Culture / Sporting Life

Fourth-and-20 Should Haunt and Motivate UH Football — Lunacy in Lubbock Leaves Clayton Tune, Donavan Mutin and the Coogs at a Turning Point

Which Way the Season Goes Could Be Decided This Week

BY // 09.11.22

LUBBOCK — Nathaniel Dell is one of the last University of Houston players to make his way through the crowd of delirious Texas Tech students who’ve turned the field into a mosh pit. With fewer rules. Dell just shakes his head as a UH staffer guides him towards the visitors locker room.

It’s still a better trip than Brandon Campbell has. The USC transfer who runs so hard and rescues Houston at times must wait on a training table as Texas Tech celebrates all around him. Campbell needs a golf cart transport, an X-ray in his immediate future.

It’s that kind of day for Dana Holgorsen and his Coogs in West Texas.

The final numbers on scoreboard — Texas 33, Houston 30 in double overtime — only begin to tell the cruel story.

For this is a game that UH seems to give away early, only to roar back with a brilliant play call to open the second half and three monster interceptions in the final 20 minutes of regulation. Holgorsen’s team will take a three point lead with 37 seconds left in regulation and a seven point lead in the first overtime. And. . . lose.

It’s the way that overtime advantage is squandered that will most haunt this experienced and talented Houston team that really believed it had a legitimate shot at pulling off an undefeated season this year. For the Cougars lead 27-20 with Texas Tech facing a desperation fourth-and-20 situation.

That’s right. Fourth-and-20. UH is one stop away from winning. One stop that should be almost automatic. Especially for a defense that wants to be considered one of the best in America. Texas Tech is in an absolutely impossible situation. The Red Raiders lose 10 yards on their first three plays of their first possession of overtime with Derek Parish absolutely blowing up two of the plays himself.

And. then . . . Texas Tech quarterback Donovan Smith somehow completes a 21-yard pass to freshman receiver Jerand Bradley on fourth-and-20. Fourth-and-20.

There are gut punches — and then there are plays that make it feel like your own grandma kicked you in the privates. UH experienced one of those plays in Lubbock.

“Puke,” Holgorsen says when asked about UH giving up the fourth-and-20. “I mean I ain’t pointing the finger that’s why we lost. We did plenty of stuff. Plenty of stuff. But it’s just unacceptable. How can you have that happen last week and go out there and do it again?

“I don’t know man.”

Parish, the edge rusher who terrorized Tech quarterback Donovan Smith at a horror movie villain level for large parts of the game, also can’t quite fathom that fourth-and-20.

“We really had a great opportunity in the game and it didn’t turn out for us,” Parish says. “We’re going to be OK, though. I know my team. I know my guys and I’m going to ride with ’em.”

That is all the now 1-1 Cougars can do now. Use that fourth-and-20 surrendered, the memory of Texas Tech’s crowd rushing past them and celebrating like they’d won a title, as motivation for the rest of the season. Even with the loss, Holgorsen’s guys can still win the conference championship they lost last season. Still even gives themselves a shot at a New Year’s 6 bowl game. Still head off into Big 12 play on a high.

It could be worse. UH could be Texas A&M.

A wild Week 2 of the college football season that sees A&M lose at home to Appalachian State (which causes even Johnny Manziel to crack jokes), Notre Dame lose at home to Marshall, Alabama almost lose to Texas (by the grace of Bill O’Brien?) and BYU beat No. 9 Baylor despite missing two near gimmie field goals late proves that nothing is close to certain in this sport.

UH didn’t want to add being able to stop a fourth-and-20 to the mix of uncertainties. But it did.

And now the Cougars head into a home opener against Kansas next Saturday that looks like anything but a given anymore. Not with the 2-0 Jayhawks having scored 111 points in two games.

It’s time to buckle up. This season already could be at an early inflection point.

“We’ve been talking about it,” UH quarterback Clayton Tune says. “That’s the thing. We’ve been preaching discipline and not shooting ourselves in the foot. But for whatever reason, we’ve done so a few times the last couple of games.

