Sept. 16, 2023 was a night Houston Cougar faithful waited two years to arrive. That date represented the first time TDECU Stadium ever played host to a Big 12 matchup, as the Houston Cougars welcomed the reigning national championship runner-up TCU Horned Frogs to the nation’s fourth-largest city.
While the hype, the fanfare, and the atmosphere delivered under the lights with 36,049 in attendance, the Cougars (1-2, 0-1 Big 12) could not register their first Big 12 victory. They remained one step behind TCU the entire time, and the Horned Frogs (2-1, 1-0 Big 12) spoiled the welcome party by holding Houston’s offense out of the end zone entirely in a 36-13 takedown.
“Our team was ready to play,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “The energy in the stadium was awesome. It was Big 12 opening night, everything you want it to be. The quality of opponent — let’s not forget this opponent played in the national championship last year — they’re a good team. We went toe-to-toe with them, we had opportunities, we created some turnovers, we got stops, we held them to field goals. Offense just didn’t do anything.”
TCU strolled into TDECU Stadium exuding confidence offensively after averaging 41.5 points across its first two outings of the year. Upon receiving the opening kickoff, the Horned Frogs — now winners of 10-straight regular season Big 12 contests — immediately clicked into gear like it was 2022 all over again. Operating with tempo, quarterback Chandler Morris guided a 75-yard drive, finishing with a 33-yard dime in the end zone to Warren Thompson to claim a 7-0 lead in just 91 seconds of clock.
“It’s a first conference game for (Houston) so it’s a big game, probably their biggest game in their entire program,” Morris said. “I thought we did some really good things offensively, but we’ve got to clean it up and we’ve got a chance to be really good.”
The next 15 minutes of clock were primarily dominated by the Cougars, but one problem arose for Dana Holgorsen’s squad during those 15 minutes — that domination didn’t show on the scoreboard. The first four Cougar possessions all infiltrated inside the TCU 32-yard line, but only three points were generated from that barrage of opportunities.
Houston earned a series of chances due to a ferocious first half defense. Immediately after sinking a field goal on its opening drive, Houston capitalized with its pass rush. Defensive tackle Jamaree Caldwell forced a strip-sack which was recovered deep in Horned Frog territory by Hakeem Ajijolaiya, but a failed 4th and 1 conversion denied the Cougars from cashing in the field position for points. Then, Houston’s defense forced a three-and-out but the ensuing offensive drive resulted in a missed field goal.
“Defensively, I challenged those guys all week,” Holgorsen said. “I was pretty critical of them after last week. I thought they played their tail off... I was proud of the defense kept playing and didn’t give up. I thought special teams made plays all night and had a winning performance. It falls on the offense.”
Even after squandering two golden opportunities, Malik Fleming then corralled a red zone interception for his third pick of the year. The former East Carolina cornerback seemingly had a path for paydirt, but Morris tracked him down and limited his return to 35 yards. But that drive ended in familiar fashion on a busted 4th and short play. This time, instead of handing it off directly into an impenetrable TCU defensive line, Houston opted for a rollout pass which was caught by tight end Mike O’Laughlin, except with no feet in bounds.
Overall, Houston finished 0-of-4 on fourth downs — with a pair of desperation fourth quarter attempts factoring in — and the team fell to 2-of-10 in such situations on the season.
“It’s about playing with physicality and executing the right way,” Holgorsen said regarding the fourth down failures. “It’s not the play calls. It’s just not. We watch a lot of video. We come up with play calls. We come up with schemes. It’s the same thing that other people are doing. We’re just not executing.”
Although Houston’s defense stormed out of the gate and provided the offense with several golden opportunities, the Horned Frogs gained full control after Houston failed to make them pay. From then on, TCU steadily wore the Houston defense down by means of a power run game, and running back Emani Bailey broke tackle after tackle en route to a 126-yard performance complemented with a touchdown.
“He’s a warrior,” Morris said of Bailey. “He fights every single day. He wants to be out there. He loves football. Nines got it. He’s awesome. That’s what you want out of a running back: his heart and how hard he is going to play for you.”
