Culture / Sporting Life

Dana Holgorsen Gives His UH Team a Frank Message After UCF Shows Just How Far This Cougars’ Rebuild Still Has to Go

Some Serious Speed and Hope From Nathaniel Dell

BY // 11.01.20

If you want someone to sugarcoat things or put makeup on a hog, Dana Holgorsen is not your guy. Want fake niceties? Go see a game show host, not Holgorsen.

Holgorsen has always been one of the more frank coaches in college football (hot mic or not) — and that certainly hasn’t changed since he took over at the University of Houston. After UCF — the gold standard of the American Athletic Conference for the last several seasons — ran over Holgorsen’s second-year UH team 44-21, the coach told his team the unpleasant truth.

Hologorsen is not going to dress anything up. Not even on Halloween.

“The message is that we’ve got to keep getting better,” UH linebacker Grant Stuard says when I ask what Holgorsen told the players after the game. “We have to keep getting better — top down. This was a team loss. And everybody that wears UH on their chest needs to get better if we’re going to win more football games.

“That was the message. That we need to improve as an entire football organization.”

Holgorsen says as much in his own postgame Zoom with reporters.

“Look, I’d be the first one to assume responsibility for the pitiful offensive performance,” the coach says. “I got to get better at it. We’ve got to get better at it — and we will.”

Holgorsen did not exactly inherit a stacked cabinet of gourmet groceries when he took over this University of Houston program. If Major Applewhite is your caretaker, your house is liable to end up as safe and sound as Bly Manor. Now, after having COVID-19 delays push the start of Houston’s season into October, the Cougars are facing a somewhat predictable run of injuries. Starting left tackle Patrick Paul is out for the season. Lifeline receiver/returner Marquez Stevenson left this UCF game with his left foot in a boot after getting hurt in the first quarter. Key contributors like safety Deontay Anderson and tailback Mulbah Carr are just getting back.

Still, as Holgorsen points out several times about the injuries in his postgame press conference “nobody cares.”

These now 2-2 (2-1 AAC) Cougars will be judged by what they do in their last five games of this unusual coronavirus regular season. No matter who is on the field. Or who is not.

UCF’s well-built program remains several giant steps above Dana Holgorsen’s UH rebuild for now. The Knights went 35-4 over the 2019, 2018 and 2017 seasons for good reason. Plenty of people in college football may have made fun of the Knights for declaring themselves the national champions — and even raising a banner and throwing a title parade — in 2017. But that cannot diminish what this program has accomplished as a non Power 5 school. American Athletic Conference or not, UCF is big time.

Holgorsen is trying to get the University of Houston back to that point. This Halloween Saturday is a harsh reminder of just how far there is still to go.

“I think we know how good we are,” UH quarterback Clayton Tune says after the 23-point loss. “Obviously, they’re a good team. But we left a lot out on the table. We just need to get back and regroup. We know how good we are. We just need to stay true to it — and stay the course.”

No one is more directly affected by the absence of Stevenson and Paul than Tune. And the junior quarterback never quite seems like himself against UCF, throwing two interceptions and completing only 21 of 41 passes for 263 yards.

“We have to keep getting better — top down. This was a team loss. And everybody that wears UH on their chest needs to get better if we’re going to win more football games.” — Grant Stuard on Dana Holgorsen’s message.

Still, there are some encouraging signs of the depth Holgorsen is trying to build. Junior college transfer Nathaniel Dell, who Holgorsen brought in to add more speed to UH’s receiving corps, finds himself suddenly dropped into something of an unexpected lead role with Stevenson hobbled. And Dell responds, catching six passes for 88 yards and a touchdown.

Tune goes to Dell on a two-point conversion attempt, tries to connect with him on several deep throws. In all, Dell will be targeted 10 times — and if he and Stevenson’s speed can be utilized together in the future, this Cougars offense may have another level it can reach this season.

“He’s a good player,” Holgorsen says of Dell. “He’s still a little raw. He’s new. He’s only a buck fifty. He’s gonna be a good player. He was thrusted into kind of a lead role today and I thought he handled it well. The more we targeted him, the more he made plays. He’s a dynamic player. He’s got to continue to mature and build his frame up a little bit.”

Holgorsen isn’t afraid to use shorter receivers, but one who is only 150 pounds is a little light for even this open offensive mind. Dell should put on weight now that he’s in a legitimate FBS program with the training programs that come with that. For now, he’s already making plays.

Which is something UCF knows all about.

UCF’s Hypersonic Offense

Watching UCF’s speed-pass, no-huddle offense presents a very different type of football experience. Look away for a moment, get lost in a conversation, and you’re likely to miss three or four plays. The snaps — and big chunks of yards gained — just keep coming. And coming.

Josh Heupel’s offense does not let opponents take a breath. You can’t savor anything.

UH’s defense creates a huge break, with Payton Turner forcing a Gabriel fumble on a monster third down sack. Stuard scoops up the loose football and rumbles into the end zone for a defensive touchdown. And. . . UCF promptly turns around and races 78 yards in four plays to take the lead right back.

Talk about deflating. There are Bachelor seasons with less sudden letdowns.

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Clayton Tune can run, but the University of Houston quarterbacks knows his team is at its best when he’s spreading the ball around. (Courtesy UH Athletics)

In truth, UH’s defense plays with a ferocity that seems to bother UCF at times. Gabriel takes several big hits. Yet, the Knights still rack up 358 yards in the first half — and never punt in those 30 minutes of football. Gabriel throws for 150 yards in the first quarter. It almost seems unfair.

The Cougars would need to play a near perfect game to beat UCF at this moment. They do not come close to playing that game.

For when they really start getting to Gabriel in the third quarter, the quarterback with the video game stats seems somewhat shaken. His feet start dancing in the pocket and the Knights’ hypersonic offense is suddenly hurrying up to punt. Yet, Tune and the Cougars cannot take advantage and by the time the fourth quarter rolls around, UCF’s offense has successfully pivoted to just running at will. The Knights will finish with 353 rushing yards.

Holgorsen’s coached offenses like that before. You get the sense he can appreciate the sureness with which this UCF team operates. Its takes more than a season and five COVID impacted games to get to that point. The year before its 13-0 mythical national championship 2017 season, UCF went 6-7. The year before that it was 0-12. Rebuilds are rarely easy straight lines. They hurt.

So Holgorsen tells his team just how far they have to go to start winning more games after UCF 44, UH 21. Want someone to make you feel better? Go watch Baby Yoda and the Mandalorian.

Dana Holgorsen will just keeping coaching this University of Houston football team, just keep building, while staying as real as he can.

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