The University of Houston vs. Oklahoma game brought the stars out for the coin toss. (Courtesy Houston Texans.)
With happy red chaos playing out on the NRG Stadium field, even one of the usually stone-faced police officers tasked with protecting the place cannot help himself. “I went to UH,” he says. “I’m a Coog, too.” The cop grins and flashes the three-fingers-raised Cougar Hand Sign right along with all the rest of the University of Houston fans who just don’t want to leave.
Minutes later, several UH players will stick a cowboy hat on top of the cap of the coach who’s changed everything — and thrown the college football world off its axis. Ever the perfectionist, Tom Herman immediately yanks the messy two-hat contraption off and puts only the cowboy hat back on, a move to make the hundreds of iPhone photos being snapped prettier. Of course, everything already looks absolutely perfect to University of Houston fans. No adjustments necessary.
Houston 33, Oklahoma 23. Hurricane Herman just leveled another Top 10 program, giving a university that’s been discounted, dismissed, and disrespected for far too long a real moment of big-stage pride. “How do you say no to this?” billionaire believer Tilman Fertitta says, gesturing at all the happy red-clad folks jumping around after the most joyous Texas Kickoff game in this stadium’s history.
Fertitta is talking specifically about the Big 12 as the conference mulls over whether to add the biggest college in the nation’s fourth-largest city to its ranks. But he just as easily could be talking about the college football polls as voters weigh where to rank these Cougars now. This decision will have even more of a direct impact on this Houston team. A number of the current Coogs will be gone by the time Big 12 play would start. Besides, a legitimate shot at a national championship is arguably even rarer than switching leagues in this era of ever-shifting conference alliances.
After dominating Oklahoma in its toughest test of the season (ESPN’s ballyhooed FPI gave Houston a 9.6 percent chance to win this game, and Las Vegas didn’t like the Cougars much better, installing Oklahoma as high as 13-point favorites), Herman’s team is clearly already in the College Football Playoff discussion. Houston deserves to be ranked accordingly. UH should be a top four team — that’s right, top four —when the new polls come out.
Houston entered the first weekend of the college football season ranked No. 13 — and no team ranked above it came out with a more significant victory. UH toppled No. 3 itself. Fifth-ranked LSU lost to an unranked Wisconsin team led by a quarterback fittingly named Houston (first name, Bart). There’s an opening in the Top Four — and the University of Houston is the team most worthy of filling it. Put Houston in the top four right now. If they lose, take Herman’s hunters out then. But they’ve earned the perch.
In its last two games, Herman’s program has taken down No. 9 Florida State and No. 3 Oklahoma. It finished No. 8 in the country last season. It passes the resume test.
And, it outright aces the eye test. In a hulking NFL stadium, with the early eyes of the college football world on them, the Cougars do not just scheme the Sooners into submission. They knock them there, emerging as the more physical team, the tougher team, and the smarter team. All this on a stage that brings out the famous (J.J. Watt and James Harden both show), the legendary (Olympic icon Carl Lewis), the political (governor Greg Abbott) and the voice (Jim Nantz, CBS’s top broadcaster and a former UH golfer, who comes as a fan).
“We don’t have to win this game to get in the Big 12,” Nantz makes a point of saying several times beforehand, almost like he’s bracing for the worst. If they’re honest, many UH fans will admit to approaching this date with college football royalty with some trepidation. Lose and the Cougars are already out of the national title race.
But they didn’t lose. They dominated. Now, Herman’s hunters deserve their rightful spoils — a top four ranking. Houston should have to lose one of its next 12 games to be knocked out of that presumed playoff four status.
“We prepared to win,” Herman says after it’s over. “We trained to win. And we expected to win.”
PGA Tour player Steve Elkington — a UH product who’s one of the most colorful pro athletes in history — gave a talk to Herman’s team in the lead-up to the game, telling the players about the warriors of an ancient village who went out hunting buffalo knowing that the fate of the entire village rested on their success or failure. “He talked a lot about slaying the buffalo,” Herman says, flashing the first smile of his postgame news conference. “It’s safe to say, Elk had an impression on our guys.”
No kidding. Herman came to the postgame press conference clutching a flattened football with a picture of a buffalo taped to it.
In many ways, Houston frustrated Oklahoma into setting up its own demise. There is no way Stoops makes the suicidal decision to try a 53-yard field goal with a kicker who’s never proven he can make anything longer than a 46-yarder (will college coaches never learn from Nick Saban’s one ridiculous mistake at Alabama?) if the Sooners aren’t already in trouble. If Stoops isn’t desperately searching for something, for anything, he makes the sane decision to punt in the third quarter.
But Stoop needs a lifeline … so he sends out the field-goal unit and Houston’s Brandon Wilson races right back the other way 109 yards, untouched by a Sooner, for the no-way touchdown that changes everything. Kick Six! Just what Auburn did to Alabama after the most famous ill-fated long field goal attempt of all time. And college football’s shaken to its core. Again.
“I was just happy I did it for my teammates,” says Wilson, who had to hurdle one teammate in his way and then somehow stay on his feet to make it all 109 yards. “Just to see the smiles on their faces was great.”
“He’s a captain for a reason,” Herman says of Wilson.
Maybe ESPN was right to relegate this game to the anything-but-prime 11 a.m. kickoff time after all. It was a mismatch as predicted. Oklahoma simply couldn’t keep up.
Duke Catalon certainly couldn’t wait for kickoff. The University of Texas transfer was playing in his first football game since November 15, 2013. Heck, Robin Thicke was still relevant back then. No wonder Catalon wasted no time, quickly establishing that his big-time combination of speed and power gives UH’s offense an element that it’s rarely enjoyed before.
With Catalon picking up yards in chunks, and scoring the first touchdown of Houston’s season, Oklahoma felt a jolt. There no longer remained any doubt as to whether this would be an all-day fight for the double-digit favorites. Heisman Trophy candidate QB Greg Ward Jr. and the Cougars kept dancing out of danger, pulling off the near football impossible of turning Stoops into a hot mess on the Oklahoma sidelines.
Second and 23? Ward flings a long pass to Isaiah Johnson, another essentially new weapon for UH. Forty four-yard gain!
Third and 10 late in the second quarter? Ward scrambles, scrambles … reaches the right sideline and whips a dart to Linell Bonner, who somehow gets one foot in before tumbling across the UH sideline.
From the lateral to Catalon on Houston’s second offensive play on, the Cougars keep coming up with creative answers.
This game, this stadium, this day is a complete scene. “Look at all my Coogs here,” Nantz marvels. “I’m not impressed,” Ward insists when asked his feelings about the win. OK, UH’s quarterback has a pulse rate only slightly above a cadaver’s. That is part of what makes him play in such control. It’s all right if Ward says that. But everyone else had better be blown away.
Houston needs to be in the top four of all the new polls. Herman’s hunters earned that. They proved UH belongs. Right up there, as high as anyone, looking down at most of the college football landscape.