- Time and date: Saturday, October 21 at 4:00 p.m. ET
- Network: FOX
- Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: Texas (-23.5)
- Over/under: 61
- All-time series: Texas leads, 16-7-2
- Last meeting: Texas 41, Houston 11 — September 21, 2002
- Current streak: Texas, 7 (1992-02)
Moving on from a miracle
It would be extremely difficult to argue there was a more exciting finish this season than the one that transpired at TDECU Stadium last Thursday night. Houston held a commanding 35-24 lead over West Virginia in the final four minutes, but the Mountaineers pulled off a stunning course of events to capture a lead. On a do-or-die 4th and 10, Garrett Greene found Hudson Clement for a 50-yard touchdown with 12 seconds remaining, brutally shattering the hearts of Cougar fans and players alike. But 12 seconds isn’t equivalent to zero.
Houston carried a glimmer of hope to the finish line. With three seconds left and 49 yards from the end zone, quarterback Donovan Smith chucked a deep ball. It ricocheted off wide receiver Joseph Manjack IV’s hands and fell into the waiting arms of Stephon Johnson. A raucous celebration ensued as Houston captured its first conference victory since joining the Big 12 in the most thrilling fashion possible. After downing West Virginia 41-39, the Cougars aim to put that miracle finish in the rearview, while sustaining the positive momentum generated from the triumphant win.
“I needed a few days to let that one sink in,” Holgorsen said. “The players were off Saturday and Sunday. They needed a couple of days. Hopefully they’re rested up. Hopefully our coaching staff is rested up. I’m thankful for those extra couple days. If that thing would have happened Saturday night, I’d be pretty exhausted right now. It was emotional and I got to my house after the game and there were about 50 to 60 people there. It was a big deal.”
A one-time Big 12 matchup
The 2023 college football season will be the only one where the Texas Longhorns and Houston Cougars share conference affiliation in the Big 12. It’s a fateful collision for the Texas-based teams, as Houston transitions into the conference in the same season where Texas holds lame duck status. The Longhorns and Cougars previously shared Southwest Conference membership, but relations between the programs quelled shortly afterward. This will be their first meeting since 2002, kicking off Saturday afternoon in front of a sold-out, hyped-up TDECU Stadium crowd.
“We’ll be excited about playing this game,” Holgorsen said. “We haven’t played them in 20 years. Our fanbase obviously is gonna be excited. It’s gonna be sold-out. We haven’t had a sellout here in a long time. And it’s just a quality opponent coming in, and they’re good everywhere. It’s far and away our biggest challenge yet this year.”
Even though there is no longstanding rivalry between Houston and Texas, the Longhorns are a highly-polarizing football team in the state that Cougar faithful are excited to square off against. Dana Holgorsen defeated Texas four out of seven times when serving as the head coach at West Virginia, and the fanbase is hoping Holgorsen keeps that upper-hand in the series against the soon-to-be SEC team from Austin.
“I’ve got a lot of comments,” Holgorsen said. “‘Just beat Texas.’ ‘Don’t care if you win any of them, but you’ve gotta win that one.’ ‘You can go 1-11 and it’s okay if you beat Texas.’ Well beating Texas is gonna be hard. We know that. It’s good for our fans. It’s exciting for them. It’s way more exciting for them than it is for me. I’ve competed against these guys a lot over the years and they’re in a different place now than when I went there in 2018.”
Houston and Texas rarely settle things on the gridiron anymore, but the Cougars get one shot at the burnt orange school before it departs for the SEC — for the first time as conference rivals since the Southwest Conference dissolved after the 1995 season.
“They really don’t want us — they never have. The facts are out there,” Holgorsen said. “They didn’t want Houston in the conference. The history of all this, going back to late 80s and early 90s — Houston was pretty good when the Big 12 was formed.”
Houston Cougars outlook
Despite entering as three touchdown home underdogs, Houston comes equipped with notable experience against Steve Sarkisian and the Longhorns. Starting quarterback Donovan Smith suited up in a Texas Tech uniform last September when firing for 331 yards, rushing for 42, and accounting for three touchdowns in a 37-34 overtime win over the Longhorns.
