- Time and Date: Saturday, September 17 at 4:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: Houston (-9)
- ESPN FPI: Houston has 78.6% chance to win
- All-time series: Kansas leads, 3-0
- Last meeting: Kansas 42, Houston 13 — December 23, 2005 (Fort Worth Bowl)
- Current streak: Kansas, 3 (1994-2005)
Setting the scene
If Houston’s Week 2 matchup at Texas Tech wasn’t enough of a 2023 Big 12 preview, the Cougars are running it back against another future conference opponent. Houston hopes to overcome the heartbreaking double-overtime loss in Lubbock by upending Kansas in its home opener. The dream of an undefeated season has been put to rest, but Houston took care of its entire regular season schedule in 2021 save for the Red Raiders. A Week 3 victory against a 2-0 squad could be the momentum the Cougars need to get back on track.
Taking down a team that hasn’t fared better than 3-9 since 2009 sounds like a simple task, but the 2022 iteration of the Jayhawks is a completely different animal than the ones that have roamed Lawrence, KS for the past decade. Kansas currently ranks No. 1 in the nation with a scoring average of 55.5 points per game, and the high-powered offense already has a 1-0 head-start in Big 12 play after toppling West Virginia in an overtime shootout last Saturday night.
In attendance at TDECU Stadium this weekend will be first-year Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark, previewing his future institution pitted up against one of the conference’s sleepers.
Moving on from heartbreak in Lubbock
Not many programs launched their 2022 campaigns in more nail-biting fashion than Houston. The Cougars have already competed in five overtime periods through two weeks of action. They rallied from 14 down in the second half to upend UTSA in triple overtime in Week 1. Then, they rallied from 14 down in the second half to force overtime against Texas Tech — but the victorious result was not replicated. The manner in which they lost was as gut-wrenching as any college football defeat so far this season.
Houston kicked a go-ahead field goal to secure a 3-point lead with 37 seconds left. However, the defense allowed Texas Tech to rapidly fly down the field for a chance at a tying kick. Then in overtime, the Cougars struck first and forced the Red Raiders into a 4th and 20 situation. One stop away from the victory, Houston had its safeties beyond the sticks and allowed a 21-yard completion. Texas Tech ultimately emerged victorious in the second overtime, 33-30, handing the Cougars a shattering loss to spoil their hopes at an undefeated season.
“When you play a Big 12 opponent, when you play a championship game like Cincinnati, you can’t do that stuff,” Holgorsen said. “Our program needs to learn to be more disciplined. There’s no question. Too many penalties, too many dumb things. There was a busted coverage on 4th and 20. Dumb. Inexcusable. Our safeties were too deep.”
Even after allowing the 4th and 20, Houston still had its opportunities to escape with a Big 12 win on the road, but the Cougar offense stalled near the goal line in second overtime and settled for a chip shot field goal. Then, Texas Tech quarterback Donovan Smith utilized his mobility for a 9-yard walk-off touchdown to put the finishing touches on the contest.
“You go into the second overtime, our job as an offense is to score a touchdown. We got to the 3-yard line and didn’t do that,” Holgorsen said. “When defense goes out there, our job in the red zone is to hold them to a field goal and we didn’t do that. We finished games last year really well. Didn’t finish this game the way that we needed to be able to win. We would have been lucky to get out of there with a win with as much dumb stuff that happened.”
Rebounding from a brutal loss to Texas Tech is nothing new to Houston. The Cougars squandered a 14-point lead to the Red Raiders in the opener last September and allowed 31 unanswered in the second half. However, unbeknownst at the time, that would be the final loss for Holgorsen’s team until the postseason, when they fell to Cincinnati in December’s AAC Championship Game.
“I’m sick we didn’t win, but we’re still a good team,” Holgorsen said.
“This ain’t the Kansas of old”
Last week’s Texas Tech game was the first leg of Houston’s two-game Big 12 sample. Now awaits the second consecutive matchup against a future conference opponent — Kansas. But under second-year head coach Lance Leipold, this Jayhawks team looks far better than usual, providing elevated excitement heading into the Week 3 showdown.
“This is ain’t the Kansas of old. I’ll tell you that. I’ve competed against Kansas for a long time. They’re dang good now,” Holgorsen said. “Our fanbase needs to understand this is a big opportunity for the University of Houston and what the future’s gonna be... We need people to show up. We’ve always wanted to be in this situation at the University of Houston to be in this conference. Well here we are, so where’s everyone gonna be?”
Recent history shows Kansas’ status as the cellar dweller of the Big 12, proven by the program’s 20-109 record since the dawn of the 2011 season. But Leipold has already transformed the direction of the program in his second year on campus, winning back-to-back games by double digits to secure the Jayhawks’ first 2-0 start in 11 years.
“I’ve been watching their video all morning and these guys are a problem. These guys are really good,” Holgorsen said. “Now they’re 2-0. They got confidence. They’ve got young kids that are getting better and better and better. They’re extremely well-coached and they’re a tricky bunch to prepare for. For the third straight week, we are facing an opponent that you have to play very good, very sound, very disciplined if you want to have a chance to win.”
