It was a game 21 years in the making.
The Houston Cougars and Texas Longhorns previously shared the Southwest Conference from 1976 to 1995, but the in-state opponents grew increasingly distant. On Saturday afternoon, they finally dusted off their unfamiliarities after two decades. Houston rose to Big 12 status this offseason to replace departing member Texas, so the Cougars would get just one shot at the Longhorns as temporary conference rivals.
Houston gave the No. 8 team in the country all it could handle, but when the chaos at TDECU Stadium settled, the team found itself 10 yards short of tying (or giving itself the option to win on a 2-point conversion) the preseason Big 12 favorite.
The Donovan Smith to Stephon Johnson connection produced an unforgettable clutch moment just nine days prior as Smith fired a 49-yard Hail Mary to Johnson to stun West Virginia at the buzzer. When the curtains were closing, the Cougars sought that connection once again on a 4th and 1 from the Longhorns’ 10. But this time, Smith’s rollout pass to Johnson toward the sideline was underthrown, stamping a 31-24 heartbreaking loss for the upset-hungry Cougars.
But the failed fourth down conversion wasn’t the headliner of the drive. According to the officiating crew, the Cougars fell inches short of the first down marker on the prior 3rd and 1. On that crucial snap, Smith handed the ball to Stacy Sneed who appeared to gain yardage and register a clear first down. But the spot of the controversial play wasn’t reviewed and the referees assessed Houston a fourth down after bringing out the chain crew.
“I think the spot was horrible,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I think we got a first down. I don’t understand review. Every time I think something’s reviewable, I can’t get them to review it. They say they’re looking at it, but I don’t know that.”
The three-touchdown underdog Cougars were supremely close to a season-altering upset which would have been their first AP Top 10 victory since 2016. But despite the close proximity of the finish, the first quarter unfolded in a manner which mirrored that Vegas spread. Texas quickly stormed down the field to open the contest and then piled on two additional touchdowns to claim a 21-0 lead by the 12:49 mark of the second quarter. At that moment, it was a pure evisceration. Texas held not only a three-touchdown advantage, but also dominated the yards department, 217-13.
“The way things were looking right here, I was thinking, ‘Dang, is this thing gonna be 82-0?” Holgorsen said. “We had to change some things up. This was not a good matchup for us. If we had played the defense we played last week against West Virginia against these guys, it would have been 82-0.”
This wasn’t unfamiliar territory for Houston which previously stormed back from a 28-0 hole to force overtime with Rice in Week 2. Once again, the Cougars didn’t marinate in that daunting deficit for long. Led by an unflappable quarterback in Donovan Smith, Houston began to pick apart Texas’ secondary. Smith finished with a career-high 378 passing yards to go along with three touchdowns. He first entered a rhythm when spurring a 4-play, 71-yard drive, firing a 32-yard touchdown to Matthew Golden in the end zone.
“‘Unflappable’ is the perfect word for that,” Holgorsen said of Smith. “He does not panic. He’s rational on the headsets. He knows his good, he knows his bad, he knows he can settle in and get it going. That gives us confidence in play calls. We’re not gonna say, ‘You’ve had a couple bad series with three-and-outs three times so we’ve gotta be conservative with those play calls.’ We don’t have to do that. He can handle this.”
Houston further capitalized on its momentum when sniffing out a Texas fake field goal less than three minutes before halftime. After forcing the turnover on downs, Smith remained in his zone, finding open target after open target — all the way until locating Joseph Manjack IV on a corner route to slice the margin to one score with 26 seconds remaining in the half.
“He tries to calm us down when we get into situations like this,” Golden said. “That’s what the quarterback is supposed to do. Everybody’s got a connection with Donnie. Everybody loves Donnie. Just knowing we’ve got a quarterback that we’re comfortable with and someone we trust in, it just makes it easier on us.”
Manjack played a significant role in the mid-game comeback with a career-high receiving output. The always-gloveless receiver used the entire route tree to total 88 yards on six receptions, dominating Texas defensive backs in a highly-physical performance.
