Some weirdly-timed penalty flags did plenty of damage to the University of Houston's upset chances.
Dana Holgorsen's mission at the University of Houston is hardly an easy one.
D'Eriq King matched a Tim Tebow record, but the University of Houston offense still hasn't completely taken off.
The University of Houston poaching Dana Holgorsen from West Virginia was a bold, big time move.
Suresh and Renu Khator with Corina Tomas and Dana Holgorsen at the San Luis Salute in Galveston. (Gary Fountain Photo)
Dana Holgorsen almost pirouettes around on the sideline, his headset dangling by his ankles on its wire. He kicks out a leg in frustration. The Man Who Would Save University of Houston Football knew there’d be days like this — matchups when the deck is so stacked against him that it seems almost unfair.
Like trying to play Jenga blindfolded — while balancing on a high wire between two skyscrapers.
After all, as Holgorsen himself notes later, “He’s been there eight years — I’ve been here eight months.” The other he is Washington State coach Mike Leach, the Holgorsen Air Raid buddy whose offense rips off a 21-3 blitz against the first-year UH coach’s team in the critical juncture of the second half to secure a 31-24 win.
Holgorsen could handle Leach’s program building edge — and even his huge depth advantage. Major Applewhite didn’t exactly leave the UH cupboard stacked for him. What Holgorsen couldn’t quite stomach is having to fight uphill against the referees as well.
One sign of how Holgorsen needs to go in program building could be found in the fact that only 40,523 of the 72,000-plus seats at NRG Stadium are filled in what’s essentially the Cougars’ marquee game in the city of Houston this season. Another could be seen in the yellow penalty flags that hit UH as hard as Washington State.
Houston did not exactly receive a ton of respect from the Pac-12 crew that officiated this Texas AdvoCare Texas Kickoff.
A holding call negates an electrifying 72-yard touchdown run from Houston quarterback D’Eriq King. The flags’s thrown on wide receiver Jeremy Singleton, who is behind the play, and not really a factor in what develops.
“That kind of sucks,” Holgorsen says of the play. “As opposed to a touchdown, you’re third-and-10. Yeah, kind of hurts. Seems like we were overcoming that stuff every single drive. I don’t know what to say about it…
“I know I’ve done this for a long time and you can call that on every play. I just thought the timing was bad.”
The straight-talking Holgorsen is right. A college football official can call holding on almost every play if he wants to. Most do not if the hold is away from the play.
After it’s over, Holgorsen walks into an interview room at the NFL stadium wearing a sports coat and a little sense of annoyance
Houston will get called for eight penalties on Friday night — more than the Cougars had against No. 4 Oklahoma (six) and overmatched Prairie View (five). “It wasn’t a problem,” Holgorsen says of penalties in the first two games.
What changed against Washington State? “Ask the refs,” Holgorsen quickly shoots back.
This is not a Bill Worrell, divorced from reality, type rant against the officiating. No one is arguing that Houston should have won the game. Holgorsen understands better than anyone how big the talent gap is between these current Coogs and No. 20 Washington State.
Besides, the apparent lack of respect from officials is another sign of how far this Houston football program needs to go. How far Holgorsen must lift it. UH has dropped a long way from the Tom Herman squad that upset No. 3 Oklahoma in front of a packed, buzzing NRG in the 2016 AdvoCare Texas Bowl.
More established programs get more respect from referees. That’s just reality. A program like Washington State is usually going to get the benefit of the doubt against a team in Houston’s current situation.
UH’s Early Gauntlet
Still, with 10:45 left in the fourth quarter, UH is within 21-17. In a game where that 72 yard touchdown is wiped out, a questionable spot on a third-and-5 that King seems to convert results in a fourth-and-inches fumble disaster and a could have been interception by UH is ruled incomplete. That is a lot of what ifs for a Friday night of college football at NRG.
After it’s over, Holgorsen walks into an interview room at the NFL stadium wearing a sports coat and a little sense of annoyance. “We don’t want moral victories or any of that crap,” he barks at one point, seemingly answering a question that wasn’t even asked.
With his now 1-2 team — one that’s played arguably the best team in the Big 12 and the best team in the Pac-12 in the first three weeks of the season — Holgorsen is more encouraging.
“He said it was a hard loss,” UH free safety Gleson Sprewell says when I ask about Holgorsen’s message in the locker room. “We wanted to win that game. We hate losing in front of our fans in our home city.”
Holgorsen’s current version of the Air Raid Offense, which is more like a Ground Raid with this UH team, does rack up 239 rushing yards against a good Washington State defense, ripping off 6.1 yards per carry. Even with that 72 yarder called back.
King may never look like a Heisman Trophy candidate in this offense, but Holgorsen is setting Houston’s program up for the future. Billionaire backer Tilman Fertitta’s No. 1 choice for the UH job knows it’s not only about this season, it’s about seasons to come.
The Red Bull-chugging coach is in this for the long haul.
“We’re 1-2, nobody’s happy, but it’s two Top 20 teams,” Holgorsen says. Houston loses by 18 points at No. 4 Oklahoma and by seven points to 3-0 Washington State at NRG. It’s a little different than getting blown out by Army 70-14.
They only pay you for beating the spread at sportsbooks, though. The Man Who Would Save University of Houston Football knows he will be held to a higher standard.
Dana Holgorsen needs to get UH’s respect back — from casual fans in a city with a plethora of good sports options, from referees, from the big dogs of college football.
This “kickoff” game in mid September is another well run show from Jamey Rootes and his Lone Star Sports & Entertainment crew. But UH’s football program must raise its level to bring real buzz back to matchups like this.
“It exposes you to a lot,” Cougars running back Patrick Carr says of playing the Washington States and Oklahomas of the world.
Sometimes, it exposes just how daunting of a job one man on the sidelines has.