“Maybe we need to try something different.”

For two straight weeks, Houston has been a different team in the second half. This time, down 17-3 at halftime with their offense showing all the life of a mausoleum, the Cougars dial up a quick change. Picking up something in Texas Tech’s defensive scheme, Holgorsen calls for a long pass to Dell during the halftime break.

The result? UH’s first offensive play of the second half is a 63-yard strike from Tune to Dell that takes the Cougars to Tech’s 4-yard line, setting up Houston’s first touchdown.

“They were coming down on (Dell’s) pop routes and in cuts,” Holgorsen says when I ask about the designed play coming out of the half. “They were coming down hard on it. So we felt like we had it.”

They did — and the 15-yard yard touchdown pass to true freshman receiver Matthew Golden that gives UH that 27-20 overtime lead is another creative play call. One that brings Golden all the way across the field and gives him open space to make a play.

UH Clayton Tune
Clayton Tune didn’t have his best game against Texas Tech, but he still put the Cougars in position to win. In regulation. And overtime. (Courtesy UH Athletics)

That’s the thing. There are plenty of big UH plays in this second half. Including interceptions from cornerback Art Green, nickel back Jayce Rogers and safety Gervarrius Owens that each seem to set the Cougars up for an improbable win. Rogers turns his interception into an electric Pick 6 that ties the game at 17. Owens’ pick with 57 seconds left in regulation, gift wraps the go-ahead field goal for Houston with him bringing it back all the way to Tech’s 21-yard line.

And still. . . Houston loses.

“I’d rather take an L 50-0 than an L like this,” Parish says, shaking his head. UH’s resident warrior, the future NFL player who’s playing with a cast covering his right hand, finishes this game with four sacks, six tackles for losses and a forced fumble. And still leaves Lubbock feeling like he wants to throw up.

And he’s not alone.

“We didn’t play well enough to win,” Holgorsen says. “Just a whole lot of stupid stuff. Stupid, stupid, stupid, undisciplined stuff. Where I don’t feel like we deserved to win.”

That includes 11 penalties for 121 yards of backwards momentum, including a needless roughing the kicker penalty that sees a Nathaniel Dell punt return touchdown get erased for the second straight week. UH’s revamped offensive line also struggles to run block and pass protect for the second straight game — which could bring more changes to that unit.

It could be worse. UH could be Texas A&M.

A Bitter End For UH

Still, somehow, some way, it’s still all right there for UH in Lubbock. Up seven in overtime. Having boxed Texas Tech into a fourth-and-20.

Maybe Aaron Rogers is supposed to be able to escape from that. But not Donovan Smith, a college sophomore making his fifth career start.

Yet, Smith does, giving himself the chance to win it on a run in the second overtime. Suddenly, an entire stadium is losing its mind. And any real sense of crowd control.

“Puke. I mean I ain’t pointing the finger that’s why we lost. We did plenty of stuff. Plenty of stuff. But it’s just unacceptable.” — UH coach Dana Holgorsen on the fourth-and-20

UH is left to pick up the pieces. And hope this isn’t an early preview of what Big 12 life will look like in the coming seasons.

UH Derek Parish
UH edge rusher Derek Parish knows how to wreak havoc in an offensive backfield. (Courtesy UH Athletics)

No one likes to lose. And watching as the UH players head to the buses in the already cooling Lubbock night, Helicia Mutin knows her son Donavan Mutin is struggling with it. Mutin picks up nine tackles after getting 11 the week before. And feels empty.

“He’s his biggest critic,” Helicia Mutin tells PaperCity. “Even just now I’m telling him ‘Oh, you did good.’ And he’s like, ‘No, I could have done more.’ ”

This may be the biggest sign of hope for the rest of this University of Houston football season. This loss is not sitting well. Fourth-and-20 is deflating. But it shouldn’t define this season.

Not if guys like Derek Parish and Donavan Mutin have anything to say about it. Only actions matter now.