TDECU Stadium typically opens its gates six or seven times each fall, but Saturday night in the venue’s 10th season of operation just felt different.
37,862 spectators packed in to indulge in the highly-anticipated rematch of Houston and UTSA, a matchup which gifted viewers an instant classic, triple overtime thriller on this same weekend a year ago. But there were other reasons for the Houston faithful to show out in droves to set the record for the most-attended game since 2017. The Cougars officially commenced life in the Big 12 Conference and celebrated the occasion by breaking out new Houston Oilers-style uniforms which were well-received from the fanbase all week.
That hype funneled into a raucous crowd — a crowd which heavily factored into Houston’s 17-14 victory over UTSA to usher in the 2023 season.
“It’s been a vision from our athletic department to administration to certainly myself,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I can’t thank the fans enough, the student section enough, they all turned out and they made a difference. I can’t tell you how much that affects our players and they go out to warm up and there’s people, and there’s just a lot of excitement. I’m really happy for our players to be able to experience that, our student section to be able to experience that, and for our fanbase to be able to see that.”
The Big 12 logos that adorned the uniforms and stadium signage weren’t the only thing making a notable debut Saturday night.
Former East Carolina cornerback Malik Fleming, without needing any recruitment from Holgorsen or the staff, hand-picked Houston as his transfer destination this offseason, and the player-to-university pairing couldn’t have been more perfect. Just seven minutes into the contest, Fleming made his first splash as a Cougar by returning a punt 48 yards — setting up the Cougars’ first touchdown of the 2023 campaign, an 8-yard delivery from quarterback Donovan Smith to Joseph Manjack IV.
“When he got that punt return out, I turned to Tank Dell, Marcus Jones, and Marquez Stevenson (three former Cougars who combined for 13 special teams touchdowns in college) and said, ‘It ain’t you guys. It’s what we do punt return wise around here,’ and they laughed,” Holgorsen said. “I can’t say enough about Malik’s first game here as a Coog.”
The cornerback was then instrumental during a third quarter sequence where Houston intercepted not one, not two, but three consecutive UTSA passes. The back-to-back-to-back turnovers were initiated by linebacker Treylin Payne, who jumped a route at the 17-yard line to shut down a promising UTSA drive. The Cougars failed to capitalize, but the Roadrunners launched the ensuing possession with a deep ball which made its hands into the way of Fleming — a route Fleming had been anticipating all game after copious amounts of film study.
“The slot fade to No. 2 (Joshua Cephus), that one was one I knew was coming,” Fleming said. “No. 2 is his best receiver since No. 1 didn’t play and I knew he was gonna be the top target. So when I saw the three-by-one formation, of course it’s something we practice. I had trouble stopping it in camp. I was like this is one route I’m not giving up in the game. Once I saw him stare down No. 2, I knew it was coming to me.”
Houston couldn’t score off the second consecutive interception, but Fleming unleashed his playmaking ability once more for a third-straight pick.
“Offensively we’re not anywhere close where we need to be,” Holgorsen said. “Getting those three turnovers in the third quarter and not doing a whole lot with them is very disappointing. We’ll keep working hard offensively and getting better, but we did enough defensively to win.”
This time, the Cougars capitalized on a short field as Smith sailed a ball to Matthew Golden on a fade route, and the true sophomore receiver extended the lead to 17-7. Each of Houston’s two touchdowns stemmed from excellent field position, courtesy of the former All-AAC cornerback.
“Malik had an outstanding game, and all together, they played a great game on defense and we appreciate them,” Smith said. “It’s all about complementary playing. The defense does something good, so the offense has to do something well too. We just really appreciate the defense playing an outstanding game and doing their job.”
As suggested by the barrage of interceptions, Houston’s defense presented a significant challenge for UTSA quarterback Frank Harris, the reigning MVP of the CUSA. The seventh-year senior and program icon endured a grueling offseason, undergoing four knee surgeries and facing multiple setbacks. In his return to the field, the typically-accurate quarterback completed 18-of-36 passes and rushed for 45 yards, relatively bottled up as a runner compared to the 2022 meeting between the teams. Harris was also bereft of his star wide receiver De’Corian Clark, who remained sidelined with an ACL injury suffered in the prior season.
“I told all the kids, ‘He’ll play his way back in.’ He is a ton of reps behind. He had about 80 snaps tonight, and he’ll get better because of it,” UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor said of Harris. “Obviously, we have to let him just rest during the week to get him back to the game, but he’ll play his way back into shape. A lot of our older guys are similar to that. I’m not making a soft bed for him, I’m just stating facts.”
Houston’s offense was primarily sparked by new quarterback Donovan Smith. Taking over for an NFL Draft pick in Clayton Tune, the Texas Tech transfer posted 233 passing yards and two touchdowns in his Cougar debut. But most importantly, Smith was guided by smart decision-making and the 6’5”, 241 pound quarterback refrained from committing a single turnover to give Houston a 3-0 advantage in that department.
“The thing about Donovan is just how poised he is,” Holgorsen said. “Nothing bothers him. He’s not wide-eyed. He’s in a new offense and everything’s new to him. He was great in the run game. He was hit and miss a little bit in the pass game... He’s got a long ways to go but was very pleased in his overall demeanor and how he takes control of the offense.”
Turnovers were one major separator between the two teams which produced a tightly-contested ballgame for the second consecutive year. There was a massive discrepancy in penalties as Houston only committed three the entire night, while UTSA was assessed eight flags spanning 64 yards. No flag was more significant than an illegal formation which occurred during a Houston field goal attempt in the third quarter. The Roadrunners’ penalty injected new life into the Cougar offense, and four plays later, Houston celebrated a touchdown which proved to be the deciding factor.
“I know we didn’t play winning football,” Traylor said. “Our passing game is not very clean. Also, three turnovers are hard to overcome. Eight penalties for 65 yards and a really crucial penalty, calling us lining up over the center on a field goal which gave them a first down. That will be an interesting call to go back and look at. So, when you have three turnovers, eight penalties for 65 yards, miss-hit two punts and bounced a field goal off the upright, that’s not winning football.”
A significant portion of Houston’s offense in 2022was predicated on the abilities of wide receiver Tank Dell, but with Dell — now a member of the Houston Texans — watching as a fan from the sideline, his former teammates stepped up in magnificent fashion. Manjack and Golden were the recipients of touchdowns, but Sam Brown turned the most heads with a 6-reception, 106-yard showing, surpassing the century mark for the second time in his college career.
“It’s the whole receiver room,” Brown said. “We’re fighting for position every day in practice. If we’re not coming out on our A-game one day, it could easily be the next man up. But the receiver group’s so close, we want everybody to run like that.”
Fueled by a disruptive defense, the Cougars improved to 1-0 in front of the most impressive crowd the building had seen in some time. Houston hopes atmospheres like Saturday night become commonplace at TDECU Stadium, and the venue will open its gates again two weeks from now when the Cougars battle reigning national championship participant TCU.
“Here, the players never had a sold-out crowd, and just from the excitement about the uniforms when they showed us the uniforms — it’s something different,” Fleming said. “And then they were talking about how the game was sold out. This is crazy, especially being in a city where you have multiple sports teams and different colleges, and everybody’s here to support us — it’s amazing.”