“No risk it, no biscuit,” is a phrase embedded into the coaching lexicon, popularized by Super Bowl champion head coach Bruce Arians.
That philosophy is what powered the Houston Cougars to victory over the Baylor Bears on Saturday afternoon in Waco, TX. Houston never trailed once in regulation and led by as many as 10 points, but Baylor responded to every punch the Cougars threw.
In the overtime period, when Houston scored a touchdown to answer Baylor’s first strike, Cougars head coach Dana Holgorsen elected to gamble. He kept his extra point team sideline, instilling faith into his offense to finish the job. That, they did. Quarterback Donovan Smith surged into the end zone on a draw play, sending Houston into a triumphant 25-24 victory over Baylor.
“I was just really proud of our kids after what happened last week, putting it to rest on Monday and moving forward,” Holgorsen said, reflecting on overcoming the previous week’s 41-0 loss at Kansas State. “That was a tough deal. Quite frankly, it doesn’t make sense to our team at this point. It will eventually, but I know every game is important and every game matters. I’m proud of how they attacked the week, they came, and they’re like, ‘Let’s go prove to people that’s not us,’ which we did.”
There was no hesitation to send Smith and Co. onto the field in overtime, according to Holgorsen. Two weeks ago when the Cougars trailed Texas by seven in the final two minutes, executing that same 2-point conversion was the plan. Houston didn’t score the necessary touchdown to try it two weeks ago, but the opportunity existed as the Cougars properly executed in overtime.
They started backed up to the Baylor 40-yard line due to a penalty, but the offense steadily chipped away that yardage until reaching the 1-yard line. Smith scored on an under center quarterback sneak before retaking the field for the 2-point attempt. The successful QB draw made Houston the first team to win this year on a game-deciding 2-point conversion.
“We knew what play we were gonna run,” Holgorsen said. “We didn’t even have to call it. They just knew it. It worked... I wasn’t gonna put our defense back out there on the field.”
Although Houston emerged in overtime, the Cougars nearly avoided the extra period entirely. They claimed a 17-10 lead with 5:38 remaining when Smith found running back Tony Mathis Jr. open in the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown. On the ensuing offensive snap, Baylor committed its lone turnover of the afternoon as Houston outside linebacker Malik Robinson intercepted Blake Shapen. But the Cougars failed to capitalize on the opportunity, missing a 44-yard game-sealing field goal to inject new life into the Bears.
Shapen converted a 4th and 17 with a 27-yard scramble through a sea of Cougars. That play swung the momentum into the hands of Baylor’s offense and Shapen guided his team all the way down to the 1-yard line. From there, he dumped a pass to Hawkins Polley in the flat for the game-tying score with 29 seconds remaining. In overtime, Baylor’s offensive firepower sustained and they scored rapidly — a sequence Holgorsen referenced to justify his decision to go for two.
“Once again we give up 2-minute offense for a score,” Holgorsen said. “We played a different defense. They just got momentum. We couldn’t stop it. Then overtime, first play they got 24 yards and it looked bad from there. So we made the decision from there. We said the same thing against Texas. At the end of the game, let’s go score and we’re gonna go for two and we’re gonna win. We all know that could have happened. Our players know that it could happen, so when I said that same thing, they’re like, ‘Let’s go.’”
It was the second walk-off Big 12 win for Houston this year and the second time Smith was responsible for the winning touchdown. He completed a 49-yard Hail Mary to beat West Virginia, and this time, he utilized his mobility and 6’5”, 241 power to bring home the win. It was an efficient game for the quarterback, who completed 19-of-24 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns, overcoming an early interception to piece together a strong performance.
“He stepped up,” Holgorsen said. “Pick one was 100 percent on him. That’s not in his reads. He didn’t see the guy but it still wasn’t in his reads. If he throws that thing underneath to Sam (Brown), Sam walks in the end zone. It was a pivotal point. That was seven points. It was a huge mistake, but that’s what I love about Donovan. That happened. It doesn’t stay with him. He’s the most even-keeled kid that I’ve ever seen, maybe since Case Keenum. Most Donovan’s just even-keeled. That’s not gonna bother him.”
Smith was instrumental in snapping Houston’s 6-quarter streak without scoring a touchdown, which encompassed the fourth quarter against Texas, the entire Kansas State game, and the first quarter at Baylor. He broke a 0-0 tie Saturday by delivering a 26-yard dime to Sam Brown in the end zone on an RPO, providing Houston a lead which would not be relinquished until overtime. Brown, the Big 12’s receiving yards leader, finished with team-highs in receptions (7) and yards (59), stepping up for a shorthanded receiving corps despite enduring his own injury.
“I was proud of Sam,” Holgorsen said. “He had a shoulder that was hurting him and he toughed it out, went in there, and made some big plays for us. It’s football. Guys go down. People need to go in.”
For the first time this season, Houston pitched a first half shutout. Baylor never scored until the 2:20 mark of the third quarter in what was the Cougars’ strongest defensive performance since September. The return of leading pass rusher Nelson Ceaser — who missed last week due to injury — was monumental. The defensive end contributed 2.5 sacks and seven tackles, while Houston surrendered under 30 points to a Big 12 team for the first time in 2023.
“In spurts, we played really good defense,” Holgorsen said. “Zero points at halftime, that’s a step in the right direction. I think what you’re seeing a lot is teams in this league that are new are getting worn out. They get worn out in situations like that. We’re gonna keep building, keep recruiting. I’m just proud of our guys for finishing this thing and getting a Big 12 road victory.
Big 12 road victories haven’t been abundant for the four newcomers. Cincinnati and BYU are still without a road conference win in their first year of Big 12 membership, while UCF earned its first Big 12 win on the road in Cincinnati on Saturday. But by upending Baylor in overtime, Houston is the first newcomer to storm into a legacy Big 12 environment and escape in victorious fashion. It was also the Cougars’ first win over Baylor since 1993 when the two Texas-based teams shared the Southwest Conference before it dissolved after the 1995 season.
“It’s a big win for the Coogs, man,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve been waiting 28 years for this. I hope the fanbase enjoys this one.”