Kansas Jayhawks outlook
Leipold didn’t just change the complexion of Kansas in the win-loss column. The second-year head coach also implemented a complex offensive scheme with frequent motions and plenty of different personnel groupings. Although the Jayhawks are no stranger to airing it out north of 20 times per game, plenty of the activity transpiring in the backfield gives the feel of an option-based offense.
“They’re unique on offense,” Holgorsen said. “They’re not just gonna drop back like Texas Tech. It’s got option mentality. It’s almost like prepping for Navy with athletic people that can make plays.”
Houston faced a mobile quarterback in Week 2 in Donovan Smith, who scrambled for two 20+ yard carries and utilized his legs to extend plays last week. After enduring challenges against a dual-threat QB last Saturday, the Cougars must face another signal caller who can rack up considerable rushing yardage. Kansas’ Jalon Daniels collected 114 rushing yards and a touchdown on a 7.6 average in his first two outings of 2022. His improved passing skills are also noteworthy, posting 408 yards and four touchdowns on a 70.2 percent completion rate.
“It’s a little bit of a different situation with Daniels, who’s a dynamic player,” Holgorsen said. “He’s almost like a running back who can throw the thing, as opposed to what we faced last week which was dropback after dropback and if the guy snuck out of there, he was good enough and athletic enough to get 20 yards on you real quick. We’ve got to do a better job of containing that and we didn’t do a very good job of containing that at times. This is a whole different animal.”
When talking about the potency of Kansas’ running back room, Daniels must be included as he is one of three Jayhawks exceeding 7.5 yards per carry this season with 110+ yards. Lead running back Devin Neal and secondary option Daniel Hishaw Jr. also fit this esteemed category. With a collective 269 yards and seven touchdowns between the Neal and Hishaw, Houston’s defensive front must prepare to stop a myriad of rushers Saturday.
“They got four backs all over 200 pounds with production,” Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk said. “Starting off with Neal, he can hit home runs, he can change directions. He’s 210 pounds but runs like he’s 190, probably 185. He’s got some elusiveness. All of their backups are kind of the same mold — between 215 and 220, around 5’11”, 6’0”, with explosiveness and they all have power.”
On defense, Kansas’ numbers don’t quite match the insane level of production from the offense, but the unit appears much-improved from previous years. The Jayhawks are noticeably imposing their will in the trenches with 2.5 sacks per game, and the secondary presents a dangerous ballhawk in Jacobee Bryant. The sophomore recorded his first interception of the season last week, racing his walk-off pick-six 86 yards in overtime — one name Houston quarterback Clayton Tune must be wary of in the secondary.
“They’re pretty good on the back end,” Tune said. “They have good players all over the field, but I think what they do best is play very hard and fly around. We’re gonna have to match that intensity and bring even more than they do.”
Houston Cougars offense outlook
In 2021, Houston had no problem piling on the points. The Cougars finished the season at 15th in the country with an impressive scoring average of 35.9. Through two games of the 2022 non-conference slate, just four offensive touchdowns have been tallied in regulation, paling in comparison to last fall. One of the main factors causing this sharp decline is slow starts. The Cougars churned out seven first half points in the opener at UTSA and managed three in the first half at Texas Tech last week, failing to score multiple times in the first two quarters of consecutive showings.
“We just got to come out and execute. That’s the main thing,” wide receiver Tank Dell said. “Come out fast. Come out ready. Everybody’s gotta be ready to play from the first quarter to the last quarter, not just the second half of the game. But it’s nothing that we can’t fix, so we’ll be good.”
In order to start off stronger, producing more explosive plays is principal. Through two contests, Houston has only eclipsed 20 yards on five plays. The Cougars did a better job at involving Dell, their premier playmaker, last week as the reigning First Team All-AAC selection secured seven receptions for 120 yards, and he’ll expected to play a vital role in generating offense versus Kansas.
But outside of Dell, it’s a new-look receiving corps. Many of the key contributors including transfers Joseph Manjack IV and Sam Brown, as well as true freshman Matthew Golden, are newcomers to the roster. No wide receiver besides Dell managed more than two catches or 25 yards at Texas Tech, so increased production from the rest of the receiving corps could be the spark which ignites this offense.
“My message to the other receivers — older and younger — when your name is called or your number is called, make the plays,” Dell said. “We’ve been coming out a little slow, a few drops here and there. I’m just telling them don’t get down on yourself. Don’t think too high of yourself. Don’t think too low of yourself. Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.”
One other aspect of that dictates whether the Cougars start faster offensively against Kansas is the offensive line. Penalty flags were a common sight on the turf in Lubbock last Saturday as Houston drew 11 flags for 121 yards, with many holding calls stalling drives. Preventing these penalties and nailing assignments in the run game are two aspects the line aims to improve heading into the home opener.