“He’s a crazy dude sometimes,” Smith said of Manjack. “He just gets everyone going. He’s yelling, he’s screaming at us. But he’s just a hard-nosed dude whose not gonna put up with nobody. He doesn’t care about how big you are, what you look like. If he’s gotta hit you, he’ll hit you. He just brings that energy for the team and keeps us locked in.”
The Cougars defense came out with an unforeseen swagger after Manjack’s touchdown, concluding a roller coaster first half with a vigorous sack. With palpable momentum on the home team’s side, the second-largest crowd in TDECU Stadium erupted with an unforeseen energy that would sustain until Houston’s final drive.
“It just felt like a party out there at that point in the game,” Smith said. “Everybody enjoying their time, everybody having fun. That’s kind of how it was throughout the whole game until that last moment.”
Houston fed off the crowd and only needed two-and-a-half minutes to knot the score at 21 after the break. For the tying shot, Smith sailed a deep ball to Manjack 35 yards down the sideline and then found Golden in the end zone two snaps later. At that point, all the Cougars needed was a defensive stop to finally pull in front. That wish came to fruition, as a raucous crowd pop was felt throughout the venue when Texas misfired on a 4th and 2. But Houston failed to capitalize, instantly coughing up the ball on a sack which was the team’s first lost fumble of 2023. The Longhorns cashed in on that miscue and added three points on a Bert Auburn chip shot field goal.
Trailing by three, the door remained reasonably ajar. Houston’s offense continued to string together productive drives, gaining at least 47 yards on six of its final seven series. But while the Cougars successfully moved the sticks, one critical error prevented their sought-after go-ahead touchdown. Smith snapped his three-game streak of avoiding an interception when lobbing the ball into double coverage, and Texas strong safety Michael Taaffe reaped the benefits in the end zone for a touchback.
Following the game’s lone pick, Texas was forced to operate for the remainder of the contest without starting quarterback Quinn Ewers. The quarterback fired on 16 of his first 17 attempts in an efficient 23-of-29, two-touchdown performance, but on a scramble right before the field goal, he was stonewalled by Ugwoegbu. The Oklahoma transfer edge rusher saw one of his best performances as a Cougar thanks to a role change Saturday, and he tacked on six solo tackles and a pass deflection.
“This week we had more of a 3-3 stack type defense which put me back in the box as a linebacker,” Ugwoegbu said. “That’s what I’ve done the past three years so it’s just a lot more natural for me to read pullers, read gap schemes, read the plays and put myself in position to make plays.”
Texas relied on backup quarterback Maalik Murphy for closing duties. Murphy only attempted two passes, but the Longhorns relied on Jonathan Brooks, CJ Baxter, and the running game to break the 24-24 tie. Baxter funneled his way into the end zone for a 16-yard scamper with 5:37 remaining, which proved to be the winning touchdown. Houston subsequently landed 10 yards short of the goal line as the season-long fourth down woes sustained — converting just 4-of-15 attempts in 2023. But the Cougars were assured of their progress as they came masterfully close to pulling off the upset.
“We took the mighty Texas Longhorns, the No. 8 team in the country, to the wire,” Holgorsen said. “I’m proud of our team with how we prepared and how we practiced and how we came out here and didn’t panic in the first quarter and made a game of it with the No. 8 team in the country. We had a chance at the end to win. They made the play, we didn’t.”
Losing in excruciatingly close fashion is never easy to stomach, but Houston traded shot-for-shot with its toughest opponent on the 2023 schedule. The Cougars fell to 3-4 on the season with an undesirable 1-3 mark in Big 12 play, but Holgorsen understands playing at that caliber for the remainder of the season could see positive consequences.
“We had a chance to beat the University of Texas on the last couple plays of the game,” Holgorsen said. “I think you should look and see where we’re at as a program compared to where they’re at as a program. I’m proud of our kids. They have every advantage in the world... Where we’re at as a program right now is not close to where they are and I’m proud of our guys, the way that they fought those guys.”