Culture / Sporting Life

Marcus Jones Makes a Heisman Statement, Alton McCaskill Shrugs Off an Injury and Dana Holgorsen Celebrates an Imperfect Perfect 10

How UH Football Overcome a Night of Frights to Reach Double Digit Wins

BY // 11.20.21

Marcus Jones reaches around the Memphis receiver he’s shadowing, plucks the football out of the air with his left hand like a magician finding a coin behind your ear and holds on to complete the one-handed catch as he falls to the ground. Roc Taylor — the stunned Memphis receiver Jones robbed from behind — can only stand and stare.

And who can blame him? You don’t see this type of thing very often. In fact, sometimes it seems like Jones has brought CGI to the football field.

“He’s ridiculous,” University of Houston quarterback Clayton Tune says afterwards. “He makes plays that you’re just like ‘Wow.’ It was funny when he made that one-handed interception, the offense was in the huddle waiting to go out on the field and I looked at Christian Trahan and I go, ‘That was like a Madden animation.’

“It looked like it was just straight out of a video game.”

In a night that began with one of the most frightening scenes you’ll ever see on a football field, a night that often devolved into nastiness between two teams that really don’t like each other, a night that had Houston super freshman Alton McCaskill dodging a serious injury scare, Marcus Jones’ brilliance once again rose above it all.

With Jones snaring two second half interceptions, Dana Holgorsen’s team moved to 10-1 with a 31-13 shrug off of a Memphis team that tormented them in recent years. A development that left the coach stumping for Jones for the Heisman Trophy.

“We’re 10-1. We’re 8-0 in a pretty good conference. (Jones) is the most versatile player in college football,” Holgorsen says. “You can’t deny that. He’s going to win the Paul Hornung (the award for college football’s most versatile player). Tavon Austin won the Paul Hornung. He’s that kind of player. That kind of talent. He changes that game.

“Everybody holds their breath when he punt returns. . . Defensively, he is the best cover guy that I’ve been around — and I’ve had corners get drafted high. He’s just special with how he can feel the receivers and make plays with his hands on the ball. He’d probably be our best receiver. He’s shown he can do that. . .

“How is that not one of the best players in college football? Is the Heisman Trophy not the best player in college football?”

“Put him in the pose.” — Derek Parish on Marcus Jones.

Marcus Jones certainly deserves more Heisman consideration than he is currently getting — which was about none heading into this game. Of course, campaigning for a Heisman worthy force that everyone is overlooking is a lot better spot to be in than the dark place this Houston team started the night.

For when junior linebacker Donavan Mutin crumpled to the ground making a tackle just two minutes and 58 seconds into the game, and lay motionless, an entire stadium quickly grew eerily silent. A stretcher was almost immediately signaled for — and before long, the entire Houston team was out on the field, grappling with concern for their injured teammate.

“It was a heartbreaking moment when you saw Donny down there,” Tune says. “It looked like he wasn’t moving at first so it was really scary.”

“I shed a tear for him man,” UH defensive end Derek Parish says. “I prayed for him. I played for him. It’s tough. . .”

By the time Mutin is wheeled off the field, immobilized on the stretcher, he is moving his fingers and arms. Still, going from that moment with everything brought to a standstill, with everyone thinking about the team captain being strapped to a stretcher, back to playing a football game is no easy transition.

It would not be the only one Holgorsen’s UH team needs to make on this night. For McCaskill, the first-year tailback who just seems to glide through defenses, making decisive cuts at every hole, ends up in the red medical tent himself late in the second quarter.

After emerging from the tent, McCaskill walks himself into the locker room, flanked by trainers. He never emerges in the second half. But after the game, he does come out of the locker room to talk to his family and friends, who lean over the first row of the stands. McCaskill tells them he’s doing all right. And he seems to be moving without any pain.

Holgorsen calls it a stinger and says the X-rays taken were negative. Still, it would seem to make little sense to push Alton McCaskill to play against a 1-9 UConn team next week. The next time Cougars fans could see the touchdown maker is against Cincinnati in the AAC Championship Game on December 4.

After all, McCaskill is more than just a running back. He is someone who helped change the perception of Holgorsen’s Houston rebuild when he picked UH over Alabama and Florida State — and he’s lived up to every bit of the hype.

“He is a really special kid,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman tells PaperCity. “Obviously a great player. But when you get to know him and his whole story, you really root for that kid. And to see that translate into the success he’s having immediately on the field. . .

“And for a kid that’s from the city, that’s what we’re selling on. And to see someone buy it and have that success, it is a great example. You don’t have to go anywhere (else). It’s here.”

Marcus Jones and the Power of 10

Double digit win seasons have a way of driving home that point. These Cougars are winning with toughness, grit, guile and talent. Tune shakes off another early injury scare (and two second half interceptions) to lead five scoring drives. He throws for 264 yards and with UH’s traditional run game going into something of a slumber without McCaskill, the quarterback runs for 59 yards, displaying the stride that a severe hamstring injury robbed him of most of the season.

The University of Houston Cougars prevailed in an overtime 31-24 win over East Carolina University, Saturday
Clayton Tune is starting to feel healthy enough to run again. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

For this UH team, it’s become about finding a way. No matter what. All led by the coach who wields his hat like a baton of outrage when a targeting penalty is upheld against UH on review. Holgorsen’s disgusted hat whirling earns him an additional penalty to boot, but his guys love every moment of the impassioned display.

“It’s electric,” Parish says of Holgorsen’s intense sideline presence. “He definitely keeps you on your toes, but his energy definitely trickles down to the players and it’s always great. It’s a good energy to be around.

“Regardless if he’s riled up or not, I love it.”

The game where Houston gets win No. 10 is a game for scrapers. The Cougar and Tiger players get into it on the field early in the pregame. And the third quarter features more mini skirmishes than some Christopher Nolan movies. The stands aren’t full (the crowd is announced at 28,712), something of a disappointment considering how much UH put into marketing this game. There is more work to do to get TDECU Stadium to approach the Fertitta Center in terms of atmosphere and UH fans celebrating the upcoming move to the Big 12 will need to bring it more consistently in football.

But on this Friday night, no one needs to add energy on the field. This is a brawl of a game.

Until Marcus Jones elevates things with another display of brilliance.

Jones is not made available to reporters after the game, which seems like a strange way to promote a player who is already not getting the attention he deserves nationally. But his teammates make up for that with their own pleas for the guy they’ve dubbed Mr. Versatility.

“I think he needs to be the Heisman winner honestly,” Derek Parish says. “Because he’s making plays each week. Showing up the same guy every day. So I think he needs that shot.

“Put him in the pose.”

“For a kid that’s from the city, that’s what we’re selling on. And to see someone buy it and have that success, it is a great example. You don’t have to go anywhere (else). It’s here.” — AD Chris Pezman on Alton McCaskill

Marcus Jones will have chances to break into the Heisman pose if he keeps making plays in UH’s big games to come. This cornerback who often seems to know the routes better than the opposing receivers does not do a lot of look at me moments though.

On his second interception, this one in the end zone to snuff out Memphis’ last gasp at making the final score more respectable, Jones simply jogs back to the sidelines.

He is winning games. Not courting votes. Which may be a statement of its own.

“He’s an amazing athlete,” UH senior linebacker Deontay Anderson says of Jones. “But the greatest thing is he’s an amazing person. You talk to him, it’s like he don’t even do those things.”

Marcus Jones is doing those things, of course. No magic or CGI required. This is a real story, of a hard-nosed team, a fiery coach and an electric superstar who collects Wow Moments like some people collect baseball cards. By the power of 10.

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