“O-line, they don’t get too much love. They get all the hate because of the position they play,” Dell said. “They don’t see when they’re doing the good. They just see when Tune’s getting rushed out of the pocket or sacked or stuff like that. So I just tell them to keep doing what you’re doing. Keep giving 100 percent effort in. We can make something happen at anytime.”
Pitted against a team which ranks first nationally in points per game, Houston must be on its A-game offensively when Kansas enters town. After faring 5-of-16 on third down, 0-of-1 on fourth down, and punting five times last week, Tune and the offense hope subtle improvements in execution on first and second down can lead to more sustainable drives.
“I don’t think we’re doing the little things as well as we need to be doing them,” Tune said. “On that first drive on that third down, we were short by half a yard. Somewhere in there on the first two downs, if we do our job better, do the little things right, we would have got more yards on first down. Then the third down would have been converted, but we were half a yard short because of the result of not doing the little things right on first and second down.”
Houston Cougars defense outlook
Not many FBS defensive lines entered the 2022 season as stacked as Houston’s unit. Nicknamed “Sack Ave.” for their tendency to invade backfields with ease, the Cougars’ front four lived up to that nickname with six sacks and 13 tackles for loss in Week 2. Senior defensive end Derek Parish was the ringleader of it all, generating an individual 4.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, 12 QB pressures, and a team-high 10 tackles. Even in the midst of a loss, Parish was presented with the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week honors by the Football Writers Association of America.
“We don’t give out players of the game when we lose and I’ve never really singled out people when we lose, but I singled out him in our team meeting,” Holgorsen said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s the single greatest defensive performance I’ve ever seen. I’ve had some first rounders on defense. I’ve seen Bruce Irvin sack the quarterback a lot and Karl Joseph just wreck things, Logan Hall being unblockable, Payton Turner making plays — I’ve never seen an individual performance like Derek Parish.”
The Parish-led pass rush is Houston’s greatest asset. As a unit, the Cougars rank third nationally in sacks per game while checking in at fifth in tackles for loss. In 2021, Houston ranked top 20 in virtually every defensive category, but other categories besides backfield pressure haven’t been as stellar this year. While the Cougars have not yielded more than 24 points in regulation yet, defensive struggles in crunch-time scenarios caused preventable overtime appearances in consecutive weeks.
“It’s really disheartening because it takes away from so much positive that we had in the game,” Belk said on late-game defensive execution.
The Cougars, owners of the 19th ranked passing defense a year ago, are situated in the nation’s bottom five by yielding 343.5 yards per contest.
In Week 1 against UTSA, the Cougars kicked a go-ahead field goal with 23 seconds remaining in regulation. Still, that was ample time for the Roadrunners to collect 55 yards of offense to set up for the tying field goal. Week 2 was déjà vu. Texas Tech similarly drove down the field in 37 seconds after a clutch Houston field goal to send the game into overtime. After allowing consecutive opponents to seamlessly move the length of the field in minimal time, improving coverage in late-game situations is a major point of emphasis.
“We have a new crew out there. We ran the same exact call against Texas Tech that we ran against SMU where we won it last year,” Belk said. “In a two-minute drill, the one emphasis is we don’t need heroes. You’ve gotta be in the right assignment, right alignment, and do exactly what you’re supposed to do to be successful in those moments. The biggest thing that I’ve told my guys is you can look at it as a lesson and learn from it, or you can look at it as a failure and hold your head.”
While the yardage given up through the air was far from ideal, there was still sensational playmaking in the Houston secondary. In the second half, the Cougar defensive backs corralled three interceptions which were returned for an aggregate 115 yards. Cornerback Art Green and free safety Gervarrius Owens made pivotal interceptions to stall Texas Tech drives, while nickelback Jayce Rogers made arguably the biggest play of the game by jumping a route and running 54 yards uncontested to the end zone.
“All three of those plays had a high-level of difficulty,” Belk said. “Anytime that you’re able to make those types of plays is gonna give us confidence going forward. We’re playing a little bit more man than in zone combinations that we did last year just because of some of the guys that we’re playing and where we’re at as far as our development. Those guys did a good job making plays, and usually when we get a few (interceptions), the confidence comes in bunches.”
Through four aggregate games between these Houston and Kansas in 2022, three have gone to overtime, so we could be in store for another nail-biter.
It’s important to ignore the reputation of Kansas football when assessing this matchup. This Jayhawks team annihilated an FCS team — which hadn’t been the norm in Lawrence lately — and subsequently took down West Virginia on the road by means of an explosive offense. The dynamic Jalon Daniels and his crew shouldn’t have an issue generating their typical offensive output, especially if Houston’s secondary woes continue.
On the other side, the Cougars must witness an uptick in their offense after back-to-back showings featuring under 25 points in regulation. With the playmaking of Tank Dell on offense and the pass rushing of Derek Parish on defense, Houston should remain strong in the passing game and get to the quarterback on numerous occasions. But the difference will be Daniels’ escapability when the pressure comes, as allowing quarterbacks to utilize mobility outside the tackle boxes hampered the Cougars in both of their first two matchups.
Prediction: Kansas 38, Houston 34