clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2023 Week 7 Game Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers @ Houston Cougars

Dana Holgorsen faces his former program in a Thursday night Big 12 matchup in Houston.

NCAA Football: Houston at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Game notes

  • Time and date: Thursday, October 12 at 7:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: FS1
  • Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
  • Spread: West Virginia (-3)
  • Over/under: 51
  • All-time series: No previous meetings

Holgorsen faces his former program

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at West Virginia
Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen spent eight seasons at West Virginia, ranking second in program history with 61 wins.
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

It may come as a surprise that this is the first-ever meeting between Houston and West Virginia. After all, the programs share one significant tie in Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen. West Virginia employed Holgorsen as its head coach from 2011 to 2018, where he posted a 61-41 record, qualified for seven bowl games, experienced two 10-win seasons, and defeated Clemson 70-33 in the 2011 Orange Bowl. On Jan. 1, 2019, Holgorsen — the second-winningest coach in Mountaineer history — stepped down from West Virginia to sign a 5-year contract with Houston.

Although he won’t be traveling to his former stomping grounds of Morgantown, WV, this is Holgorsen’s first on-field exposure to West Virginia since departing five seasons ago.

“At the end of the day, I’ve been in this situation a lot where you leave a place and play them and all of that,” Holgorsen said. “The best way I’ve figured out how to approach it is turn the phone off and go to work. This is for the fans. The fans get into that. The fans appreciate that. I enjoyed my time at West Virginia — there’s no question — and it’s a lot of really, really good people. I know a lot of them are coming, so should make it for an exciting game. But at the end of the day, it’s about me doing my job and getting our team ready to play.”

But Holgorsen isn’t the only Morgantown transplant within Houston’s personnel. A slew of West Virginia transfers are present within Houston’s offense: leading wide receiver Sam Brown played for the Mountaineers in 2020 and 2021, running back Tony Mathis Jr. spent four seasons in Morgantown and led West Virginia in rushing last year, and tight end Mike O’Laughlin participated in 31 games there from 2019 to 2022 with a handful of starts.

“I talked to them more about it and I watch it more,” Holgorsen said about keeping the West Virginia transfers focused for this game. “It’s going to keep happening more and more and more with where this transfer thing is. It’s going to become a little bit more common, but I will talk to those guys. It’s no different than me coaching against somebody I’ve known for a long time. When you get into the game, it’s just about the game. You let your families and the fanbase enjoy it, and then afterwards, you give some high-fives and shake some hands and then it’s a memory.”

On the quest for that first-ever Big 12 win

NCAA Football: Houston at Texas Tech
Houston fell to 0-2 in the Big 12 standings after a 49-28 loss to Texas Tech, where it scored all 28 points in the first half.
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Another week passed and Houston remains one of three Big 12 programs searching for its first conference win, alongside the other former AAC institutions Cincinnati and UCF. But this time, it wasn’t the result of a loss. The Cougars are fresh off their bye week, getting a chance to regroup before a Thursday night clash with West Virginia — the second-ever Big 12 matchup at TDECU Stadium.

“It’s not a true bye week just because you’re short a couple of days,” Holgorsen said. “So many times I sat here and complained about having short weeks. That was our life for four years in the American. I appreciate how the Big 12 does that. If you’re playing a Thursday game, you’re gonna get some relief.”

Big 12 play has not been kind to the Cougars thus far, as they were defeated by 23 at home to TCU and by 21 on the road at Texas Tech. In both multi-score losses, Houston went punch-for-punch with the competition in the first half, trailing by just one touchdown at the break. But second halves are where separation usually occurs. Houston has yet to score a single point in the second half of a Big 12 contest this season, losing third and fourth quarters by an aggregate score of 30-0.

“Second half wasn’t a problem in three of our non-conference games,” Holgorsen said. “In the two Big 12 games, second half was a huge problem. I acknowledge that. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two we got worn out in the second half were against two ‘Power Five,’ pretty good teams. That’s a focus. Four quarters is going to be a focus. West Virginia is going to shorten the game. They’re gonna try to control the clock.”

