pound gunslinger, while peddling to his left, stepped into a throw and sailed the pigskin into the night sky utilizing a howitzer for a right arm. When the ball descended, Manjack and West Virginia strong safety Anthony Wilson co-authored a deflection, bouncing the prize back toward the waiting arms of Johnson. The wide receiver out-muscled a defender to corral the leather, and when he landed on two feet, they were perfectly positioned on the black paint of the end zone.
“If I’m being honest, as I’m running over there, I’m running and I see the ball in the air,” Johnson said. “Someone jumps and they push me and as soon as I turn around, I see Manjack make a great play on the ball and tip it. And I was just like, ‘I gotta grab it.’ It’s right in front of my face, and it’s history from there.”
STEPHON JOHNSON FOR THE WIN— Steve Helwick (@s_helwick) October 13, 2023
HOUSTON COUGARS WIN ON A HAIL MARY
IT’S A MIRACLE pic.twitter.com/4G0Nha4BYm
Although the phrase is sometimes used sarcastically, it was indeed exactly how Houston drew it up. Simply referred to as “Hail Mary” in the playbook, the specifics of the play were executed how Houston intended when installing it in practice — with Manjack operating as the ricochet man and Johnson serving as the trailer to bring home the win.
“We put Stephon Johnson on one side and the other one on the other side, and he trailed it. So there’s two jumpers and two trailers, and we executed it,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “Hats off to Donovan Smith. That was an incredible, incredible play. We had pressure which is normal, they spied him so he broke the paint and he’s running left. He’s gotta flip his hips at midfield and throw that thing and get it there. It was an unbelievable throw. Manjack high-pointed it and ended up tipping it. I could barely see it, but then I just saw Boogie running and the crowd goes crazy, so I’m like, ‘Wow. We executed it.’ It was a lot of fun. What a football game.”
Before the official managed to flash the touchdown signal, Johnson waved his arms in the air in celebratory fashion while wide receiver Sam Brown immediately bear-hugged the Hail Mary recipient, scooped him up, and carried him to the wall behind the end zone. The wide receivers were rapidly mobbed by an entire sea of Cougars jumping up and down — including program legend Tank Dell — in addition to an onslaught of fans funneling onto the field. Helmets were lifted high into the sky and arms were raised everywhere like an EDM rave was transpiring on the field. It was a sight to behold in the house of the Big 12 newcomer.
“I really went to try to find my mom and I couldn’t find her, so I just celebrated with the guys. They come and jump on me and stuff,” Johnson said. “But I eventually do find my mom. I went to Coach (Holgorsen). He had a big smile on his face and he looked like he was gonna cry. It was the best thing ever.”
Houston completed the mission. The Cougars collected their first Big 12 victory since joining the conference, and it unfolded in the most unlikely, chaotic manner possible. From the lowest of lows with 12 seconds remaining to a full-fledged party under the TDECU Stadium lights, the Cougars fluctuated through the ultimate range of emotions to ring in a 41-39 triumph.
“I don’t think I could have been more mad and more happy in a matter of less than a minute,” Holgorsen said. “I went from as mad as I could possibly be to being as happy as I’ve been in this profession in 32 years.”
Donovan Smith was the facilitator of the Hail Mary touchdown pass, and that 49-yard bomb capped served as the fairytale ending to a spectacular performance by the first-year Cougar quarterback. Refraining from a turnover is one thing, but Smith didn’t even toss a single incompletion in the second half, concluding the unforgettable win with 16 consecutive completions which traveled 214 yards and notched four touchdowns.
“Donnie played amazing,” Johnson said. “He played a great game. We complemented him with the things that he was doing. That was one of our focuses coming into this game was being able to throw the ball. The running game wasn’t there like we wanted it to be, but we opened it up with the pass game. We were able to do what we needed to do to get the win.”
Thursday was also the arrival party for Boogie Johnson. The Oklahoma State transfer receiver entered the night with a mere eight receptions on the season, but he cemented himself into Houston Cougar lore for posterity, thanks to a catch of a lifetime. Johnson reigned supreme on the Cougars with 96 yards in a career performance, snagging an additional touchdown strike from Smith with 7:28 remaining in the fourth quarter to provide Houston an 11-point advantage.
