HOUSTON -The season began Saturday afternoon, as it should, with something woolly and berserk. It began with a left heel planted inches inside the back line of an end zone in a third quarter, and a wily senior return man reaching up to catch a missed 53-yard field goal, then running while listening for whistles. Who dreams up this stuff?
In one skillful sweep, Brandon Wilson kept himself inbounds and corralled the football with his right leg slightly off the ground, and once he embarked, about 60 percent of NRG Stadium started booming right along with him. By the time he got finished romping 109-plus yards past a toothless, disorganized Oklahoma resistance, he had pushed Houston ahead by 26-17, changed the contour of a big game and changed the conversation of an early national season.
Houston, one of the 63 members of college football’s second-tier peasantry, would smash Oklahoma, one of the 65 uppity, ultimately by 33-23, before 71,016, in the kind of class warfare that peppers this wild American sport. The No. 15-ranked Cougars would sustain the possibility that someday in December, they could warm even impartial hearts at the four-team College Football Playoff. The No. 3 Sooners would settle for high marks for gutsy scheduling.
Further, the Big 12 Conference offices might even notice the score, what with Houston among its candidates for expansion. That’s a Houston program that has spent its last two games beating Florida State (in the Peach Bowl) and Oklahoma under second-year star Coach Tom Herman, and that would have led Oklahoma 40-17 with four minutes left had it not fumbled at the 1-yard line. It does raise a question.
You sure you want to import this titan?
“I’m not impressed,” Houston senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. said of the so-called “statement.” He also said, “We don’t worry about those type of things.”
“We’re 1-0. We expected to win, internally,” Herman said. “We were prepared to win. We expected to win. And we trained to win.”
On an opening national Saturday almost too full of enticements, Houston and Oklahoma started with two quarters plus six minutes of the anticipated offensive flourishes. Their seasoned quarterbacks excelled. Their first half was rich in adroit fakes and unaccompanied receivers. They had reached the middle of the third with the Cougars ahead 19-17 but the Sooners still primed to uphold their loud preseason promise.
Oklahoma slogged 36 yards in 10 plays, but then stalled against a stiffened Houston front. Sooners kicker Austin Seibert lined up for the 53-yarder. His career long was 46, but his team had a shot at the lead.
Here came some mayhem in which the sport does specialize.
Oklahoma couldn’t get proper personnel on the field and called a timeout. Houston couldn’t figure out whether Oklahoma would punt or kick, and benefited from the timeout. Houston sent Wilson, a captain, to last edge of the field, for a play Herman reckons his team practices once every Thursday: “It’s not something that consumes a lot of your time. That’s something that might come up once every couple seasons,” as it did to runaway fame in Auburn, Ala., in November 2013.
Wilson made the tricky catch and had a tricky thought. “I really thought I stepped out,” he said, “but I mean, I didn’t hear a whistle or anything, so I just went. I just saw the green grass and I scored.”
Herman missed the ending while looking for flags because, he said, “I was thinking this is too good to be true.”
Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops wound up saying, “You know you have to cover it, but the personnel on the field isn’t the best cover guys, and that’s because the best cover guys wouldn’t be able to protect the field goal.”
As teammates mobbed Wilson, he had a touchdown in a fifth different way in his career – fumble return, interception return, kickoff return and rush being the others. “He’s a captain for a reason,” Herman said. “He got a tremendous amount of votes. . . . That was a very captain-like play that he made.”
Next, linebacker Matthew Adams ripped loose a fumble. Soon, linebacker Tyus Bowser sacked Mayfield for another fumble. From halftime (245 total yards) to a desperate closing drive that took the score from 33-17 to 33-23, Oklahoma managed 68 total yards in six possessions.
“This is still a bunch of two- and three-star recruits that don’t have the luxuries that an Oklahoma or a Florida State has, and so any time your resources don’t match your opponent’s resources, it is a bit surprising,” Herman said. “And I can understand why publicly it would be surprising because these things aren’t supposed to happen.”
But Houston has made a knack of not thinking that way, so it has enabled a fine national discussion for the next two months, if it can win out to November and the first findings of the College Football Playoff.
That discussion figures to be lively, if not as lively as any 109-yard missed-field goal return.