Culture / Sporting Life

Dana Holgorsen Gives UH Fans New Reason to Hope, Validates the Oilers Uniform Hype With His Battlers Pulling Out a Defensive W That’s Almost Sampson Like

Bringing Everyone Along For a Ride That's Marked By Sheer Guts and a Will to Win

BY // 09.03.23

When it is over, or maybe is just beginning, Dana Holgorsen keeps drawing more people in. The University of Houston’s football coach seems to know this super energized Cougars night, with the striking Oilers blue uniforms and the largest home crowd in six long years (37,862), is about much more than just him. It’s for all those UH fans who just kept believing even when Houston seemed to be lost in the college sports wilderness. It is for Tank Dell, Marcus Jones and Marquez Stevenson, the guys who came back and found Holgorsen joking with them on the sideline after new Cougar Malik Fleming’s 48-yard punt return.

It is for anyone who ever thought or dreamed UH could be, or should be, a city wide thing.

“Great fucking win!” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman declares as he enters the interview room and vigorously shakes Holgorsen’s hand.

Sometimes the truth can’t be censored. And this 17-14 season opening W over a dangerous and proud UTSA team qualifies for everything Pezman says — and then some. In many ways, this win is even more encouraging for what it is not. An offensive show, what Holgorsen is really known for. Instead, the first game of Houston’s first season as a Power 5 team is a defensive gut check, a testament to the power of want to, playing together and doing whatever it takes to be one play better than the opponent.

Houston 17, UTSA 14 is a lot like an early Kelvin Sampson era defensive basketball win. Nothing much pretty to look at. But plenty of heart showing through. Especially at all the most important times.

“Look, this year as we’re transitioning to the Big 12, there’s a lot of parity in the league,” Pezman tells PaperCity. “And it was nice to see us play disciplined, clean. Only two penalties. No turnovers. The kids were poised. And the best part is we know we’re going to get better. Particularly on offense.

“It was nice to see the defense go back to what we’ve seen and what we know we can expect from them. This is gonna be what it’s going to be like most of the year. And for us to get out of it with a win against what is really a good team with a very experienced team and make this happen at home is very important.

“It sets us up for the rest of the year. To help us hit our goals.”

As Pezman talks in the lobby of TDECU Stadium, there are still boosters and longtime UH fans milling around. They’re not quite ready to let this night go. Holgorsen and his band of battlers have given Houston fans real hope. And that’s all they’ve ever asked for or demanded really.

Dana Holgorsen seems to be embracing this now.

“This place looked awesome today,” Houston’s coach says, electing to show his gratitude first in the postgame press conference. “It’s been a vision from our athletic department. From the administration. Certainly myself. I can’t thank the fans enough. The student section enough. They turned out. And they made a difference.

“. . . We had 200 recruits here. Recruits have to be able to see that. I get asked all the time, ‘What moves the needle with recruiting?’ It’s atmospheres like this.”

This is a Dana Holgorsen who wants to share and draw people in.

After new quarterback Donovan Smith converts a second straight clutch third-and-3 (with Houston finally getting a break this time on the measurement with Smith leaning every bit of his 6-foot-5 frame just far forward enough), allowing his team to run out the clock, H0lgorsen looks for others. He hugs several of his guys, the battlers who made this 17-14 gut check of a win possible. Later, he’ll call Pezman’s push (years in the making) to have UH wear the Oilers baby blue uniforms “a genius marketing ploy,” admitting he didn’t quite get what a big deal it would be in the city.

Having a defense with some serious bite is another big deal. Houston’s offseason talent infusion seems to have helped transform Doug Belk’s unit, bringing back real memories of the group that helped power the Cougars to that surprise 12-2 2021 season.

University of Houston Cougars, in their season debut as a member of the Big XII Conference, defeated the University of Texas San Antonio 17-4 at TDECU Stadium
University of Houston cornerback Mailk Fleming (No. 15) walked off with two interceptions in his first game with the Cougars. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

There is Malik Fleming, the little big playmaker from East Carolina who Holgorsen always wanted on his team, intercepting UTSA’s seventh year senior quarterback Frank Harris twice. Sophomore linebacker Treylin Payne will get another pick and most of the night the Roadrunners seem hesitant to try and throw the ball downfield. Harris will finish with only 209 yards passing and complete only half of his 36 throws.