In what areas must the Cougars demonstrate progress down the stretch of these conference clashes? After enduring a 49-28 loss to Texas Tech where Houston failed to record one first half defensive stop, Holgorsen didn’t hesitate about the mandate for improved tackling. Additionally, blocking is a point of emphasis for an o-line which surrenders 2.6 sacks per game and paves the pathway for the country’s 95th-best rushing attack.

“Let’s start with good ol’ fashioned blocking and tackling,” Holgorsen said. “Our tackling was horrendous. I think it was over 20-something missed tackles. It was as bad as it’s been since I’ve been there. That was a focus. Blocking, we gotta do a better job of finishing blocks offensively. I don’t think that was the root of the problem, but at the end of the day, you have to get back to what the good ol’ basics of football are. This team that we’re playing, West Virginia, they’re really, really good at blocking and tackling.”

A glance at the West Virginia Mountaineers

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at West Virginia
West Virginia ILB Lee Kpogba is the leading tackler of a defense which is limiting Big 12 teams to 17 points per game.
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

West Virginia (4-1, 2-0 Big 12) was selected to finish 14th of 14 teams in the Big 12 preseason poll unveiled at the conference’s media days in July. But heading into Week 7, the Mountaineers are one of two Big 12 programs, along with Oklahoma, to sport an undefeated record in the league standings. West Virginia lost its opener at Penn State, but Neal Brown’s team has been on a roll ever since, pushing past Texas Tech and TCU in defensive-oriented slugfests — the same Big 12 programs which flew past Houston by a combined 44 points.

The Mountaineers bring a unique style to the table in this year’s Big 12. West Virginia is notably a defensive juggernaut, surrendering just 19 points per game to rank third in the conference. The Mountaineers stifled Pitt to 6 points, Texas Tech to 13, and TCU to 21, primarily by means of a relentless run defense which generates 7.2 tackles for loss per game and yields just 3.3 yards per attempt.

Situated at the heart of the defense is inside linebacker Lee Kpogba who leads the Mountaineers with 40 tackles on the season. Kpogba — fresh off an 11-tackle performance at TCU — will be instrumental to plugging Houston’s run game which is averaging 3.2 yards per attempt against Big 12 competition this year.

The strength of Houston’s offense lies within the passing game, but West Virginia counters with one of the strongest aerial defenses in the country. The Mountaineers rank first in the entire FBS in lowest opponent completion percentage at 50 percent, yet teams attempt a high volume of passes on this defense. With two interceptions and a Big 12-high seven pass breakups, cornerback Beanie Bishop Jr. is the leader of this movement, and he’ll be tasked with the difficult mission of containing Sam Brown or Matthew Golden.

West Virginia’s offense can best be described as complementary football. The Mountaineers don’t routinely generate 35 or 40 point explosions on opposing defenses, and they rank 85th in scoring at 26.4 points per game. If you remove the game against Duquesne of the FCS, West Virginia hasn’t broken 24 points this year. But that doesn’t matter, as the Mountaineers exhibit a successful run game which moves the sticks and hogs up time of possession — a category in which the offense holds a national ranking of 11th.

Quarterback Garrett Greene returned from injury two weeks ago at TCU. No West Virginia quarterback has eclipsed 162 passing yards in a game against FBS competition this season, but Greene remains lethal due to his ability to run and commendable ball security. The junior has four touchdown passes without tossing an interception this year while averaging 5.6 yards per rush — chipping in 80 yards and two touchdowns on 12 rushing attempts against the Horned Frogs.

He’s assisted in the ground game by former tight end CJ Donaldson, who operates as the Mountaineers’ short-yardage power back. Donaldson is well-fed as the recipient of over 17 handoffs per game, and the 6’1”, 238 pound sophomore has collected 348 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He has the luxury of one of the nation’s best centers in Zach Frazier guiding the way, and Frazier is a bona fide All-American candidate on this veteran offensive line.

