Fittingly, the Univeristy of Houston’s bowl game on Thursday can serve as the posterchild for the “Season of COVID-19.”
The New Mexico Bowl will be played in Frisco, a suburb of Dallas, against a Hawaii team making a rare postseason appearance on the U.S. mainland.
“It’s a daily adventure,” UH coach Dana Holgorsen said. “Just like all of 2020 has been.”
Holgorsen admits it’s “not your typical bowl game.” Truthfully, he was skeptical there would be any bowl games, much less a finish line to the season, after the Cougars were one of the hardest hit teams in FBS with eight games interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 20 FBS teams chose not to accept a bowl invitation, even as minimum win requirements were waived. That led to 17 bowls being canceled because there were not enough teams to fill spots. A few bowls were forced to relocate due to local and state COVID-19 guidelines, like the New Mexico Bowl from Albuquerque and the Rose Bowl from Pasadena, Calif., to AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
“Ninety-nine percent of this year, we didn’t think bowl games would exist,” Holgorsen said.
What can the Cougars expect Thursday at Toyota Stadium? Pretty much what they have encountered all season.
A limited crowd will be in attendance, the same setup for UH’s other seven games this season, as the team avoided playing in empty stadium that was the fate of other teams across the country.
“We didn’t experience that,” Holgorsen said, adding the New Mexico Bowl will have the feel of a “neutral-site road game.”
UH (3-4) has been forced to be adaptable this season with three straight openers canceled, pushing the start of the season into October for the first time in program history. Once the season finally began, the Cougars played six straight weeks before a virus outbreak wiped out two more games. Even the makeup games were not safe; a late season trip to SMU was canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the Mustangs program.
“Obviously we are thankful to be playing after we had as many games as we did get canceled,” quarterback Clayton Tune said. “We’re just happy to play. We want to send the seniors and the guys who are not returning out the right way.”
Part of the allure of postseason games is the off-field events, which include team outings and other visits during bowl week. None of that is possible this year. In what amounts to a quick business trip, UH arrived by bus early Wednesday night for a stay that will be slightly more than 24 hours.
“It’s weird,” Tune said. “It definitely doesn’t feel like a bowl game. It just kind of feels like an away game.”
On a pregame call with reporters Wednesday, Holgorsen said the Cougars will be without 12 to 16 players for “a variety of reasons.” That number, presumably, includes three key players — defensive end Payton Turner, wide receiver Marquez Stevenson and linebacker Grant Stuard — who opted-out of the game to begin preparations for the NFL draft.
Turner had a team-high five sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss in five games this season. Stevenson, arguably the fastest player on the roster, combined for 2,200 yards and 22 touchdowns the past three seasons. Stuard was UH’s leading tackler in 2019 and 2020.
“Great players that are hard to replace,” Holgorsen said. “It turns the page quicker than it normally does. We’ve played games without those guys this year. At the end of the season you always go, ‘How in the world are we going to move on without some of these seniors?’ Then you get into spring football and you replace them by guys stepping up.
“You move on. The one thing that 2020 has taught us is it doesn’t matter who is available, don’t worry about it, nobody cares and (teams) are dealing with the same stuff. It just makes you adapt quickly.”
A win by the Cougars could be used as a springboard into Year 3 under Holgorsen, not to mention “flush” the disappointment from the 30-27 loss to Memphis to end the regular season.
“I would say we’ve been able to flush it for the most part, but we’re still going to use that sick-to-our-stomach feeling to fuel us for this game,” Tune said. “We definitely want to end the year on a good note. Just build on what we have and use a win to fuel us into the offseason and ultimately next season.”
Some good has come from the New Mexico Bowl moving to Frisco.
“That’s right in my backyard,” said Tune, who is from Carrollton.
Whether or not the Cougars ever believed they would reach this point of the season, Holgorsen is just grateful for another game in a season with few.
“One more opportunity to play before we wrap this thing up in 2020,” he said. “It’s been pretty adventurous.”