HOUSTON — After catching Oklahoma’s field goal attempt, Houston’s Brandon Wilson thought his left foot was out of bounds through the back of the end zone. By an inch — maybe — it wasn’t. Moments later, he completed one of the biggest plays in Cougars history, flipping the college football landscape on its head.
Call it “Kick-Six, Part 2.” It never would have happened without a confused Oklahoma lineman, a Sooners timeout and a Houston change of heart.
“I really thought I had stepped out,” Wilson said. “But I didn’t hear a whistle or anything. So I just went.
“And then all I saw was green grass.”
One-hundred-nine yards and 35 inches of it, to be exact.
Houston stunned the third-ranked Sooners 33-23 on Saturday for the most opportune of victories behind Wilson’s field goal return touchdown that harkened back to the miraculous Iron Bowl kick-six finish of 2013.
The Cougars have been clamoring to join the Big 12, which has been exploring expansion candidates all summer. No stronger message could’ve been sent to the Big 12 than the one the Cougars delivered before a packed NRG Stadium, hammering the Big 12’s preeminent program and biggest playoff hopeful. When Houston officials meet with the Big 12 in Dallas next week to discuss the school’s expansion candidacy, they will be armed with one impressive game film.
Highlighted by a play that won’t be forgotten in H-Town anytime soon.
“That was the game-changer,” said Houston’s Matthew Adams, who was lined up as the lone linebacker on the field goal return unit. “We had the momentum from there.”
Before Oklahoma’s field goal attempt, the Sooners and Cougars had been trading punches through a wild first half. Wilson’s return, however, turned out to be Houston’s knockout blow.
After Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield threw the ball away on third-and-18 midway through the third quarter, the Sooners seemed to be confused about whether they wanted to punt or try for a 53-yard field goal. Offensive lineman Jonathan Alvarez was late to run onto the field, which forced Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops to call a timeout.
“The personnel just wasn’t ready,” Stoops said.
Before the timeout, Houston coach Tom Herman said the field goal return wasn’t on. But Stoops’ timeout allowed the Cougars to put in the play they’ve been practicing all preseason.
“We were actually — I’m embarrassed to say — we were caught in the middle of punt-safe vs. our field goal block team,” Herman said. “We weren’t sure who [Oklahoma had] jogging out. Was it the punt team jogging out? They were confused as well, because they didn’t have the right people. It was a little helter-skelter on their sidelines, so we weren’t sure. Them having to call timeout certainly settled us down. Allowed us to know exactly who they were going to put in the game and decide what to do from there.”
Herman decided a field goal return was the best option, which placed Wilson in the end zone to return the ball if the kick attempt fell short.
Going into the kick, Oklahoma sophomore Austin Seibert‘s longest career field goal was 46 yards. But Stoops believed Seibert had the range.
“I’ve seen Austin make that [in practice] quite a few times,” Stoops said. “It got to the right time and I was like, ‘He can make this.’
“I was wrong.”
When the ball left his foot from the right hash, Seibert believed he had nailed it.
“I thought it was going in, honestly,” Seibert said. “I looked up, it was going straight.”
The kick, indeed, was accurate. But the momentum of the ball began to fade as it closed in on the uprights. That allowed Wilson to grab it before it landed out of bounds.
“When I caught it, even though I thought I had stepped out, I had it in my mind I was going to score, because we practice that through the week,” Wilson said.
The Cougars have a squad brimming with firepower; there were other players who could have been put back on field goal return. Herman, however, said placing Wilson in that role was an easy choice.
“Brandon is a captain for a reason,” Herman said. “Our team would rather have nobody else back there but him because of the trust factor and his ability to make great decisions.”
The field goal-return play called for Wilson to break right behind a line of lead blockers. And just like they had rehearsed, the Cougars executed beautifully.
Adams made a key seal block that catapulted Wilson into the open field. Then defensive end Cameron Malveuax, who had nearly blocked the kick at the line of scrimmage, wheeled around and slammed a shoulder into Oklahoma holder Connor McGinnis, allowing Wilson to turn the corner.
From there, there was only one man to beat: Oklahoma tight end Mark Andrews.
Houston’s Zach Vaughn came barreling toward the sideline and tried to take out Andrews. Instead, Vaughn whiffed and tumbled to the turf toward Wilson’s legs.
“I was worried I was about to knock [Wilson] down,” Vaughn said.
Wilson was worried, too.
“I really thought I was going to fall on that one,” he said. “But I was able to catch my balance.”
Looking up from his back, Vaughn saw Wilson hurdle over him.
“That’s when I knew we had it,” Vaughn said.
As Vaughn crashed to the ground, Houston’s Steven Taylor, who had been locked up with Andrews, swung his hips around and walled off Andrews from the sidelines just as Wilson was about to pass by.
“Our specialists coach (Jay Boulware) had told us (during the timeout) to be ready for the return,” Andrews said. “But as soon as [Wilson] caught it and started running, they had so many lead blockers set up out of the gate. I tried to make the play. I just wasn’t able to.”
By that point, as Wilson raced into the end zone, Herman was no longer watching. He was staring in the other direction.
“I didn’t even see the end of it because I was looking for flags,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘This is too good to be true.’ Surely there was a flag somewhere.”
Turned out there was a flag, except it was in the other direction. Houston’s Garrett Davis had ripped off his helmet before running up to Wilson to celebrate and was penalized with unsportsmanlike conduct.
By that point, nobody cared about the penalty. The Cougars were ahead 26-17 and well on their way to a program-defining win.
“I knew if they gave Brandon the chance to catch it, he was going to return it all the way,” said Houston quarterback Greg Ward, who outplayed Mayfield before and after Wilson’s return helped the Cougars seal the win. “As soon as I saw him catch it, I thought, ‘Touchdown.’ Because he’s a home run hitter. He’s a playmaker.
“You put the ball in his hands, he’s going to go score.”
After the game, that ball never left Wilson’s hands. He took it all the way into the locker room. Later, he put the ball in his backpack and left the stadium.
“I’m just so happy for my teammates,” he said. “To see the smiles on their faces.”
Wilson then surrendered a smile, too, perhaps realizing the significance of what he had in his backpack.
And what he had just done.