A glance at the Houston Cougars

NCAA Football: Houston at Texas Tech
Houston WR Sam Brown ranks first in the Big 12 in receiving yards with 518, and he looks to add more against his former program.
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Houston (2-3, 0-2 Big 12) similarly returns to action Thursday night after 11 days of rest, but unlike the Mountaineers, the Cougars are trying to establish momentum rather than sustain it. The first half of Houston’s latest outing against Texas Tech was inspiring from an offensive perspective, and that’s the version of the unit the Cougars will need to upset West Virginia.

Prior to the Week 5 shootout in Lubbock, Houston scored just two first quarter touchdowns in four outings without a single end zone appearance on opening drives. But the Cougars maneuvered downfield, primarily by means of the passing game, on each of their first three opportunities against Texas Tech, establishing a stronger passing attack led by Donovan Smith. Smith, the Texas Tech transfer, enjoyed his best game as a Cougar to date with 335 passing yards, 59 rushing yards, and four passing touchdowns without committing a turnover.

Pitted against a suffocating West Virginia defense and an offense which controls clock, Houston must be efficient with its possessions Thursday night, and similar production from Smith should be required. He operates with an impressive trio of receivers, all which feature varying skillsets and builds. Former Mountaineer Sam Brown ranks first in the Big 12 in receiving yards — even after the bye week — with 518 on the season and 15.2 per reception. The 6’2” Brown is a taller, strong-armed receiver, but Houston trots out a perfect speed complement in true sophomore Matthew Golden.

Golden, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown against TCU, is no stranger to gaining an extra step on a defender, and he ranks first among all Cougars with four touchdown hauls this year. Completing the trio is Joseph Manjack IV, a consistent and crafty route runner with at least four receptions in every game.

Houston appointed a new starter at running back in Week 4. True freshman Parker Jenkins is now the focal point of the run game, averaging 88 rushing yards across his first two starts. That facet of the Cougars’ offense has taken a leap since the lineup adjustment, but Houston will be sure to work other running backs in the mix, including Stacy Sneed. Generating yards on West Virginia’s front won’t be easy, but the Cougars need to stay true on the ground in order to generate points. That was the primary difference between the TCU and Texas Tech games, as they posted 41 yards on a 1.7 average against the Horned Frogs and scored zero offensive touchdowns, but amplified those numbers to 154 on a 4.5 average in a more successful offensive showing in Lubbock.

It’s been a mixed bag from Houston’s defense this year, which suffocated UTSA in the opener, had its moments against TCU, but collapsed against Texas Tech. One thing the Cougars do particularly well is generate turnovers — picking off six passes and recovering fumbles in their first three outings — but they couldn’t snatch any from the Red Raiders. Cornerback Malik Fleming is a ballhawk with three interceptions on the year, looking to become the first defender to catch a pass from Garrett Greene, while cornerback Isaiah Hamilton has contributed to the turnover battle with two picks and a forced fumble this year.

Overall, Houston ranks 106th in total defense. West Virginia doesn’t typically inflict much damage through the air, so the Cougars must be sound against the run after allowing 250 rushing yards to TCU and 239 to Texas Tech. Nelson Ceaser is the star at the first level of the defense hoping to stonewall the Mountaineers, exhibiting a team-high six tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks on the year.


This one probably isn’t bound for shootout territory.

West Virginia’s offense hasn’t proven the ability to operate at that level of execution, but the Mountaineers don’t need to as long as the defense generates routine stops — especially on third downs where they own the nation’s 10th best stoppage rate at 72.2 percent. And West Virginia possesses a strong formula to beating Houston with a potent run defense which can force the Cougars into a bevy of third-and-improbable situations.

This game comes down to how many sustained possessions the Cougars have in them. The offense moved exceptionally well in the first half against Texas Tech, and refraining from turnovers was a promising sign for Donovan Smith and Co. Sam Brown and Matthew Golden might be the best receiving duo West Virginia has seen yet, so there is potential for Houston’s offense to gain an edge in the passing attack.

Lastly, the turnover battle is absolutely huge in this one, as winning the struggle for field position on the Mountaineers is essential. But overall, it’s hard not to rely on the same defense which suffocated TCU and Texas Tech to pull another similar performance out of its bag.

Prediction: West Virginia 19, Houston 14