A big fourth quarter saw the Houston Cougars survive a sloppy effort in the first half and a putrid third-quarter showing to defeat the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, 41-26, in their American Athletic Conference opener Thursday at TDECU Stadium.

The Cougars came into the game with just three turnovers on the season, but needed only the first 17:23 of the game to double that total Thursday and handcuff the offense in the first half.

After forcing a punt on the opening possession of the game, Tulsa’s offense gambled on fourth-and-4 from the Cougars’ 33-yard line, and it paid off big time. Tulsa quarterback Seth Boomer (13-for-31, 227 yards) found a wide-open Keenan Johnson (five receptions, 91 yards) for the long touchdown and 7-0 lead, capping a nine-play, 82-yard drive.

An interception by Tulsa’s Cooper Edmiston set up a 28-yard field goal by Nate Walker to give the Golden Hurricane a 10-0 lead less than 5 minutes into the game.

Despite a pair of penalties on the drive creating a first-and-30 scenario, the Cougars got the first down after three long runs, and then quarterback D’Eriq King (19-for-27, 165 yards; 10 carries 117 yards) aired it out to Keith Corbin for a 32-yard TD pass to cut the deficit to 10-7 at the 7:38 mark of the first quarter.

A 37-yard pass connection from Boomer to Johnson helped set up a 33-yard field goal that pushed Tulsa’s lead to 13-7 with 22 seconds left in the first quarter.

Another fourth-and-4 gamble by Tulsa, this time early in the second quarter, didn’t pay off and gave the Cougars great field position at their 40-yard line. Five plays later, and Houston was in the end zone after King escaped a collapsing pocket and scrambled 19 yards to give the Cougars a 14-13 lead at the 8:39 mark of the second quarter.

A nice drive running the ball saw the Cougars tack on a 40-yard field goal from Dalton Witherspoon with 2:16 remaining in the first half, and Houston took a 17-13 advantage into the halftime break.

Tulsa had a strong opening drive of the second half, but Houston’s defense was able to hold the Golden Hurricane to a 27-yard Walker field goal to remain in the lead, 17-16.

After Houston’s offense went three-and-out, a clearly tired Cougars defense saw Tulsa methodically drive the ball down field for a TD. A 31-yard pass connection from Boomer to Keylon Stokes highlighted a drive that was finished off by an 8-yard TD run up the gut by Corey Taylor II (33 carries, 152 yards) to give Tulsa the lead back, 23-17, at the 4:34 mark of the third quarter.

Another brutal three-and-out on offense ended with another Tulsa scoring drive, this one capped by a 35-yard Walker field goal for a 26-17 lead 1:50 into the fourth quarter.

Houston gained just 7 yards and held the ball for only 3:01 of the third quarter, but things went much better in the final stanza, as the Cougars scored 24 unanswered points in short order.

On the third play from scrimmage in Houston’s first possession of the fourth quarter, King turned on the jets and exploded for a 61-yard TD run to cut Tulsa’s lead to 26-24. Houston re-took the lead, 27-26, at the 7:51 mark of the fourth quarter on a 33-yard Witherspoon field goal.

Houston then scored 14 points in just 1:31 to take control of the game.

On the ensuing Tulsa drive, a huge third-down sack from Houston’s Elijah Gooden saw the ball pop loose for a fumble, which was recovered by Emeke Egbule to give the Cougars the ball first-and-goal at the 9. The very next play, King hit Romello Booker for a TD pass and a 34-26 lead.

An interception from Deontay Anderson on the first play of Tulsa’s next drive set up the Cougars at the Golden Hurricane’s 23-yard line, and two plays later, King found Marquez Stevenson for a 6-yard TD pass and ballooned the advantage to 41-26.

Houston (4-1, 1-0 in AAC) will be back in action 6 p.m. Oct. 13 at East Carolina (2-2, 0-1).

James LaCombe: 409-683-5242, james.lacombe@galvnews.com or on Twitter @JamesAtGalvNews

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