Culture / Sporting Life

Dana Holgorsen Owes Houston the Offense It Expected — UH’s Coach Isn’t Going Anywhere, But a Shift In Approach Could Change Plenty

Daring and Creativity in Play Calling Need to Return For Any Hope to Come Back

BY // 10.02.22

As the boos come down, Dana Holgorsen turns towards the crowd and throws up his arms. The University of Houston football coach may very well think he’s defending his players. If Holgorsen realized the boos were almost all for him, he may have reacted differently.

Just another disconnect between Holgorsen and UH fans?

This is the little video clip that’s getting the most play in the wake of Houston’s 27-24 overtime loss to Tulane. The video’s catnip for the message boards, easy fodder for quick hit national commentators who’ve never been on Houston’s campus, but it’s not the issue hounding Holgorsen’s program. In fact, you could argue that’s just the coach trying to stick up for his guys, a commendable notion.

Yes, Holgorsen and the UH administration should be much more worried about the fans who don’t show for the Friday night game, the backers who’ve already checked out on this season, than those there voicing their displeasure at the way the end of regulation is handled.

That this loss to a Tulane team forced to turn to its third string quarterback isn’t surprising also says plenty. About how quickly this season of super expectations has turned. About how Holgorsen needs to build belief in his players and the Cougar fan base.

This looks like a team searching for a leader.

Players like graduate senior linebacker Donavan Mutin, who fought through a shoulder injury to be there for his teammates in this week’s game, are clearly struggling with what’s happening. Sitting there at the interview table, Mutin’s pain is almost palpable.

“I’m not going to be able to build this up and make it perfect myself,” says Mutin, one of most honest and forthcoming athletes you’ll ever meet. “It’s going to be a team effort. From the top of snake to the tail of the snake, we need alignment.

“It needs to be coherent. The message needs to be clear. And we’re going to have a chance to do that. Or not. And our season will be the ramifications of whatever we do.”

Holgorsen is the head of the snake — and will be for the foreseeable future. Any talk about jettisoning Holgorsen is silly and devoid of reality. This 51-year-old coach is Houston billionaire backer Tilman Fertitta and athletic director Chris Pezman’s handpicked choice. Luring Holgorsen away from West Virginia was rightly considered a coup for UH not so long ago.

UH is committed to Holgorsen for the long haul (including financially committed to the tune of more than $19 million after this season still), convinced he is the right coach to lead the football program’s transition into the Big 12. UH struggling in a season in which almost no one expected it to struggle is not going to change that. Just like Houston struggling next season when almost everyone expects the Cougars to struggle navigating a Big 12 debut season with a new quarterback isn’t likely to change that.

Holgorsen is going to be here. Which doesn’t mean he can’t change for the better — and make his players and the fans believe again.

It’s time for Dana Holgorsen to give Houston the offense most expected when he was hired. It’s time for Holgorsen to bring the creativity and the daring back to the offensive side of the ball, his speciality. In some ways, Holgorsen’s evolution into more of the CEO of the football program is commendable. It shows growth and a willingness to delegate. But when UH’s offense is beyond ordinary and seemingly getting more conservative late in games with Shannon Dawson calling plays, Holgorsen needs to step in and make more of an imprint.

The most distributing part of the Tulane defeat isn’t that UH lost at home to a third string quarterback. It’s that Tulane seemingly showed more confidence in its third string quarterback (redshirt freshman Kai Horton) than Houston did in its fifth year starter Clayton Tune.

Houston ran the ball on 12 of its 19 first down plays in the second half and overtime, took the ball out of Tune’s hands to begin its ill-fated overtime possession. Instead of letting Clayton Tune try to win games, Houston is almost turning him into a secondary character.

