Culture / Sporting Life

Beat Up UH Holds Off Rice, But Devastating Derek Parish Injury and a Roll Call of Starters Down Casts Doubt On What the Coogs Have Left

Another Unbelievably Wild Finish, a Trophy Moment For a Teammate and Plenty Of Dana Holgorsen Angst

BY // 09.25.22

After one second is put back on the clock, after Rice quarterback TJ McMahon’s 39th pass of the evening is knocked away in the end zone by University of Houston nickleback Jayce Rogers, after Dana Holgorsen’s team somehow gives a near disastrous scenario the slip, it’s time for the Bayou Bucket trophy celebration. Only the UH players most enthusiastic about this big fat exhale of a trophy party know someone is missing.

Well, a lot of the Cougars’ more talented players are missing throughout this wild, eventual 34-27 win over Rice. But the injury absence of Derek Parish hits his defensive teammates particularly hard. So safety Hasaan Hypolite and a few of his fellow defenders call out to him.

“DP! DP! Get over here.”

Parish somewhat sheepishly walks over and joins the player crowd around the trophy. UH’s sack freak is already in street clothes — a Houston sweatsuit and baseball cap — after missing the entire second half with an injury. Remember this is guy who played just two days after undergoing hand surgery.

And as his teammates cheer for him and urge him to lift up that old hulking Bayou Bucket, you get the idea that they know this injury (yet undisclosed by the team) is much more serious. It’s almost like they know this is their chance to try and thank Parish for all he’s given this team.

“This is for you DP! You did this,” Hypolite tells him. “Amen! Amen! This is the man that did it,” UH linebacker Donavan Mutin, who dressed but didn’t play a single snap with his own shoulder injury, yells as he points at Parish.

Parish starts to get more into it and by the end he’s smiling a little and holding up the Sack Avenue street sign for a souvenir photo. (Parish officially will be cleared out for the season with a torn biceps on Monday.)

Nice moments usually come easier than this after a win. But this is no ordinary win for a beat up, worn down and battered University Houston football team. These Cougars showed resilience, fight and want to in just turning back an underrated Rice team that thought it was about to win its Super Bowl. But this too-close-for-comfort win also took much more out of a UH team that seems to be running on fumes coming out of as crazy an opening four weeks of the season as you’ll ever see.

“There’s things that I’ve seen in these four games that I haven’t seen ever in 33 years of coaching,” Holgorsen says when I ask him if he’s ever experienced a four game start to a season like this. “. . . The inability to play defense with no time on the clock. God dang. End of half. End of game. Every game.

“How about offensively, we get a dang first down and victory it? Our short yardage offense was pitiful. I’m not just mad at the defense over some of this stuff. The offense can get in the Victory formation and close the damn game out — and we couldn’t. Then we’ve got to give them the ball and they almost go 96 yards in what amounted to what, 24 seconds. God dang. I haven’t seen anything like this ever.”

These Cougars are somehow 2-2. But they’re also beaten up enough — seemingly physically and mentally — to make it feel like this season should be in November already. Instead, they’re just about to begin conference play with a quick turnaround Friday night game against a 3-1 Tulane team that beat the Kansas State team that just knocked off No. 6 Oklahoma.

“Somehow we figured out a way to get a win. I’m grateful for that. A lot of stupid stuff once again. I ain’t taking responsibility for that. At some point, they, we, just have to quit doing that.” — UH coach Dana Holgorsen

It’s more than fair to wonder how much UH has left. The coaches and players certainly seem to be.

“Drama,” UH quarterback Clayton Tune says when asked to describe the Cougars’ season so far. “It’s been dramatic. But I think it’s all stuff that we can fix. I think it’s all self inflicted stuff. That’s the good news.”

But now UH may be running out of starters who can potentially make any fixes look easy. Besides Parish and Mutin, bedrock safety Gervarrius Owens missed most of this Rice game with injuries. And that’s just the start of the Cougars’ roll call of ailments.

“It’s Derek Parish, it’s (left tackle) Pat Paul, it’s (lifeline receiver Nathaniel Dell), it’s (starting receiver Joseph) Manjack,” Holgorsen says. “It’s obviously (running back) Brandon Campbell, (linebacker) Malik Robinson (who’s already out for the season), Donnie Mutin and (cornerback) Art Green. It’s Gio (Owens). . .

