Culture / Sporting Life

Future Star Alton McCaskill Shows Why Dana Holgorsen’s Plan Just May Work After All — Turning the Doubts and Noise Into a Backyard Party

Dana's Guys Wallop Rice — and Hint at the Promise of Much More

BY // 09.12.21

Pawns don’t win football games. You need some higher level pieces, players that can shift the board in your favor. Like a running back with sprinter’s speed who slips away from a fake handoff and glides into the open field, leaving a stunned linebacker far behind, to catch a 35-yard touchdown pass. Yes, players like Alton McCaskill make you a better coach.

Dana Holgorsen has always understood this. And for maybe the first time, the University of Houston looks like a Dana Holgorsen team in a 44-7 dismantling of Rice. For maybe the first time, Holgorsen’s guys are all over the field, making plays.

There is McCaskill, the super freshman who turned down programs like Alabama and Florida State to pick Houston, providing another dimension as a pass catching back. There is Marcus Jones, the highly-regarded Troy transfer Holgorsen brought to campus two years ago, going from star cornerback to full-time receiver. For at least this one game.

And there are transfer defensive backs Art Green (Hutchinson Community College and a Tennessee target) and Alex Hogan (Texas Tech) making interceptions where they arguably run the route better than the targeted Rice receiver.

All Holgorsen guys making the kind of plays that change games. And maybe a program.

No wonder why Holgorsen felt good enough after this one to tweet a semi cheeky photo of himself, relaxing at his backyard pool with the Bayou Bucket trophy sitting next to him, styrofoam cup in hand.

UH coach Dana Holgorsen seems to be enjoying his time with the Bayou Bucket trophy. (@Holgorsendana)

Fun Dana is a good thing. It’s usually been a winning thing. And after a trying week in the wake of that second half collapse against Texas Tech at NRG, a week that included all the joining the Big 12 drama (and ultimate success), this is a program that probably deserves a moment to exhale.

“There’s been a lot going on,” Holgorsen says. “I’ve been stressed out. There’s a lot to play for — the Bayou Bucket is huge. It means a lot to both fan bases. We made a big deal about the Bucket staying home. And all the Big 12 news and everything. . .  coming off a hard loss last week. A lot going on.

“And I was really proud of the way the coaches and players responded to it.”

Alton McCaskill Arrives

Having a healthy Alton McCaskill makes any response a little easier. And definitely more potentially electric. The highest rated running back recruit that UH has ever landed scores three touchdowns on this night. But it’s the way McCaskill excels as a pass catcher out of the backfield, particularly on that 35-yard wheel route that leaves Rice’s most experienced linebacker (Antonio Montero) looking as befuddled as a Boomer trying to grasp TikTok, that hints at the true extent of his promise.

“He’s a complete back,” Holgorsen says when I ask about McCaskill’s pass catching skills. “I’ve been saying that for a while. Unfortunately, he got hurt for the last couple weeks of camp. And didn’t look good game week last week. The knee brace came off (against Rice). And you could tell he was back to himself. . .

“We definitely wanted to get him involved in some of the pass game stuff. But he can be in the backfield and get hard yards too. You saw some of the short yardage stuff he did. I think that’s just the start of what  he’s going to become.”

Alton McCaskill is going to help win much bigger games than this. This is not about beating Rice. Houston is not paying Dana Holgorsen $20 million to beat Rice. Major Applewhite beat Rice the two times his teams played the Owls. Tilman Fertitta and UH athletic director Chris Pezman lured Holgorsen to Cullen Boulevard for much larger things.

It is not the win over Rice that’s encouraging. It’s the dominant way in which it’s achieved. And the Dana Guys leading the way. Many expected this game to be much closer. Including the professional oddsmakers who installed Houston as mere eight point favorites.

“Guys, I’m a little bit shellshocked right now,” Rice coach Mike Bloomgren says in his own postgame Zoom. “That’s not at all how I thought this game would go. Wasn’t prepared for it to go that way. I thought we’d be able to fight them tooth and nail.”

Instead, UH rolls — and shows plenty of future potential. Instead, Holgorsen’s team turns the horrors of Texas Tech and the Big 12 Power 5 future pride into a rallying cry.

“Very personally,” defensive lineman Logan Hall says of how he and his teammates took the Texas Tech loss. “Being up so much that first quarter against a big opponent like that. . . and kind of coming out and just crapping the bed. I beat myself up a lot.

“But Dana’s message the whole week was to finish. . . The emphasis was keep your foot on the throat and finish. And that’s what we did.”

UH football Art Green
UH cornerback Art Green went up high to snag this interception. (@UHCougar FB)

In a 71-year-old stadium that once hosted a Super Bowl, with 26,253 fans scattered among the lower of a place that can seat 70,000, this day looks like a long way from the Power 5. No matter. The sweeping views of downtown and the Texas Medical Center are nice — and there are two Kona shaved ice trucks parked in the concourse.

Besides Dana Holgorsen’s team would make its own big time in the old school settings.

One big play at a time. Clayton Tune — who’s seemingly become even more Holgorsen’s quarterback amid all the noise, doubts and calls to bench him swirling from outside the program — converts a third-and-19, a third-and-17, a third-and-15, a third-and-10 and a third-and-12. All in the third quarter alone. He also completes 74 percent of his passes and does not throw a pick.

It’s not against a marquee opponent, but it’s a heck of a response nonetheless.

“I talked to him,” Nathaniel Dell, Tune’s favorite target, says of his QB. “I just told him to keep his head up. Like we got him. We wasn’t worried about what the outside was saying. We were just focused on us. That’s what we preach throughout the organization. Just focus on us.

“So he was like OK. You know, just let it go with a shrug. He wasn’t too much stressing that. We was just moving on to the next week.”

McCaskill helps give UH a chance to move onto to a whole new era. But he’s still an 18-year-old in a sport that is not always kind to true freshmen. When McCaskill only touched the ball five times — and gained only five total yards on those touches — in the season opening loss to Texas Tech, some eyebrows raised.

Maybe, a major first year impact was too much to ask. . .

“I think that’s just the start of what  he’s going to become.” — UH coach Dana Holgorsen on freshman Alton McCaskill

Turns out, a week — and a little more health — is all it took. McCaskill touches the ball 18 times against Rice and produces 92 yards and those three touchdowns. He gets the hard yards running inside the tackles. And he shows the speed that made him a high school sprinter able to clock a 10.91 100-yard dash time on a few dynamic ones. Including a second near touchdown catch.

From shedding a knee brace to taking over a game. . .

Just one of Dana’s Guys getting it done. It’s a start. And maybe, just maybe, a flash of a UH future that may be coming faster than many realize. Playmakers make hanging out in your backyard a lot more fun.

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