A budding star was born under the lights of TDECU Stadium on Saturday night.
True freshman running back Parker Jenkins was a key member of the monumental 2023 recruiting class for the Houston Cougars. This specific class was the highest-rated group head coach Dana Holgorsen brought in and the first Big 12 recruiting class for the Cougars.
Still, not too many true freshmen have earned substantial playing time this year for Houston. But every week, Holgorsen has reiterated Jenkins’ readiness to earn significant reps in his first year out of high school. After fielding four handoffs against Rice and another four against TCU, Jenkins earned his first start and served as the bellcow back for Saturday night’s action against Sam Houston. With increased utilization in the form of 20 carries, he posted 105 rushing yards and three touchdowns as an instrumental factor in Houston’s 38-7 win over Sam Houston.
“He’s a good player,” Holgorsen said. “He’s shown flashes of that and through the natural progression of being a true freshman, you have to see how he does in games a couple of times. It took us a couple of games to figure out that he was ready, and he looks pretty ready to me. He’s got a chance to be a special player. His first start and first 100-yard game. I think we will be seeing a lot of that around here from Parker Jenkins.”
Sam Houston pulled out some trickery to capture an early 7-3 advantage, becoming the 133rd and final FBS team to score a touchdown this year. It shattered the team’s 309-day streak without finding the end zone and provided the Bearkats their first lead as a member of the FBS. But Jenkins put that to rest one drive later, scoring his first collegiate touchdown on a 4-yard carry.
“The crowd took my mind,” Jenkins said of his first career touchdown. “It’s such a good feeling to look up and see the crowd cheering. Getting in the endzone is a plus for everybody. Hopefully it will be the first of many. It’s a blessing for sure.”
In the second quarter, the tailback accounted for 53 yards on a single possession and punched in Houston’s second touchdown of the night — providing the Cougars’ a multi-score lead that only grew as the game progressed. Right before halftime, Jenkins rewrote the score to 24-7 by completing his hat trick of touchdowns on a 2-yard run.
“(Running back) Tony (Mathis Jr.) told me I was a starter and I had to lock in,” Jenkins said. “I took that personally. I knew I had to take a different approach and not just sit back in the back and watch. I have to lead even though I am a young guy. It was a big deal for me and being able to go out and do what I did today felt good.”
The Cougars also received significant contributions from true sophomore receiver Matthew Golden, the gem of Holgorsen’s previous recruiting class. Golden reset his 2023 season-highs in receptions and yards by attaining nine and 92 against Sam Houston, consistently extending the sticks with five first downs. In the third quarter, he logged his fourth touchdown of the season, serving as the premier option for quarterback Donovan Smith who saw his best performance as a Cougar to date.
“I wasn’t really focused on my performance,” Golden said. “We lost two games in a row, so all I was worried about was getting the win. I made plays I know I can make and also making those routine plays, it felt good. By getting started early, it builds my confidence a lot, but everything isn’t going to go my way and I just have to do my job at the end of the day.”
Houston’s offense desperately needed a spark after struggling to generate points at home this year. In the opener against UTSA, the Cougars registered 17 points, and last Saturday against TCU, they managed 13 without an offensive touchdown. But against a Sam Houston defense which ranked first nationally against the pass and allowed a three collective touchdowns to BYU and Air Force, Houston solved its offensive woes. But for Sam Houston, the offensive struggles persisted. The Bearkats scored a season-high seven points, but through three games, they’ve only logged one field goal and one touchdown.
“I think their front is as good as any front we will ever see,” Sam Houston head coach K.C. Keeler said. “They play 12 guys on the defensive line and they’re really good. We thought BYU and Air Force had some good people, but in terms of defensive line, Houston was the best front we saw. I think at times we did a good job getting the ball overhead quickly, but there were times we struggled a little bit with the talent up front.”
The Bearkats elected for a significant lineup tweak, giving former Arizona Wildcats quarterback Grant Gunnell his first start of the year. Gunnell, who totes previous starting experience from his Pac-12 days, replaced Keegan Shoemaker and wound up completing 14-of-22 passes for 100 yards. He tossed one interception to Houston cornerback Isaiah Hamilton, but Keeler dismissed the turnover as a blown assignment from the receiver.
“It was a matter of scoring three points in eight quarters, and not that Keegan played poorly, but I just wanted to see what Grant could give us,” Keeler said on his quarterback change. “The thought was we were going to depend on how this game was going to go. We were going play both of them, but it never got that way, and Grant ended up getting the whole game.”
Sam Houston (0-3, 0-0 CUSA) is one of five remaining winless FBS teams. The Bearkats have not enjoyed the luxury of an easy schedule for a transitioning program, facing two Big 12 opponents and an undefeated Air Force team to launch the season. Next Thursday, they’ll return home to battle the other FBS newcomer Jacksonville State in Huntsville, TX.
“I knew this was going to be a challenge going into it,” Keeler said. “My disappointment was even though we played well the first two weekends, we did some things that losers do. We can’t do that. We have to break some of those habits and it’s going to be a real challenge.”
For Houston (2-2, 0-1 Big 12), a comfortable win was desperately needed. The Cougars snapped a 5-game streak without a multi-score victory, finally putting away an opponent to develop confidence. Houston leaves the confines of its city for the first time next week, traveling to Lubbock for the second consecutive year to face Texas Tech.
“We all had this sick feeling, and we knew that the only thing that would get it to go away was to win,” Jenkins said. “Walking off the field, you feel completed because you got the win, and you did what you needed to do.”