Culture / Sporting Life

SEC Proven — Dana Holgorsen’s UH Team Proves It’s Tougher Than a Motivated Big Time Foe, Setting Up a Monster 2022

When 12-2 Is Just the Start for Clayton Tune and Co.

BY // 12.29.21

Dana Holgorsen gets a Vulcan to hang out with him in the backyard, a fitting perch for a Roman God and the most interesting trophy of college football’s bowl season. Clayton Tune gets a win to build on as he prepares to come back as the rare fourth year college starting quarterback. And potential recruits get more evidence that the University of Houston can play with anybody, including an SEC program with endless resources.

A win does not need to be pretty to be monumental.

Houston’s 17-13 win over Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl certainly qualifies. Holgorsen’s team mostly pulls out this W because it’s the gutsiest team on the field. That’s one of the things that has carried UH through this 12-2 breakout year. The Cougars find a way because they never stop trying, never stop fighting.

In many ways, Houston out toughed an SEC team in its own backyard.

That is no small building block. For an American Athletic Conference swan song season with Tune, wide receiver standout Nathaniel Dell and super freshman Alton McCaskill all returning. For the impending jump to the Big 12 in 2023.

“It’s just a natural progression and evolution of where we’ve been and where we’re going,” UH athletic director Chris Pezman tells PaperCity when I ask about Holgorsen’s statement year. “As we continue to focus on raising the bar across the board.

“I’m really happy with what Dana and his staff did and the kids that are coming up the road. We’ll be all right. We’ve got to get ready for where we’re going and that means we’ve got to start getting our assets up.”

With four star receiver recruit Matthew Golden set to join Dell next season, Tune and UH’s offense seem set up to take another big step forward. PaperCity first reported Clayton Tune would be returning on December 6. And Holgorsen quickly began adding pieces around the quarterback he believed in even when others doubted.

“They did a great job in the early signing class,” Pezman says. “Still got like twentysomething spots (left). They’ll be busy after the bowl game. These guys are gonna need a break.”

The University of Houston Cougars prevailed in an overtime 31-24 win over East Carolina University, Saturday
Clayton Tune gives UH a threat on the ground as well as with his arm. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Dana Holgorsen is not one to wait around. Whether it’s to get on track after starting 7-14 in his first 21 games as Houston’s coach. Or waiting for the losing coach to conclude his press conference after a bowl game. Much like Tilman Fertitta, the billionaire backer who helped lure the coach from the old Big 12 to a better job in Houston, Holgorsen always seems like he’s in a hurry.

Of course, there are plenty of people around Houston who would be happy to rush towards next season.

This is no small building block. For an AAC swan song season with Tune, wide receiver standout Nathaniel Dell and super freshman Alton McCaskill all returning. For the impending jump to the Big 12 in 2023.

Beating Auburn, an SEC team that desperately wanted to leave a good impression — and secure a winning season — for first year coach Bryan Harsin, can do that. UH does not even play particularly well in this Birmingham Bowl. But with Dell (1o catches for 150 yards) looking like the most talented player on the field, all those SEC athletes included, and Doug Belk’s Cougar defense playing as nasty as ever, it’s enough.

“This win was like much of the other ones we’ve had this year,” Holgorsen says in the postgame press conference. “Just a bunch of guys that fight hard to win.”

UH’s Fight Club and Dana Holgorsen

There were plenty of times when UH could have given up that fight against Auburn. Particularly after an ill-advised lateral pass, with Tune turning into a receiver, that resulted in an interception. But Holgorsen’s battlers just kept going, finding a way to be fourth quarter stronger than their supposed SEC betters.

“That kind of proves where our program’s at,” Holgorsen says, wearing a black hat with Champions on it. “And I felt like we had a really good year. And I felt like we made a lot of strides. And we did

“I think that will help with recruiting. I think that will help with going into next year. It will help with a lot of things.”

UH 17, Auburn 13 is more than scoreboard. It is another step forward for a program that is already reaching into the future.

“You hope it’s gonna happen, and then you see it,” Pezman says of Holgorsen’s UH football resurrection. “It’s actually kind of starting to manifest itself. Basketball’s been doing it. The Player of the Year for four of the last five years in the city (committing to Kelvin Sampson’s program).

“You start seeing football get that same run. . .”

To Pezman, that sounds sort of limitless. Which is really what the University of Houston’s move into the Big 12 is all about. It’s about removing any remaining constraints on what its athletic programs can be.

For now, UH beating an SEC team in its own homeland is another important step forward. Soon, it just might be expected.

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