The typical Houston Cougars season wraps up in December or January with a bowl game. The previous 10 seasons for the program featured nine bowl appearances. And expanding that timeframe further back, Houston has participated in the postseason in 15 of the last 18 years.
That fate was on the line for the Cougars on Saturday as they welcomed No. 23 Oklahoma State into TDECU Stadium for their 2023 home finale. Senior night ceremonies commenced prior to kickoff and then the Cougars attempted to salvage their bowl hopes and notch their first ranked victory since October 2021.
While Houston fired off to its strongest start of the season and established a two-touchdown in the waning moments of the second quarter, everything swung rapidly into the Cowboys’ favor. Oklahoma State stormed back from a 14-point deficit and claimed a 43-30 victory, retaining its track to the Big 12 Championship Game while eliminating the Cougars from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2019.
“It’s every team’s goal,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said of bowl eligibility. “At the beginning of the year you try to compete for championships. We’re going to continue to get better around here. We’re going to continue to build and continue do things right to the point where championships are going to be in our future. If that’s not the case, then you try to go to a bowl game. It’s not gonna happen. It’s disappointing, but we’ve got another game we need to wind up and get excited about competing in.”
Both teams’ fortune completely shifted on a single play. With roughly two minutes before halftime, Houston possessed the ball with an opportunity to expand on a 23-9 lead — its largest in Big 12 play all year. But quarterback Donovan Smith overlooked Oklahoma State safety Trey Rucker when attempting to fire a ball toward the sideline. Rucker secured the interception in zone coverage and produced a 29-yard runback, settling up a Cowboys touchdown with 1:29 remaining in the half. Oklahoma State’s defense subsequently forced a quick three-and-out to regain the ball before halftime and concluded the period with a field goal — trimming Houston’s 23-9 advantage to 23-19 in the snap of a finger.
“You go into halftime up three and they got all the momentum going into halftime,” Holgorsen said. “They had a lot of people here and they had all the momentum going into halftime when we should have had all the momentum going into halftime. Two critical errors prevented that. Then third quarter, we got worn out. That’s what a Big 12, big boy, physical team’s gonna do. We knew that’s who they were.”
Oklahoma State’s scoring rampage only gained steam in the third quarter. The Cowboys increased their utilization of the nation’s leading rusher — running back Ollie Gordon II — and Houston’s defense lacked answers. Gordon finished the night with 164 yards on 25 carries for his seventh time eclipsing the century mark in the last eight games. He punched in two critical third quarter touchdowns — one that captured Oklahoma State’s first lead and another that transpired immediately after a 62-yard scamper to extend the margin to double-digits at 33-23.
“I’m not sure what his stats were, but me personally, I felt we contained him well throughout the whole game,” Houston defensive end Nelson Ceaser said. “He probably had some runs. I think he’s a Heisman candidate so that’s something we would expect for the most part, but we pretty much did alright against him.”
Houston’s defense also faced a heavy dose of Oklahoma State senior wide receiver Brennan Presley. The 5’8”, 175 pound veteran played larger than life Saturday, resetting career-highs with 15 receptions and 189 yards — eclipsing the century mark before halftime. With Gordon and Presley leading the charge, Oklahoma State out-gained the Cougars, 501-393 with advantages through both the air and ground.
Arguably the No. 1 factor plaguing the Cougars all season was the concept of slow starts. Houston entered Saturday only leading once after a first quarter, getting outscored 94-41 in the opening 15 minutes. But Houston beyond exorcised those demons against Oklahoma State.
The tone setter was Houston’s first defensive touchdown of the season. Isaiah Hamilton jumped a route for a clean 56-yard return to the end zone — the Cougars’ first pick six since Week 2 of the 2022 season. Then they established a 14-3 advantage when Smith launched a deep ball to true freshman Jonah Wilson in one-on-one coverage. It was only Wilson’s second collegiate catch, and he cashed in for a 60-yard touchdown.