Establishing a foundation in the run allowed Morris to take a few downfield shots, and TCU succeeded on such play-calls. The quarterback recorded his second 300-yard showing of his college career with 314 yards on 24 completions. His second and final touchdown strike of the night looked like a clone of his first, hitting Savion Williams’ breadbasket in stride to claim a 26-13 separation in the early third quarter.
“He’s been banged up a little bit, so trying to get him back involved was huge,” Morris said of Williams. “Trying to get that kind of downfield threat going a little bit — I thought they did a good job and Savion did a good job.”
While TCU thrived multidimensionally with the ball, Houston’s offense never clicked due to the inability to establish the run game. It’s been a recurring issue for the Cougars this season, but TCU made accruing yardage more difficult than any of Houston’s prior opponents. The Horned Frogs suffocated the Cougars to 41 rushing yards on 27 attempts, and they didn’t register a pickup on the ground exceeding eight yards until midway through the fourth quarter.
“O-line, we’re not sustaining blocks. We’re not blocking on the perimeter very well,” Holgorsen said. “They got the three people on the middle that are pretty thick Big 12 players and they rotate them — nine of them — and the second level just attacks, so give them credit. We’ve got to figure some things out.”
The inability to establish the run ultimately rippled into misfortunes for the passing game, where quarterback Donovan Smith completed 17-of-35 attempts for 225 yards. The Texas Tech transfer absorbed six sacks and tossed a pair of interceptions in the defeat — one to free safety Bud Clark in the second quarter and another on the final drive to outside linebacker Zach Marcheselli.
“Their defense is tough,” Holgorsen said. “If you can’t run the ball — it’s the same thing that happened last year against Tulsa. It’s the same defense — identical defense. Drop eight, if you can’t run it, then you’re in trouble. We couldn’t run the ball so you get into throwing the ball a bit. Throwing into drop eight, it’s hard. I thought we had a good plan coming in. We’re just not executing the plan and not making plays.”
Houston’s lone touchdown of the night wasn’t courtesy of the offense or defense, but rather, special teams. The Cougars have been no strangers to kick return touchdowns over the years, exhibiting electrifying playmakers such as Marcus Jones, Tank Dell, and Marquez Stevenson on special teams. Sophomore wide receiver Matthew Golden added himself to that group Saturday night with a 98-yard house call in the second quarter.
“The way we see it, special teams is when the best 11 guys come together,” said Fleming, who also shined on special teams by returning a missed field goal 59 yards right before halftime. “To finally see a kick return happen, it was amazing watching Matt Golden break tackles and do what he does.”
While TCU dropped its non-conference opener to Colorado in Week 1, the Horned Frogs debuted conference play in a perfect manner, establishing dominance on the road in a 23-point victory. TCU’s defense demonstrated vast improvement from the unit which yielded 45 points two outings ago, and the Horned Frogs look to sustain that momentum into an upcoming rivalry matchup with SMU.
“I got to give (defensive coordinator Joe) Gillespie and the entire defensive coaching staff and players credit. They played really, really, well, not giving up a touchdown against a team with that kind of explosive players on it,” TCU head coach Sonny Dykes said. “There’s a lot of corrections we can make, a lot of corrections we’re going to have to make. Being competitive in the Big 12, we’ll take a road win whenever we can good one. It’s good to be 1-0 in the Big 12.”
But Houston’s Big 12 debut did not unfold in ideal fashion. The Cougars failed to record an offensive touchdown for the first time since 2014 and remain looking for answers after starting 1-2 for the second consecutive season. Houston escaped from its funk last year to attain eight victories and a coveted bowl win, but this year, the challenge of battling Big 12 opponents on a weekly basis ramps up the difficulty.
“We all know this is gonna take some time. Nobody wants to hear it,” Holgorsen said. “I’m disappointed with how we played offensively and it’s unacceptable and we have to get better... But for the depth and the recruiting, it’s going to take time.”