There are times when you realize that the game, or moment within a game, you are witnessing will be a moment you'll remember the rest of your life.
Sometimes, it takes a while for you to realize how significant a moment really was. As a Cougar fan, I would say the men’s basketball win over LSU at the Fertitta Center was one of those moments. In real time I enjoyed it as a comeback win and a great atmosphere, but in the larger context of the 2018-19 men’s hoops season I realize it was a pivotal moment for that team.
When it came to the Peach Bowl and Cougar football’s showdown with the Florida State Seminoles, there was no such doubt about what kind of game this was.
Even if college football’s current postseason format inexplicably denied teams outside of 5 conferences a shot at the title, this would be a chance for the Coogs to prove they belonged with the sport’s heavy weights.
And boy did they prove some things on New Years Eve in Atlanta, Georgia.
Leading into the Game:
Considering I did something of a summary of the 2015 season and the AAC championship game in the previous post of this series, I am going to approach this section a little differently. I would encourage you to read the previous post about the 2015 AAC championship win over Temple, that ensured the Coogs would even make the Peach Bowl.
For the final post of this series I am going to give my personal perspective on the 2015 season and how I ended up in Atlanta, 20 rows from the field, watching the Coogs play Florida State.
Like most everyone else in the Houston fan base I was optimistic about the Tom Herman hire after the disappointment of the 2014 season. But I wouldn’t have predicted more than 8 or 9 wins if you’d asked me for a season prediction around August 2015.
But after the win up at Louisville and the way the Coogs were laying waste to the opponents on their schedule, I started to get the sense this team was different.
Me and (co-host of a nascent Scott & Holman Pawdcast) Dustin flew up to Tulsa to experience the sketchiest motel that town offered and watch the Coogs handle the Golden Hurricane. Only a couple weeks later, I gently cajoled my then-significant other to travel with me to New Orleans, where we watched the Coogs soundly beat a Tulane team bad enough it cost their coach his job.
At this point the Coogs were 6-0 and I think it was becoming clear to all of us that this team was better than any of the previous few years’ groups. I was almost afraid to miss another game, road or home, though I elected to skip flying out to Orlando to watch the Coogs demolish a winless UCF team.
The though of flying to nearly the opposite end of the ‘lower 48’ to see the Coogs face UConn was beginning to intrigue me. I had a job that was just barely good enough to accommodate the funds necessary to finagle a Houston to Hartford plane ticket. When I found out a few people I knew would be at that game, I booked the trip before I could talk myself out of it.
When the time for that trip came a few weeks later I was pinching myself that I was one of the few Cougar fans who was going to be there in person to watch the 10-0 Cougars. Instead, I got to be one of the few unfortunate souls to witness an injury-ravaged team lose a bizarre senior night game to UConn and drop out of the top 25 altogether.
Weirdly enough, I don’t remember being super discouraged by the prospect of facing a very good Navy team quarterbacked by Keenan Reynolds, easily the best Midshipman QB in about 50 years. My optimism was not misplaced, as the Coogs handled Navy on the day after Thanksgiving and guaranteed a spot in the AAC championship game against Temple.
The following week’s game offered minimal drama as the Coogs got out to an early 17-point lead and never looked back to beat Temple 24-13 and capture the conference title.
At this point in the year I had been to all 7 home games (conference title game included) and had made road trips to Tulsa, Tulane and UConn. I may have been doing okay for myself at 27 years old and still without my undergrad degree, but not to the level where I could easily pay for 4 football road trips.
But I was able to scrape enough nickels and dimes together for a Spirit Air round trip flight to Atlanta and along with my good friend and podcast co-host stayed in the airport motel under every single plane’s takeoff path.
And we still couldn’t have been more excited about just being there.
The Coogs were getting a salty opponent in the #9 Florida State Seminoles. After losing the controversial and prolific Jameis Winston to the NFL draft after the prior season, the Noles had some instability at QB as they rotated between grad transfer Everett Golson and Sean Maguire through the year.
But at just about every other position they were in great shape and at least on paper had a talent advantage over the Coogs. RB Dalvin Cook had 8 100+ yard rushing games in 2015 alone and was averaging nearly 8 yards per carry.
The really challenging match-up would be figuring out a defense that hadn’t allowed more than 24 points in any game in the 2015 season. Led by future high round draft picks Jalen Ramsey, Derwin James and Demarcus Walker, the Noles defense would present a challenge no prior Cougar opponent presented.
The team in red and white would be up for that challenge.
Because this was an early kickoff (12 PM in Atlanta) on New Year’s Eve, I think my brain took a lot longer to process the fact that this was easily the biggest Cougar football game day of my lifetime.
We ended up taking an Uber from our lodging out by the airport to the Georgia Dome and met up with some people we knew who had also made the trip. While there, we serendipitously ran into Kyle Postma’s dad and extended family, and with some borrowed camera equipment made our first (and to date, only) foray into video content.
