Culture / Sporting Life

Dana Holgorsen Faces a Near Must Win Against TCU After Rice Debacle — UH and Its Coach Desperately Need to Bring the Belief Back In Big 12 Opener

Holgorsen's Cougars Show Heart In Fighting Back From 28-0, But Only a Giant Win On National TV Can Shift the Season's Story Now

BY // 09.10.23

As the University of Houston players begin to make their way to the tunnel, leaving behind a long line of Rice University students rather organizedly rushing the field, Dana Holgorsen is waiting to make sure most of his guys get off. So, predictably, are a few hecklers, screaming down from the stands.

“Tilman’s going to take back all your NIL money!” a guy in a T-shirt screams, referencing (rather nonsensically) Houston billionaire believer Tilman Fertitta.

“No one else will rush the field,” another commentator, who no doubt thinks he’s quick witted, adds. “Everyone else expects to beat you!”

This is what Big 12 UH losing 43-41 to supposed little brother program Rice in double overtime brings. Overwhelmingly deserved joy on the part of Rice coach Mike Bloomgren, one of the good guy, low ego characters in a college football coaching world that can sometimes seems overrun with pampered crybabies with God complexes, and his prepared and passionate players. And pure misery for Holgorsen and the newly Power 5 christened Cougars who admittedly didn’t show up with enough want to at the opening kickoff.

Holgorsen could see this coming — if not the rather unfathomable 28-0 deficit for Houston, at least the sluggish manner in which his players opened the game. And Houston’s chosen coach still couldn’t stop it.

“I sensed it Wednesday,” Holgorsen says. “That it meant more to them than it did to us. I tried to get our guy’s attention Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Today. First half was just unacceptable. Unacceptable. Played terrible.”

This could have been, should have been, a UH win that set up a special week on the transforming Third Ward campus. Dana Holgorsen’s team should be 2-0 going into a week of feel-good Big 12 celebration that will include concerts, appearances from Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark, Case Keenum being inducted into the Houston Athletics Hall of Honor and that national Fox showcase Saturday night conference opener against TCU, a national championship finalist last season. Instead, everything is bound to feel at least a little muted with those same old UH digs certain to return.

All the old questions about Dana Holgorsen’s program are rushing back. And it’s up to the coach to make sure the script gets flipped. Suddenly, this Big 12 opener against TCU is a near must win for Holgorsen, Donovan Smith, Nelson Ceaser and Co. Not in the sense that Holgorsen is in any danger of losing his job this season. Let’s stop that silliness before it even begins again. That notion is only slightly less completely ridiculous and divorced from reality than when a debate was manufactured early last October.

Holgorsen is not going anywhere in what’s been deemed a football transition year by the highest levels of UH’s leadership.

But Houston’s fifth year coach needs to build the belief. Holgorsen needs to start showing why Tilman Fertitta, who doesn’t suffer fools or non-performers and never has endorsed one, and athletic director Chris Pezman are so confident that he is the right coach to make the Cougars a Big 12 factor. A win over a TCU program that is years and years ahead of UH, despite current coach Sonny Dykes only being in Year Two himself, in UH’s first ever Big 12 game would do wonders on that front.

A loss. . . and well, Houston will be starting at the real likelihood of heading into October with a losing record and all the momentum of a failed startup. Yes, UH’s first ever Big 12 game suddenly has season shifting stakes. Program changing stakes. That is what happens when you lose to Rice after falling down 28-0.

Dana Holgorsen has seldom needed something more than he needs this one. More importantly, his entire program and university needs it.

“This is not going to define us this whole year,” Holgorsen says after Rice 43, Houston 41.

He’d better be right. Because if Dana Holgorsen is wrong on this, UH football is in a world of trouble.

You can’t say that Holgorsen isn’t honest, forthright and candid after this game. Houston’s coach makes no excuses. He gives Rice all the credit without trying to lessen any of the blame. There is no spin or sugar coating of anything, Maybe that will resonate with his players. Nelson Ceaser, the talented defensive end who wreaks second half havoc and finishes with two sacks, seems to understand the mission.

Unprompted, Ceaser brings up the fact that Houston’s 2015 Peach Bowl winning team lost a game to a bad UConn squad in the midst of that magical season.