“He’s a great wide receiver,” Smith said of Johnson. “I talked about him at the beginning of the season, just saying how our wide receiver room — we have so much depth in there. Different guys are just emerging and their time is coming. So it was his time tonight. Sometimes when you don’t get the ball how you want to, the touches you want to at the beginning of the season, some people tend to get out of it. But our whole wide receiver room, they stay locked in, and Boogie is one of those guys that’s like, ‘Hey, when I get my chance, I’ll do what I need to do.’”
Johnson saw an uptick in production due to the second half absence of true sophomore receiver Matthew Golden, who exited the contest with a groin injury. But before Golden’s untimely departure, he provided an essential contribution to Houston’s first-ever Big 12 victory. Before Houston could even run a play in response to West Virginia opening a 3-0 lead, Golden ensured the Cougars wouldn’t trail for long. He returned his second kickoff return touchdown of the year year, sprinting all 100 yards of the length of the field to provide Houston a much-needed spark after a slow offensive start.
“He did his part,” Holgorsen said. “The kickoff return was incredible.”
The last 30 seconds of the fourth quarter were essentially a microcosm of the game itself in terms of its back-and-forth nature. Nine lead changes defined the action as Houston and West Virginia consistently traded touchdowns throughout the contest. One major turning point unfolded in the third quarter when the Mountaineers, supported by a 3-point lead, committed a critical error for the only turnover of the night. From the Houston 24-yard line Garrett Greene delivered a dart into the breadbasket of Jaylen Anderson on a wheel route, but the running back juggled the football and it was quickly snatched by Houston cornerback Isaiah Hamilton. Four plays later, the Cougars found itself in the end zone, courtesy of a 58-yard scamper by Stacy Sneed and 15-yard catch-and-run by Manjack where he shed a tackle at the ankles and bolted into the end zone.
“I was just telling Isaiah, if you come out there and play how you play and I come out there and play how I play, we’re gonna win,” free safety AJ Haulcy said. “My 15 tackles and his one interception — I feel like that helped the offense get a spark. I feel like us flying around helped us get a spark. For that drive to end with points, that felt amazing. The offense was saying the whole week, they got our back.”
Two drives later, the Cougars finally pieced together a coveted defensive stop — their first of the night while holding onto a lead. West Virginia overwhelmingly succeeded on third downs from kickoff to final whistle, converting 13 of 19 attempts, but Houston forced an opportune three-and-out shortly after the commencement of the fourth quarter. That impressive defensive sequence constructed the Cougars an 11-point cushion, and while it was eventually erased, obtaining that double-digit edge was a mandatory step in attaining the most thrilling victory of the 2023 college football season.
“We just know that in order to win a game, we’ve got to get stops,” Haulcy said. “We’ve been stressing that all week, so we come out there and just know that we’ve got to get a stop in the fourth quarter. Coaches have been stressing, ‘Block. Tackle.’ The tackling part is on the defense, so if we come out there for four quarters and do it all, we’re going to win.”
In the first-ever meeting between the Cougars and Mountaineers, Holgorsen defeated his former program. The fifth-year Houston coach spent eight years at the helm in Morgantown, WV, becoming the second-winningest coach in Mountaineer history, garnished with an Orange Bowl victory and a pair of 10-win seasons. Not only did Holgorsen earn a signature win, but the miracle finish also shattered Houston’s 8-game losing streak to Big 12 programs, emerging victorious for the first time since the 2016 opener against Oklahoma.
It was a roller coaster of emotions Houston endured in the waning moments of the game, but Johnson’s perfect positioning on the Hail Mary along with a rapid reaction time rewrote the script of the 2023 Cougars’ season. The walk-off finish produced an unforgettable moment and celebration Thursday night in Houston, TX — a rare finish that will forever be etched into the annals of Cougar and Big 12 history.
“I’ve never been apart of it,” Holgorsen said, reflecting on the Hail Mary finish. “What a scene. I’m happy for our fanbase. I’m happy for our students. It’s pretty unbelievable.”