UH Clayton Tune
UH quarterback Clayton Tune is trying to keep his final season on track. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Meanwhile, Tulane coach Willie Fritz let Horton loose in that game-tying drive. Fritz and Tulane offensive coordinator Jim Svoboda have Horton throw on nine of 11 plays, put the ball in his hands on fourth-and-goal from the three-yard-line and dial up a play straight out of Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes’  playbook. A shovel pass right into the middle of the defense for an easy touchdown.

Then down 24-21 in overtime, Tulane comes out passing, plays for the win — and gets it.

Too often this season, the bolder more daring offense has been on the other side. While Houston’s seemingly been more than content to kick a go-ahead field goal (UTSA, Texas Tech) late rather than push for the touchdown that could put the game away.

This isn’t what anyone expected when Dana Holgorsen came back to Houston. The truth is if the Cougars’ offense excited everyone (or anyone), if the fans had confidence in Holgorsen’s belief in being bold, this same 2-3 record would be looked at differently.

It’s not the losses as much as the lack of offensive imagination that many find so discouraging. It’s like reserving a Ferrari and ending up tooling around town in a Toyota Camry. The most surprising thing about Dana Holgorsen’s UH head coaching tenure is how mundane the Cougars offense largely has been.

Houston ran the ball on 12 of its 19 first down plays in the second half and overtime, took the ball out of Clayton Tune’s hands to begin its ill-fated overtime possession.

This version of Dana Holgorsen seems unduly set in his ways. He embraces analytics, yet seems to let them box him in, sticking with the stats that say taking the ball first in overtime gives a team a better chance to win even if it means putting his offense right back on the field after a confidence-draining last possession of regulation. The backwards possession and last snap kneel down that brings those boos.

“We don’t need to bring this back up,” Holgorsen says dismissively when I ask if he considered deferring and going on defense first in overtime after winning the coin toss. “You can blame it on me if you want to for taking the ball. When you have the ball you need to get first downs and score in the red zone.

“And when you don’t have the ball, you need to not let them score a touchdown. We did neither.”

The Dana Holgorsen Challenge

It’s up to Holgorsen to do more, to give his players more reason to believe. And it needs to start on offense, Holgorsen’s speciality, the side of the ball where he built his well-earned reputation in the first place. Leaning on the defense and playing more of a ball control style worked when UH actually possessed a dominant defense, a difference making tailback in Alton McCaskill and elite special teams last season.

This is not that season. Any chance of UH having an outstanding defense in 2022 are long gone, lost in a rash of injuries (edge rusher Derek Parish, safety Gervarrius Owens and cornerback Art Green all miss the Tulane game and Parish is gone for the season) and the reality of what the Cougars actually have and don’t have, particularly depth wise, on that side of the ball.

It’s time to turn Clayton Tune loose and try to outscore teams. It will only help Tune’s NFL stock. More importantly, it will only help UH. Houston currently ranks 70th in scoring in the FBS, averaging 30.6 points per game. Seven other American Athletic Conference schools (Cincinnati, Tulsa, SMU, Memphis, UCF, Tulane and East Carolina) are outscoring UH. Even 3-2 Rice is scoring more points per game than Dana Holgorsen’s Houston Cougars, despite only putting up 14 in that blowout avalanche of a loss to USC.

This is not what anyone expected from a Dana Holgorsen offense.

It’s time for Dana Holgorsen to give Houston the offense most expected when he was hired. It’s time for Holgorsen to bring the creativity and the daring back.

Holgorsen still has time to shift the script. Despite the boos, despite the empty seats, it won’t take all that much to bring the hope back. Whether he publicly takes back over play calling duties or just shifts the approach behind closed doors, Holgorsen must bring some innovation back to Houston’s offensive approach.

“We’ve got to do a better job of finishing teams,” says Brandon Campbell, the USC transfer tailback who’s been a hard running sign of hope for these Cougars.

“Not a good feeling right now,” Mutin says. “Not a good place to be right now. But it can get better or worse.”

Dana Holgorsen can make it better, can build back belief for his reeling, searching lost team by doing what he’s always done best. By dialing up an offense that opponents actually fear a little.