This UH defense with Nelson Ceaser (who Holgorsen calls “a stud), Malik Robinson, Oklahoma transfer David Ugwoegbu, New Mexico transfer AJ Haulcy, Fleming and friends will dictate almost everything. UTSA’s dangerous offense is muted, turned into a kid sitting in a classroom, afraid to ask for even a bathroom pass.

“We made a big statement,” Fleming says. “And for me it’s just really we figured out who we are. Like tonight we showed we’re a defense that we have a lot of potential to be great. And we’re going to keep stacking days to being that.”

What an opening night. What a moment. The hope is back. Really. Now it’s time to start building for more. Coogs town?

For one Saturday night at TDECU Stadium, it sure seemed that way. And everyone on Houston’s sideline could feel it.

Houston 17, UTSA 14 is a lot like an early Kelvin Sampson era defensive basketball win. Nothing much pretty to look at. But plenty of heart showing through. Especially at all the most important times.

Donovan Smith Grabs Winning Time For Dana Holgorsen

Still, with 5:35 remaining and UTSA having scored a late touchdown to pull within three points, to seemingly set up the kind of late game heartbreak that so haunted Holgorsen’s program last season, this new made over Houston team is on its own. The striking uniforms that helped energize an entire city and turned the University of Houston into one of the stories of college football’s first full weekend can’t help the Cougars now. Neither can all those people who endured the early merciless heat and filled the stands.

It’s on Smith, the new starting QB from Texas Tech, and a sometimes sputtering offense to make sure the Roadrunners never get the ball back. For most of the game, Smith relies on the Cougars’ talented wide receivers with Sam Brown (six catches for 106 yards) emerging as the surprising leader, Joseph Manjack IV (six catches for 67 yards and a touchdown) validating his standout summer and star-to-be Matthew Golden getting in on the act late with a fade route touchdown where he makes the cornerback caught in one-on-one coverage look more lost than a puppy stranded in a house of mirrors.

But with Houston desperately needing a first down on a quick arriving third-and-3, Holgorsen and band of merry play callers dial up a formation that gets Mike O’Laughlin, the tight end transfer from West Virginia who could write a book on hard football journeys, open. O’Laughlin uses plenty of his 6-foot-5 height to snare Smith’s pass for the first down. And Holgorsen’s team will not need to pass again.

“I was actually just talking to him,” Smith says of O’Laughlin when I ask about that fateful first final drive third-and-3. “Just talking about how that was such an underrated play that many people may look over. But the game could have been totally different if he didn’t catch that ball.

“Mike is just a very reliable person to throw to. I just saw him open and tight window. . . it was really a higher ball than it should have been. He just made a phenomenal catch.”

University of Houston Cougars, in their season debut as a member of the Big XII Conference, defeated the University of Texas San Antonio 17-4 at TDECU Stadium
University of Houston QB Donovan Smith brings plenty of pose to the table. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

It is another big little moment in a game full of them. It is another example of how it takes almost an entire village to get this season opening win. Another time when everything looks different — and clutch — for Holgorsen’s battling Coogs.

“The thing about Donovan is just how poised he is,” Holgorsen says of a quarterback who throws for 233 yards without an interception and adds a team-high 55 yards on the ground. “He is poised. Nothing bothers him. He’s not wide eyed.”

“We made a big statement. And for me it’s just really we figured out who we are. Like tonight we showed we’re a defense that we have a lot of potential to be great.” — cornerback Malik Fleming on Houston’s remade defense

You can feel that in the still crowded stadium as Donovan Smith ends it with the sweetest plays in football — three straight kneel downs. You can hear it in Malik Fleming’s voice. You can see it in that still buzzing lobby more than 40 minutes after game’s end.

This time, the University of Houston has grabbed the moment — and milked it for everything it’s worth.

“We’ve had some moments here at TDECU. . . ” Pezman tells PaperCity. “When we opened it, we kind of stubbed our toe. It was nice to have so much going into tonight. Between everything we put into trying to improve the game day experience. Obviously the uniforms were very visible. And everybody was fired up about them. You always get a little anxious because you don’t want to distract from the game and the kids.

“But it was a good night and everything came together well. We had a great crowd. We’ve got more work to do. But I like where we’re at.”

What an opening night. What a moment. The hope is back. Really. Now it’s time to start building for more. Coogs town?

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