Ten yards separated Houston from potential glory. With under 90 seconds remaining on a do-or-die 4th and 1, quarterback Donovan Smith targeted Stephon Johnson on an out route toward the sideline. One week prior against West Virginia, the pairing connected for a walk-off Hail Mary, but this time, the throw landed short — sealing a 31-24 victory for the visiting Texas Longhorns.
But there was more to the finish and to the game than just that ending. Houston erased a 21-0 deficit to knot the game at 21 apiece in the third quarter. Additionally, the ending was not without controversy as Houston appeared to convert a 3rd and 1 on the prior play, but running back Stacy Sneed was ruled short of the first down marker. The play was not reviewed, but the measurement crew made an on-field appearance. What was nearly an inspiring victory turned into a gut-wrenching defeat.
Although there was firm belief in the Houston locker room that the Cougars were ready to knock off the No. 8 team in the country, this was a result that captured the oddsmakers off-guard, as Texas entered as three-touchdown favorites.
But the Longhorns escaped victorious, 31-24, as running back CJ Baxter broke the plane for the game-winning touchdown with 5:37 remaining while Houston turned it over on downs in the red zone. Saturday was a hard-fought, emotional, back-and-forth game for both squads involved.
Here are three takeaways from the Houston Cougar perspective, as we continue to follow their transition from the AAC into the Big 12:
Houston’s fourth down shortcomings remain lethal
When Houston ran out of the tunnel Saturday, the Cougars wielded the third-worst fourth down conversion rate in the country. Houston frequented fourth down attempts this year, and most attempts were highly suitable for the in-game situation. However, the Cougars converted just 2-of-12 fourth down opportunities prior to the matchup against Texas.
That percentage certainly improved in the fourth quarter Saturday. In the early fourth quarter, Houston converted a key 4th and 1 from the Texas 31-yard line, as quarterback Donovan Smith hit wide receiver Joseph Manjack IV on a crossing pattern. Then on the Cougars’ final offensive possession, Smith extended another drive by escaping pressure and threading the needle to find Matthew Golden across the sticks for a 9-yard gain.
So after success with mesh concepts on fourth downs, it came as no surprise Houston elected to keep the ball in Smith’s hands on its critical 4th and 1 from the 10-yard line with a minute remaining. However this time, the throw was slightly late and short, and Stephon Johnson could not corral it to extend the game.
“It’s 4th and 2, so it’s not like we tucked our tails and didn’t attempt to get the first down,” Holgorsen said. “4th and 2s are hard to get, and we got one earlier. We had the right play call, and we just didn’t execute the play.”
Houston was just inches from the first down marker after the controversial measurement. In such situations, college football teams have widely adopted a quarterback sneak known as the “Tush Push,” as popularized by Jason Kelce, Jalen Hurts, and the Philadelphia Eagles — where the entire offensive line gets low, gains leverage, and drives their legs forward while the quarterback is pushed forward by three members of the backfield. Given Smith’s 6’5”, 241 pound stature, it may come as a surprise this play call didn’t enter the equation on that 4th and 1.
But Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen had aversions, as Texas’ massive defensive tackles T’Vondre Sweat (6’4”, 362 pounds) and Byron Murphy II (6’1”, 308 pounds) posed a major threat. That Texas defensive line played a major role in limiting Houston to 14 rushing yards on 19 attempts, and the Cougars were negative in the category until the middle of the fourth quarter.
“Their defensive tackles are the best defensive tackles in the country,” Holgorsen said. “I’m not going shove Donovan up into the best defensive tackles in the country.”
Now, Houston is 4-of-15 on the season with a 26.7 percent conversion rate that ranks in the bottom 10 of the FBS. The Cougars are now 1-of-6 on 4th and 1s specifically this season, firing two incomplete passes and handing off the ball out of shotgun three times for no gain. On 4th and 5 or shorter, Houston is 3-of-11, and the Cougars cannot afford to squander these closer opportunities at such a high rate. Such fourth down misfires are the difference between 3-4 and potentially 5-2 — as turnovers on downs played a significant role in the losses to Rice and Texas.
