It was a story the Houston Cougars experienced not only once, but twice heading into Friday night. After a late touchdown strike seemed to restore momentum to the Cougars season, Houston stood three minutes from recording back-to-back wins and jumping to 1-0 in AAC play. But just like in the first two weeks against UTSA and Texas Tech, the Cougars witnessed a lead with under 60 seconds to go dwindle away.
On a do-or-die 4th and goal in the final minute, Tulane ran a fake rollout shovel pass to Tyrick James to force Houston to into its third overtime battle in five games. In the extra period, the Green Wave defense limited Houston to a field goal and subsequently emerged victorious on a walk-off 10-yard touchdown reception by Tyjae Spears. The 27-24 result was met with fervent celebration in the east end zone, while the Cougars dejectedly strolled off the field on the wrong side of another overtime heartbreaker.
“We came very close, didn’t do enough to win,” Houston inside linebacker Donavan Mutin said.
Tulane entered the contest without starting third-year starting quarterback Michael Pratt, who was a late scratch due to an undisclosed injury. Redshirt freshman Justin Ibieta earned his first start with the Green Wave in relief of Pratt, but Ibieta’s day was short-lived. After connecting on five consecutive screen passes for 57 yards to start the game, Ibieta was knocked out with an injury on his first rushing attempt. Third-string quarterback Kai Horton finished the night, tallying three touchdown passes in his most significant collegiate action to date.
“It feels amazing. Shout out to all my teammates and coaches for believing in me,” Horton said. “Coach (Willie) Fritz told me that I needed to stay ready because I was one play away from being in the game. I took that to heart this week and made sure I was ready in case my name was called. We played great all around, all three teams, I’m so proud of everyone.”
After Tank Dell’s touchdown provided the Cougars with their first lead of the night at 21-14, Horton responded with his most poised sequence of the night. The unlikely hero delivered a 33-yard dime down the right sideline to Shae Wyatt to ultimately pin the Green Wave in scoring position. It was déjà vu for the Cougars, as their secondary surrendered its third game-tying drive in the final minutes this season, similarly allowing UTSA and Texas Tech to knot the score due to late quarterback heroics.
“That wasn’t a one-minute offense. That was a three-minute drive,” Houston head coach Holgorsen said on Tulane’s final scoring drive of regulation. “This was just a normal drive. There was three minutes. We played normal defense. We didn’t get into our two-minute defense because we didn’t have to. They made some plays and we didn’t. Unfortunately they scored.”
Before the madness of the thrilling finish to regulation and overtime, special teams and defense were the defining factors of the matchup. The first quarter was laden of significant special teams moments. Both teams exchanged blocked field goal attempts and Tulane watched an 83-yard punt return by wide receiver Jha’Quan Jackson get negated due to a holding.
Horton settled into the game after the special teams miscues and the Green Wave notched an early second quarter lead due to the exceptional play of Spears. As an adept runner and a frequent target on screen passes, Spears obtained team-highs in rushing (54) and receiving (85) yards alike and delivered the overtime touchdown reception. He also set up Horton’s first collegiate touchdown strike which handed Tulane a 7-0 lead. But that marked the Green Wave’s final offensive scoring drive until the final minute. The offense lost its groove for the middle part of the contest with the struggles starting when Horton fumbled in the backfield, resulting in Tulane’s lone turnover. That momentum-swinging play injected life into a Houston offense which struggled prior to the fumble recovery.
“All the guys came up to me and said, ‘We believe in you Kai,’” Horton said. “That means a lot because being a backup, they might doubt or lose trust in you. But all of them said ‘We believe in you’ or ‘You got this’, so I told them right back ‘If y’all protect me and make plays, I promise you we aren’t going to lose this game.’”
While Tulane’s shorthanded offense had difficulty stringing together long drives, the defense stepped up by manufacturing a defining play in the third quarter. While Houston quarterback Clayton Tune succeeded as a rusher with a game-high 69 rushing yards, the veteran signal caller coughed up the ball in the midst of being tackled by middle linebacker Nick Anderson. Cornerback Jadon Canady scooped up the pigskin and raced 57 yards to the house, uncontested, to provide Tulane a 14-7 advantage on the road.
“They dropped eight and we didn’t have a lot of guys open so it’s his job to keep it alive,” Holgorsen said about Tune’s role in the run game. “He scrambles a good bit. They dropped a lot and they did a good job covering us. They were pretty good on defense.”
Last time Tulane served as the visitor, the Green Wave defense suffocated Kansas State’s offense in a 17-10 victory. That defense from Manhattan, KS translated to Houston on Friday night, forcing the Cougars out of the red zone until the final frame. Houston didn’t jump-start its offense until the fourth quarter when Tune connected with KeSean Carter for a 41-yard gain — Houston’s first and only 20+ yard play all night. The Cougars scored the tying touchdown on a 75-yard drive and then followed it up with the go-ahead score on a 10-play, 80-yard drive — turning a 7-point fourth quarter deficit into a 7-point lead in the a 7-minute span.
“This is is a reoccurring thing,” running back Brandon Campbell said. “Second half we’re always coming out stronger. I hate that it has to be that way, but second half, we usually play a lot better.”
The Cougars entered the game shorthanded on defense, six days after losing star defensive end Derek Parish to a season-ending bicep injury. Other absent starters included cornerback Art Green and free safety Gervarrius Owens, limiting the amount of available bodies in the secondary. Even though Houston utilized a good portion of its depth chart, the defense still shut out Tulane from the early second quarter until the Green Wave’s 4th and goal conversion in the final minute.
“That’s always tough but we’ve all been brought to this university to play football and play it at a high level, so I feel like we’ve got to overcome that,” Campbell said on the team’s injury issues.
After dropping its second overtime contest of the year, the Cougars exceeded their entire loss total from 2021. At 2-3 and 0-1 in the conference, Houston prepares to put another disappointment on the backburner as it faces Memphis in another Friday night contest.
“It’s not a good feeling right now. It’s not a good place to be right now,” inside linebacker Donavan Mutin said. “But, it can get better or worse and we have the ability to choose that. When we go to bed and get gifted with the ability to wake up in the morning, we have the chance to go in a new direction and write the story we want to be written.”
Meanwhile, Tulane doubled its win total from 2021 with the victory. At 1-0 in AAC play, the Green Wave return to New Orleans next Saturday to battle East Carolina. Tulane currently holds the AAC’s best overall record, a perfect league record, and the strongest non-conference win in a resurgent season.
“This is an amazing team win,” Spears said. “Just like Coach Fritz said, from all three phases. Big shoutout to the defense, they come to play every game. We just have to raise the standard on offense. This is an amazing team win. It feels great.”