“These guys are all guys that start that play a lot of ball around here and we didn’t have them at all today. . . We’ll evaluate all the guys that went in there to play and if they’ve got to play the rest of the year, they’ve got to get better and play the rest of the year.

“It’s college football. Nobody’s feeling sorry for us.”

Certainly not Rice. The now 2-2 Owls felt they were on the verge of at least forcing overtime when quarterback TJ McMahon uncorks a 51 yard pass that Bradley Rozner somehow catches at the 9-yard-line with clock ticking to 00:00. But after talking it over, the officiating crew puts a second back on the clock. That sets up the final frantic play, that last McMahon pass and Rogers stepping in front of Luke McCaffrey, the brother of NFL star Christian McCaffrey, to knock it down.

“Oh, I was scared,” UH receiver Nathaniel Dell says of the last play. “I was scared. I was scared.”

University of Houston Cougars beat Rice University to win the Bayou Bucket, Saturday at TDECU Stadium
University of Houston defensive stars Derek Parish and Donavan Mutin are both hurting and the Cougars defense is not the same without them. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Without Dell fighting through ankle issues to keep playing like the most dangerous force on the field (seven catches for 134 yards and a touchdown), this game would have been even more terrifying for UH. In a game of ever mounting injuries for Houston, the guy who came back to play may have made the biggest difference.

“There’s a lot of people in that position where if they’re banged up, in their minds they’re thinking of themselves first,” Tune says. “They’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to risk getting hurt even more.’ But in Tank’s mind if he doesn’t get back out there and play he feels like he’s letting his team down.

“It just shows the true character and the grit of Tank. And I think it passes on to everybody else. So it’s huge to have him act that way.”

Big Defensive UH Plays And Another Near Devastating Finish

UH outscores Rice 24-13 in the second half, but the game never feels lopsided. It takes Houston’s much maligned defense forcing two turnovers in the last five minutes of the game to set the Cougars up to survive. First D’Anthony Jones — one of the few members of Sack Avenue still standing — forces two straight McMahon fumbles with two straight strip sacks. The second is scooped up by Nelson Ceaser and returned 11 yards for Houston’s go-ahead touchdown.

Then on Rice’s next possession, a deflected McMahon pass is intercepted by reserve safety Thabo Mwaniki, who is only in the game because of Houston’s injuries.

After waiting for weeks for the defense to make a big play when it matters most, UH gets two of them in less than three minutes.

“We knew defensively we needed to step up and make a play,” Ceaser says. “Honestly, it was kind of normal. Because we know we’re capable of playing to that level. If not that level, even higher. So we just knew those last couple of weeks, we were slacking.

“We thought we were better than we were. So we ended up getting humbled.”

University of Houston Cougars beat Rice University to win the Bayou Bucket, Saturday at TDECU Stadium
Rice’s Hail Mary was answered when Bradley Rozner somehow came down with a 51-yard pass and one second was put back on the clock. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Even with the win, even with that old Bucket secured and Parish pulled into the celebration, this UH team still hardly sounds like it’s on any kind of high. Its head coach is certainly still searching.

“Somehow we figured out a way to get a win,” Holgorsen says. “I’m grateful for that. A lot of stupid stuff once again. I ain’t taking responsibility for that. At some point, they, we, just have to quit doing that.”

Holgorsen’s team leads the nation in penalties and the coach runs his hand over his face several times in his postgame press conference, quickly drains an entire water bottle. UH is somehow 2-2, but it hasn’t been easy on anybody. It’s not what anyone at Houston expected for this once projected dream season.

“I wasn’t really pleasant at halftime to coaches or players,” Holgorsen says. “Tired of doing it, man. Tired of yelling at them. Tired of motivating them. Tired of all that crap. It’s college football. Nobody’s feeling sorry for us. Nobody’s feeling sorry for me.

“I am a little bit.”

Holgorsen can’t even make himself smile with that.

How is it still only September? There’s no way these can be the sounds and sights of September, right?