Culture / Sporting Life

Dana Holgorsen’s Show is Starting to Make Tilman Fertitta Look Good — Tons of Promise and Marquez Stevenson’s Crazy Star Power Shine in Wild UH Opener

Look Mom — Plenty of Masks!

BY // 10.09.20

Dana Holgorsen promised there would be nights like this. And for the first time in his still short University of Houston tenure, everyone got a look at why Houston billionaire Cougars backer Tilman Fertitta worked so hard to bring Holgorsen to the Third Ward campus. In their long awaited and much delayed first game of the 2020 season, Holgorsen’s team looked like one of the best shows in Houston.

You want entertainment? How about basketball on grass (or at least FieldTurf), big play after play unfolding in a front of a social distancing crowd that wore its marks way better than Georgia football fans.

You want resiliency? How about losing the turnover battle 5-0, falling down 24-7, and still blowing Tulane off the field, 49-31. That’s like solving a Rubik’s Cube while falling backwards out of plane. It’s just not done in major college football. Teams that turn the ball over five times just don’t win. Yet, quarterback Clayton Tune and the Cougars still rolled, outscoring the Green Wave 42-7 after falling in that 17-point hole.

You want star power? How about Marquez Stevenson, 6-foot Louisiana electricity bolt doing everything and then some for UH, racking up 223 all-purpose yards. Stevenson returns a kickoff 97 yards, catching the ball in the far right corner near his own end zone and weaving all the way across the field to score in the far left corner of Tulane’s end zone. Seeing Stevenson return kicks is like watching a game of Frogger come to life.

He scores another touchdown on a 41-yard pass, draws a pass inference penalty in the end zone that sets up a third touchdown, runs three reverses (with two called back for holding) and generally leaves Tulane’s defense as dizzy as a cartoon villain. This is one of the most explosive players in college football period. In any conference.

“He’s his own guy,” Holgorsen says in the postgame Zoom when I ask if the guy nicknamed Speedy reminds him of any of other top playmakers he’s coached over the years. “He brings his own stuff to the table. I told him I was never going to quit coaching him.

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“I wasn’t happy when he put the ball on the ground there in the first quarter. When he scored on the kick return, I thought his ball security was pretty average. Ran a great route and caught that touchdown pass. That was a great route. That’s what I’m more fired up about than anything that he did today. We’ve been working really hard on route running.

“. . . But he’s his own guy. It means a lot to him. He’s been around here for a long time. He’s going to get his degree here in the next couple of months. He’s going to make a lot of plays for us over the course of the season and then he’s going to go play in the NFL.”

Dana Ball

If it’s becoming impossible to ignore Marquez Stevenson, it’s becoming easier to see the real beginnings of Dana Holgorsen’s UH vision. That wasn’t always the case during the redshirting spree of last season’s 4-8 stumble, or as UH games kept getting canceled while the program’s former quarterback D’Eriq King turned Miami into a surprise national championship contender.

But on this October Thursday night, Dana Ball starts to take effect. The beginnings of the strong running game Holgorsen always had at West Virginia to go with the more attention-grabbing aerial show can be seen in the coach’s second season opener. With eight different players getting carries, UH runs for 157 yards on a Tulane defense explicitly designed to stop teams from running. The start of a physical, punishing defense is also apparent. Tulane can only muster seven points in the second half and does not break 200 yards of total offense until late in the fourth quarter when the game is already decided.

Green Wave freshman quarterback Michael Pratt is sacked six times — and he can only complete less than 45 percent of his passes. Pratt will likely be seeing Cougars defensive end Payton Turner in his sleep for weeks to come. Finally playing with working fingers again (at least four of Turner’s were broken last season), Turner racks up two sacks and four and a half tackles for loss. That’s a vintage J.J. Watt type defensive stat line.

“He looked like the best player on the field to me,” Holgorsen says of Turner.

Payton Turner University of Houston
Payton Turner gives the University of Houston a disruptive defensive force. (Courtesy UH)

If Turner wasn’t, Stevenson was. The University of Houston having difference makers on both sides of the ball will make this team entertaining in  a way that few things have been in this deadly, weird, strange and often alarming 2020. Stevenson used to watch Tavon Austin, the former Dallas Cowboy with the 4.34 40-yard dash time, when Austin was at West Virginia racking up a crazy highlight tape under coach. . . Dana Holgorsen.

“I’ve been watching Tavon Austin since high school when he was at West Virginia,” Stevenson says. “Everybody probably knows about his highlights at West Virginia. That’s a player like I always watched coming up in high school. And I still kind of base my game after him.”

Now, Stevenson of playing something of a Tavon Austin role in another Dana Holgorsen offense. Holgorsen makes sure his quarterbacks get the ball to the playmakers and Tune comes through in game one, throwing for 319 yards and two touchdowns despite the type of start that would leave some quarterbacks more shaky than a man hooked to a caffeine IV.

“He was a couple of just missed throws or dropped passes — whatever it was — from having a pretty huge game,” Holgorsen says. “He doesn’t get rattled. He makes those two plays in the first quarter (throwing a Pick 6 and fumbling a ball at  UH’s 1-yard line that’s returned for a TD) that gives our opponent 14 points. There’s a lot of quarterbacks that would just call it a day.

“He shook that stuff off. He’s got a chance to be pretty good with that mindset.”

UH’s Season of New Beginnings

This bizarre coronavirus season which will see UH only play one non-conference team (No. 15 BYU next Friday night at TDECU Stadium) before a possible bowl game cannot come close to telling everything about the program Holgorsen is trying to build in America’s fourth largest city. But it sure can be a fun start.

It’s clear UH football is back to being a good show. That’s no small start. Dana Holgorsen is going to give this team a chance to put up a ton of points — and the Cougars could be a little nasty on defense, too.

“Our conference is crazy every year, year to year,” Turner says. “You don’t know who’s doing what. There’s always something crazy going on. I think if this team keeps on pace, keeps on track, we can compete for a conference championship.”

Dana Ball is finally really here. And it looks like it will be a blast. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

One billionaire surely will. The Rockets may still be in some flux, but Tilman Fertitta sure can pick UH coaches.

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