After clearing security and entering the stadium, the moment hit me: we were about to see UH play one of the sport’s biggest names with the college football watching public focused squarely on this game.
On the game’s opening possession, the Cougar defense set the tone when Steven Taylor and Elandon Roberts met Dalvin Cook in the FSU backfield for a loss of 1 yard. The teams traded empty possessions to start the game and while Sean Maguire would find his top target Travis Rudolph for a 51-yard reception on the next drive, the Noles could only manage an unsuccessful field goal try.
Newly-returned from injury RB Ryan Jackson rushed for 28 yards on the Coogs’ 2nd drive. On a 3rd down & short Greg Ward Jr took a designed keeper over the right side of his line and ran untouched 7 yards for the game’s first touchdown.
The Noles started to get some traction offensively on their next possession, but an inability to run the ball with Cook and injury to Maguire late in the drive meant they had to settle for a field goal. Demarcus Walker was able to intercept a deflected Ward pass on the next drive and the momentum looked like it was shifting towards the Noles.
But FSU backup QB JJ Cosentino (Golson left the program after the regular season) was 0 for 4 passing on the next 2 drives and was sacked twice. After that, head coach Jimbo Fisher decided an injured Maguire was a more viable option at QB.
The Cougar offense at this point wasn’t lighting the world on fire either, but on their 4th possession of the 2nd quarter finally broke through on what looked like an end around to DeMarcus Ayers threw to a wide open Chance Allen standing uncovered 20 yards away in the middle of the end zone for a TD.
2 plays into the next possession Steven Taylor knocked the ball away from Cook and Trevon Stewart recovered the ball at FSU’s 17-yard line. Ward would call his own number and score his 2nd rushing TD of the day 3 plays later to put the Coogs up 21-3.
There was no lack of excitement from Cougar fans at any point in the Georgia Dome, but the trick play touchdown and fumble recover to set up another score I think made all of us realize ‘hey we can win this game'.
An FSU rushing attack that averaged nearly 200 yards per game was in negative yards near the end of the 1st half and the Cougar offense showed it had enough athleticism and tricks to occasionally figure out the vaunted Nole defense.
William Jackson III would intercept Maguire on the next FSU possession, and neither team would score any more points in the opening half.
It was a surreal feeling, being up 3 scores at the half in a game where UH was decidedly the underdog. Not only were the Coogs winning by a wide margin, they were making one of the best backs in college football look like a scout teamer.
After a Cougar 3 and out on the half’s opening possession, the Noles finally found the end zone thanks almost entirely to big yardage completions from Maguire. A 26-yard completion from Maguire to Rudolph set up Cook for a 1-yard TD run and the UH lead was cut to 21-10.
Neither team would score after this in the 3rd quarter, but Stewart ended 2 different FSU possessions with an interception. The best the Coogs could do was get to 4th and short at the Nole 32-yard line, but Ward was sacked and the Coogs left the field empty handed.
Early in the 4th quarter, only a few plays after the Coogs extended the lead to 24-10, Maguire found Rudolph deep for a touchdown and all the sudden a commanding Cougar lead had shrunk to 7 points.
The Coogs responded with a 12-play and 5+ minute drive that ended with Ward hooking up with Chance Allen from 17-yards and extending the lead back to 14 points. But the Noles would only need 5 plays to cut the lead back to 1 score as Maguire went 4 for 5 for 75 yards and found Jesus Wilson on a 14-yard TD pass.
Even though the game had less than 5 minutes left, the Coogs needed another score and desperately to run some time off the clock. About the worst thing that could happen on the drive’s 2nd play happened. Ward was helped off the field after a 4-yard run and what felt like the 100th punishing hit he’d taken that afternoon.
Kyle Postma came in for Ward 3rd and 6 with the game’s momentum really starting to swing towards Noles and ran for exactly 7 yards to keep the drive alive. Postma’s biggest moment would come 3 plays on another 3rd down.
On 3rd and 7 and with 2:38 left in the game, Postma spotted the double A-gap blitz FSU was telegraphing and called his own number for a 29-yard run that got the Coogs down to the FSU 2-yard line.
Ryan Jackson would run the ball in on the next play and every red-clad fan in the Georgia Dome realized that the dream was coming true.
After a Jackson interception on FSU’s final possession, the Coogs took a knee, confetti fell from the Georgia Dome rafters and I did some combination of hugging and high fiving every friend and acquaintance in a 10-foot radius.
This game was a realization of what many Cougar fans believed this program could do and proved that Houston belonged in these kinds of games as much as any big game.
I am not doing an ‘aftermath’ section because I think we all know what’s happened in the program from 2016 to the present time. In some ways this game has become an albatross as every subsequent Cougar team has been judged by the impossibly high standard of the 2015 team.
But, the biggest takeaways from this game I don’t believe are negative ones. While 1 loss seasons and NY6 bowl games probably won’t be an every season occurrence, those things are also no longer an impossible dream for this Cougar football program.