No lead is safe when Donovan Smith is on the other sideline
In his postgame press conference, Holgorsen said the start of Saturday’s game as appeared on track for an “82-0” evisceration. For the first 15 minutes and change, Texas dominated to an overwhelming degree where the three-touchdown spread looked like it could be an understatement. The Longhorns quickly raced out to a 21-0 lead with three scores on their first four drives, out-gaining Houston, 217-13 by the 12:49 checkpoint of the second quarter.
But enter Donovan Smith and the Cougar offense. Houston faced an eerily similar situation in Week 2 at Rice, facing a 28-0 deficit in the middle of the second quarter before storming back and forcing overtime at 28-28. Additionally, when all hope seemed to be lost as West Virginia secured a 35-31 lead with 12 seconds left, Smith perfected the Hail Mary drive and sailed a perfect pass to the end zone to knock off the Mountaineers.
The always-unflappable Smith delivered a replica of those comeback efforts Saturday, remaining poised and entering a rhythm after Texas curb-stomped Houston in the early going. The quarterback overcame a slow start to complete 32-of-46 passes for a career-high 378 yards. He established strong on-field rapport with receivers Matthew Golden and Joseph Manjack IV to consistently pick apart Texas’ secondary. The first-year Cougar completed the comeback in 15 minutes and 20 seconds of game clock, delivering his third touchdown pass of the day by the 12:29 mark of the third quarter.
“It’s the brotherhood we have, knowing we’ve got each other’s backs when it comes down to moments like this,” Golden said. “We’ve been down before and came back, so this was something we already expected and that we’ve already been in. When we got put in that situation, we knew what we had to do, and we just overcame it.”
However, slow starts continue to be a theme plaguing the Cougars. Opponents outscore Houston 80-41 in first quarters this year, and Houston has only entered the second quarter with a lead once this year — edging winless Sam Houston, 10-7. One of the top priorities going forward is preventing these major deficits from transpiring in the first place — even though the comeback odds are never low with Smith operating as quarterback.
“I would say trying to understand the game and starting faster is part of it,” Smith said. “We’re trying to see what they’re doing. Everything they threw at us in the game, was everything we saw at practice. Once we settle into the game, we’re good. We’re trying to do that as quick as possible.”
Cougars can challenge everybody remaining on Big 12 slate
After taking the No. 8 team in the nation down to the wire, Houston exited TDECU Stadium dejected of the loss, but reassured that any Big 12 opponent is beatable in 2023. This didn’t always seem to be the case, as Houston’s first two Big 12 matchups against TCU and Texas Tech were decided by a combined 44 points, and the Cougars were outscored 30-0 in those second halves. But the past two weeks, a new Houston team has been unearthed.
Texas has played seven games this year, and the only other opponents to keep themselves within 10 points of the Longhorns this year are currently in the AP Top 10 — Oklahoma defeated Texas, 34-30, and Alabama lost, 34-24. Houston tied the Crimson Tide for the second-highest scoring output Texas’ defense yielded all season and finished just 10 yards away from adding yet another touchdown onto that total.
There are no moral victories, but Houston realizes that playing at that level against most teams in the conference can result in victorious fashion. The Cougars hope the flashes of brilliance that were visible against a College Football Playoff contender can springboard into tangible success for the remainder of the year.
“I feel like it can,” Smith said. “We are not looking on who is ranked or anything like that. For me, it’s a win or lose, but we’re still improving each week. Losing is never fun for anybody, but we’ll use this as motivation going into the next game.”
At 1-3 in the Big 12 standings, the Cougars are likely out of contention. But other goals are still attainable, such as securing their third consecutive winning season and fourth consecutive bowl appearance. In order to do that, Houston must challenge the likes of Kansas State and Oklahoma State, which loom on the schedule. But after trading shot for shot with the No. 8 Longhorns, signs are evident that wins over such competition could soon be on the horizon.
“It’s a good sign,” Golden said. “We still have got a lot left on the table. There were a lot of plays we left out but overall, we’re just going to get better as a team, week in and week out. We just need to have a good week of practice. Overall, we still got a long way to go, and we have a lot to do.”