“We came in here wanting to put a stamp on a great season, and I think we did that,” said Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen. “Now we can propel it into next year."
The University of Houston’s offense struggled through most of their bowl game against Auburn University, but when the Cougars needed it most, the offense stepped up.
“We just kept hammering away and kept trusting the guys,” said quarterback Clayton Tune. “Our offense this whole season, when we needed to make plays, we did. There was no panic or anything. We just trusted each other. I trusted my offensive line and my running backs and everyone on the field. We knew we were going to make a play when we needed to and we did.”
Behind 283 yards and two touchdowns from Tune, 150 yards receiving on 10 receptions from Nathaniel Dell and a terrific defensive performance from the Cougars, Houston came out 17-13 victors over Auburn in the Birmingham bowl, topping the Tigers in SEC country.
It took a late fourth quarter comeback after a subpar second half from the Cougar offense, but a late drive and a Cougars defensive stand handed Houston the victory.
“We came in here wanting to put a stamp on a great season, and I think we did that,” said Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen. “Now we can propel it into next year. I referenced what Cincinnati did three years ago, they came here to Birmingham and won their bowl game and have gone 22-1 since. That kind of proves where our programs at and we had a really good year and made a lot of strides.”
Houston started the game as good as any fan could ask, taking the opening kickoff 87 yards on 12, converting on two third downs and a fourth down before Clayton Tune found Alton McCaskill for a five-yard touchdown pass to give the Cougars the lead.
Auburn and Houston punted on four straight drives from there before Auburn drove the ball into the Cougar red zone but failed to convert a fourth and two, coming up empty handed.
Houston carried that momentum into its next drive, going 45 yards on nine plays and coming away with a field goal. Auburn answered back before the teams traded punts heading into halftime with the Cougars holding a 10-3 lead.
“We just had to keep the confidence, we just kept talking to each other on the sidelines,” said receiver Jake Herslow. “We kept telling each other ‘yeah we got this,’ we knew we were going to drive down and we are going to score and win the game. We knew that, there wasn’t any second guessing it and I’m glad we got it done.”
But Cougars couldn’t bring any of their momentum into the second half.
Auburn marched down the field on its opening possession of the half but was forced to settle for a field goal, making things a four-point game.
Things continued to trend downhill as Houston was forced to punt and Auburn then drove 78 yards on 11 plays and took the lead on a 12-yard touchdown pass from TJ Finley and Kobe Hudson. Houston then threw an interception, gifting Auburn a chance to make things a two-possession game, but the Cougars defense held strong to give the Cougars the ball back heading into the fourth quarter. The Cougars offense couldn’t take advantage though, and after getting into Tiger’s territory, Tune was unable to convert on a fourth down scramble.
The Cougars only had three first downs in the second half to that point, but finally found a rhythm with under five minutes left in the game, getting first downs on back to back plays, but then disaster struck the Cougars again as the team dialed up a throwback reverse pass to the quarterback that was intercepted.
Houston’s defense again held Auburn though, giving the Cougars one last chance to drive for and regain the lead with six minutes remaining in the game.
“We played awesome in the first half, but we didn’t play good at all in the third quarter,” Holgorsen said. “Whether it was special teams or offense or defense, we played bad. But to come back from that and get stops in the fourth quarter, and then score when we needed to, it was a good team effort and it’s what this team’s done all year. We compete and we’re hard to play against and beat.”
The offense finally capitalized on the defense’s strong day, Tune drove 80 yards on eight plays, culminating in a 26-yard touchdown pass to Herslow as Houston regained the lead for the first time since they lost it on the first drive of the second half.
Auburn had a chance to drive and retake the lead, but Houston’s defense came up huge again, all but ending the game.
It was the first bowl victory in the last five appearances for Houston, who ends the season at 12-2.
The Cougars expect to return Tune and Dell and will be right in the mix of the American Athletic Conference title race next season.
“It means a lot,” Tune said. “You want to finish off the season with a win and it’s been six years since we won a bowl game. Last year I had a bad taste in my mouth because we went out with a loss in the New Mexico bowl and this year has kind of been a revenge tour. To come out and have the season that we did and finish with a bowl win is awesome.”
Houston 17, Auburn 13
Houston 7 3 0 7 — 17
Auburn 0 3 10 0 — 13
HOU: Tune 5 pass to McCaskill (Witherspoon kick), 8:46.
HOU: Witherspoon 52 field goal, 6:58.
AUB: Patton 27 field goal, 3:10.
AUB: Patton 35 field goal, 12:12.
AUB: Finley 12 pass to Hudson (Patton kick), 3:52.
HOU: Tune 26 pass to Herslow (Witherspoon kick), 3:27.
First downs 19 14
Rushes-yards 26-114 29-125
Passing 283 207
Comp-Att-Int 26-41-2 18-36-0
Punts 4-36 6-38
Fumbles-Lost 2-0 2-0
Penalties-Yards 6-34 3-35
Rushing: Houston, McCaskill 14-78, Tune 7-43, Henry 2-(minus 2), (Team) 3-(minus 5). Auburn, Bigsby 16-96, J.Hunter 5-17, J.Johnson 2-16, M.Johnson 1-10, Shenker 1-1, (Team) 1-(minus 3), Robertson 1-(minus 5), Finley 2-(minus 7).
Passing: Houston, Tune 26-40-1-283, S.Green 0-1-1-0. Auburn, Finley 18-36-0-207.
Receiving: Houston, Dell 10-150, Herslow 4-57, McCaskill 4-15, Trahan 3-30, Singleton 2-17, Henry 2-6, Sylvester 1-8. Auburn, Bigsby 5-68, Shenker 5-54, Hudson 4-57, Robertson 2-15, Sh.Jackson 2-13, J.Johnson 1-20.
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