“We’ve seen glimpses of it,” Holgorsen said of Wilson. “He’s battling some knee tendonitis and some hips. He’s still growing. He’s a baby giraffe out there now. He’s long and he can run. We strategically saved two games to let him play in the last two games. He had a really good week of practice and we found something that we could do with him — put him into the boundary and match him up on a safety and have him run right by the guy.”
In response to Wilson’s first touchdown, the Cougars’ defense delivered once again, forcing a three-and-out deep in Oklahoma State territory while clinging onto an 11-point lead. But as the punt teams trotted onto the field, that three-and-out was negated by an unsportsmanlike conduct foul on Houston middle linebacker Jamal Morris. That penalty injected new life into the Cowboys, which were low on momentum, and they sliced the deficit to 14-9 on a 23-yard delivery from Alan Bowman to Jaden Bray.
“That was a critical error by Jamal,” Holgorsen said. “He’s just trying to play with passion. He cares. He’s turning into one of our better leaders. He made a huge mistake and he owned it. We got them stopped on 3rd and 19. It’s 4th and 16 and they’re punting and they converted that into a touchdown. Heck, it could have been 30-3 at halftime. Who knows?”
In the moments following, Houston put that critical penalty in the rearview mirror. The Cougars brought out the trickery on the ensuing possession to a establish a 21-9 advantage when Smith handed the ball off to wide receiver Joseph Manjack IV, causing the entire Cowboys defense to bite on Manjack. The receiver threw the ball across the field to Smith, who saw a clear path for a 28-yard touchdown. Several drives later, Houston’s defense amplified the lead when Malik Robinson stuffed Gordon in the end zone for a safety. The two points stemming from the Cougars’ first safety since 2021 were the final on the scoreboard until Smith scrambled for a 31-yard touchdown with 7:30 remaining in the contest.
“We were ready to play,” Holgorsen said. “I was proud of the guys being ready to play. We successfully orchestrated a trick play for the first time in my career. We moved the ball. They’re a good team — my odds on favorite to probably go to the Big 12 Championship Game.”
Smith completed the trifecta Saturday with one passing touchdown, one rushing touchdown, and one receiving touchdown to become the seventh quarterback in Big 12 history to accomplish the feat.
Smith’s fourth quarter touchdown kept the door ajar for the Cougars at 36-30, and victory was possible with a defensive stop and touchdown. Houston’s defense held firm to stifle a 3rd and 6 right before midfield, but a 12th player was spotted on the field due to a defensive line substitution. After the Cougars were assessed a crucial flag, Oklahoma State succeeded on the third down retry and iced the game when Gordon attained his third rushing touchdown of the half to complete the hat trick.
“That’s inexcusable on our part,” Holgorsen said. “You can’t sub d-linemen. This is a tempo team. You can’t sub when they’re not subbing. We did it twice. It’s inexcusable. I’m calling it like it is. We get the stop right there and who knows what happens? Put that as another critical error.”
There are a litany of tiebreaker scenarios, but Oklahoma State (8-3, 6-2 Big 12) is most likely one win away from securing its second Big 12 Championship Game appearance in three years. The Cowboys — winners of six of the last seven — play their fourth consecutive Big 12 newcomer next week, concluding the season with a home matchup against BYU.
Houston (4-7, 2-6 Big 12) will see the closure of its inaugural Big 12 season next Saturday in Orlando. The Cougars face old AAC foe UCF as the 5-6 Knights aim to become the first Big 12 newcomer to clinch bowl eligibility this season. Bowl eligibility won’t be attainable for Houston, but the Week 13 matchup will be a memorable one for the 18 seniors suiting up in uniform for the final time.
“It does suck because I’ve been here for five years and there’s a lot of people in the locker room I’ve known for four years,” said Ceaser, one of the 18 seniors recognized Saturday. “To know that next week might be the last time I get to put on some pads with those people, it really does suck.”