Riptide’s Reflection | Kai Horton, the Carthaginian Cougar Tamer

Mark Keplinger and Jeremy Rosen

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Rolling to his right and throwing on the run, Horton found Watts in the end zone for a touchdown. (Courtesy of Parker Waters)

Riptide’s Reflections is The Tulane Hullabaloo’s weekly column talking all things Tulane football. Join us every Wednesday for in-depth coverage, analysis and opinion of the Green Wave.

Last Friday’s win over the Houston Cougars in the American Athletic Conference opener was a storybook moment for Tulane football. It was a great team win all around for the Green Wave; however, the third-string quarterback who won Tulane the game must be the focus.

The Cougars entered this season as preseason favorites to win the AAC and entering the game, Tulane starting quarterback Michael Pratt remained on the sidelines, ruled out with a shoulder injury. Therefore, Justin Ibieta got the nod under center for his first career start.

Things started well as Ibieta went 5/5 for 57 yards and marched the team down to the Houston five-yard line. However, the redshirt freshman injured his throwing shoulder on a scramble, and Tulane missed the ensuing field goal.

Enter Kai Horton, a third-string, redshirt freshman from Texas.

He had only started a single game for Tulane — last year’s loss to the second-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats — in which he went 7/16 for 79 yards and two interceptions. Fast forward to last Friday, where Horton was tasked with leading the team in the conference opener against a good Cougars team on national television.

Horton struggled early, particularly with his accuracy. He suffered a brutal miss on a third and three to a wide open receiver. He got away with several poor throwing decisions, and his deep ball accuracy was just a touch off.

His worst mistake was an attempted screen pass which ended up going backwards and turning into a lateral. The Cougars recovered the fumble and scored on the short field.

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Kai Horton had 132 yards passing and three touchdowns in Friday’s win. (Courtesy of Parker Waters)

However, these early struggles emphasize an intangible quality Horton has that showed up at the end of the game. 

Kai Horton is a winner. And even if they struggle during the first parts of a game, winners show up for their team when it matters the most in the clutch. Sometimes it is not about making every throw but rather making the throws at the end of the fourth quarter to tie the game.

Horton is from the small east Texas town of Carthage — a town of 6500 residents. In 2019 and 2020, Horton was under center for the Carthage High School Bulldogs. He never lost a game for Carthage.

In 2019, the Bulldogs went undefeated, a perfect 16-0. Horton was incredible, putting up 3746 yards and 49 touchdowns for the season. In the first four of the five playoff games, Carthage put up at least 40 points as the Bulldogs cruised their way to the Texas 4A State Championship game. There, Horton threw for 231 yards and three scores as the Bulldogs won 42-28.

In 2020, it was more of the same as Carthage went 14-0 and won another state championship, this time a 70-14 demolition of Gilmer High School in the title game. Horton threw for 243 yards, three touchdowns and had a receiving touchdown as well.

Back in Houston last Friday, Horton began to settle down as the game progressed. He did well to give his best playmaker, Tyjae Spears, the ball in space with short passes. His best throw of the day was his first touchdown when he found Duece Watts in the end zone for a 16-yard score on a designed roll out play. With a defender chasing Horton and a tight window to throw into, the quarterback zipped the ball to his receiver for a score.

The team stayed behind their quarterback and never lost faith. After the game, Horton said, “All the guys came up to me and said we believe in you Kai. That just means a lot, you know. Being a backup, they might start doubting you, they might lose trust in you, but all of the guys came up to me and said we believe in you. I told them right back, ‘if y’all protect me, y’all make plays, I promise we are not losing this game.’” 

After Houston took a 21-14 lead with 3:04 left in the game, the Carthage product came up in a huge way. He found Shae Wyatt on the sideline for a huge 33-yard gain, and, on third and eight, he found Watts on a crossing route to put Tulane at the Houston six. On fourth and goal from the three, Horton had an option play to either run to the outside or pitch the ball. He made the correct read, pitched inside to Tyrick James, and Tulane tied the game.

In overtime down 24-21, Horton needed a touchdown to win. Here, he made the most important throw of the game, finding Spears in the end zone and placing the ball in a spot only the running back could get to. Spears made an incredible grab — Tulane won, and Horton is the hero.

This win not only shows the grittiness of the Green Wave, but the team spirit Tulane possesses. Tyjae Spears said it best after the game, “We believe in him… If you got Tulane across your jersey we believe in him … I told [Horton] on the sideline that we believe in him and when you get your shot, shoot for the stars.”

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Horton has never lost a football game in Texas — 30-0 in high school and 1-0 in college. (Courtesy of Parker Waters)

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