Rice coach Mike Bloomgren
Rice coach Mike Bloomgren has the Bayou Bucket now with another one being played anytime soon still uncertain. (@RiceFootball)

Still, it will take something like beating TCU in the Big 12 opener, to make anyone really begin to believe. Especially after the way Holgorsen’s Cougars start against Rice and kick away that beautifully ugly Bayou Bucket trophy.

“I 100 percent agree with what Coach Holgorsen said,” Ceaser says of the lack of urgency that haunted UH’s Rice game preparation. “I feel like we looked at them like they was a smaller opponent.

“I feel like there was a lot of us in the locker room, including myself, who was looking forward to next week more than taking it one week at a time.”

Yes, UH’s first ever Big 12 game suddenly has season shifting stakes. Program changing stakes. That is what happens when you lose to Rice after falling down 28-0.

Late Heartbreak and Dana Holgorsen TCU Truths

Ceaser and his teammates show plenty of heart in coming back from down 28-0 — and 28-7 with less than 16 minutes remaining in regulation — to take a 35-28 overtime lead. The defense pitches a shutout in the third and fourth quarters. Donovan Smith starts to look a little like the dual threat dynamo who tortured Doug Belk’s Houston defense in Lubbock last September, producing 337 yards of total offense (260 yards passing and 77 rushing) and five touchdowns (two passing, three rushing).

“I’ve seen Donnie Football,” UH receiver Sam Brown says of Smith’s second half. “I seen his name. Why they call him Donnie Football. He ain’t trying to lose, just like we ain’t.”

Smith cannot make a final play to extend the game to a third overtime though with he and Matthew Golden, UH’s most talented receiver, once again failing to connect on a two-point conversion pass in the end zone that could have tied it. Yes, Rice benefits from a rather questionable pass interference call moments earlier on its own two-point try with the yellow flag thrown even though JT Daniels’ pass seems way high and uncatchable for anyone who doesn’t jump center in the NBA.

“Thought it was a bad call,” Holgorsen says. “Thought it was an untimely bad call.” Holgorsen pauses, lets out a sigh. “I know we got one too (drawn by Joseph Manjack IV in the second overtime), but it wasn’t the same call.”

Holgorsen is right. But he also knows that UH does way too much wrong for almost an entire half to blame this one on any one call. And UH’s coach doesn’t try to make it about the call. Not with so much else to torture himself with. Playing for his fourth college in six seasons and by far the most under the radar one yet, JT Daniels makes himself a forever Owl with a 401 yard, three touchdown day.

“That’s a big deal for our program,” Rice coach Mike Bloomgren says. “To beat a Big 12 team — big deal for our program.”

It may be even more deflating for Houston’s. This is the reality for the Bayou City’s new Big 12 team. Rice 43, Houston 41 with Rice 28, Houston 0 along the way, still may not define this season in the end. But it sure makes Holgorsen and the Cougars meeting the expectations the administration has of them during this transition year much more mathematically difficult.

This is how Pezman, the AD who does such a good job of selling the idea of what University of Houston athletics can be, put it to me last week.

“Play in the postseason,” Pezman noted when asked about this Big 12 transition year mission.

“That’s a big deal for our program. To beat a Big 12 team — big deal for our program.” — Rice coach Mike Bloomgren

Going bowling with a loss to Rice followed by a home loss to TCU becomes an equation challenging enough that even J. Robert Oppenheimer may not have volunteered to take it on. Holgorsen needs an equation rattler, a perception changer.

Same Old Cougars. Yes, you’re going to be hearing that a lot this week, what should have been a pure celebration week.

“We’re still the same,” Brown says of he and his teammates’ approach to facing sure to be renewed doubters. “We’re going to put it on the same every time. We want fans to come. But we’re The Third Ward Coogs. We used to having everybody against us. We’re used to having a chip on our shoulder.

“We’re going to put on a show for ourselves. But we still want the crowd to come.”

The crowd will still be there in big numbers. But only a win can bring the belief and make the excitement more than ceremonial. Dana Holgorsen and his program have seldom needed one more than this Saturday night.