“That gives you confidence as a coach,” Holgorsen said about Smith’s 2022 start against the Longhorns. “You watch him play that game against Texas last year, he played well. He played extremely well in that game. Donovan’s a confident kid. He was a little off early in the (West Virginia) game, got challenged a little bit, but Donovan can handle that. He’s unflappable. He started to get into a little bit of rhythm and what he did in the second half is exceptional. He played like that — how he played against West Virginia in the second half — that’s how he played against Texas last year.”
Smith is in the midst of an impressive rhythm as a Cougar. One week after generating 336 yards and four touchdowns on his former school, Smith completed 16 consecutive passes — including a Hail Mary — to knock off West Virginia, finishing with four touchdown strikes on a completion rate exceeding 70 percent for the second consecutive week. The 6’5” quarterback’s prolific passing has reinvigorated Houston’s offense, and he’s taken exceptional care of the football during this impressive stretch.
“I feel like myself is improving as well as the whole offense in general has been improving, compared to the first game playing against UTSA,” Smith said. “I definitely feel like each game I’ve been improving in different ways and different aspects of my game which has helped the offense, and in general, everybody’s been improving since the first game as well.”
Smith is equipped with one of the most explosive receiving corps in the Big 12. Headlining the group is Sam Brown, who ranks supreme in the conference in both receptions (37) and receiving yards (549).
“He’s been a great performer every game. Sometimes, he may not have the most yards, but that block was a major block to get a touchdown,” Smith said of Brown, referring to a third quarter assist he provided Joseph Manjack IV against West Virginia. “He’s been very good about being a team player, relaxing, and being ready when the ball comes to him.”
Additionally, Manjack has played a strong supporting role with 136 yards and two touchdowns in his last two outings. And then there’s Matthew Golden — the explosive true sophomore who has a team-high four touchdown receptions on the year in addition to two kick return touchdowns. Golden left the previous contest with a groin injury, but he worked out last Friday and could be set for a return against Texas. However, a new star emerged in Golden’s absence in Stephon “Boogie” Johnson. The Oklahoma State transfer caught eight passes all year prior to the West Virginia game, but collected a team-high 96 receiving yards last Thursday, notably corralling the game-winning Hail Mary.
“He’s a great dude to be around,” Smith said of Johnson. “He definitely brings a lot of energy to the team and a lot of energy to the wide receiver room. It fits him perfectly because the whole wide receiver room is like that. If you see Boogie, that’s how everybody acts in that wide receiver room and they all complement each other very well.”
The second half of the West Virginia game was a fresh change of pace for the Cougars. In Houston’s first two Big 12 games, the team was severely worn down in the second half, getting outclassed by TCU and Texas Tech by an aggregate score of 30-0 after halftime. But against West Virginia, Houston only cranked the dial offensively in the third and fourth quarters, scoring four touchdowns, recording the game’s lone takeaway, and keeping the foot on the gas until Johnson snagged the walk-off touchdown reception.
“We showed improvement and we focused on it,” Holgorsen said. “We had 12 days to prepare for that game. They heard me say ‘four quarters’ an awful lot. They heard me say ‘block and tackle for four quarters’ and that was our mindset. It just felt different when we came out in the second half. We gotta keep improving. This obviously isn’t gonna get any easier for the remaining six weeks, so we gotta keep improving with that.”
The last two weeks have featured promising development on the offensive side of things, but Houston still seeks more on defense. West Virginia didn’t register more than 24 points on its first four FBS opponents, yet created explosive play after explosive play en route to 39 points — one week after Texas Tech rushed for 239 yards in a 49-28 win over Houston. The Cougars are sharp in the turnover department as cornerbacks Malik Fleming and Isaiah Hamilton combine for six interceptions this season. But generating pressure and getting stops is required to prevent another situation like West Virginia’s 15-point explosion in the last four minutes of last Thursday’s contest.
“Defensively, you take away the last seven minutes and we showed improvement,” Holgorsen said. “The last seven minutes were bad, but there were some things that I saw defensively that encouraged me and that’s improvement.”
Texas Longhorns outlook
Texas is ranked No. 8 in the AP Poll — the highest among all 1-loss teams. The Longhorns upended Alabama on the road, throttled every other team they faced — except Oklahoma. Texas is fresh off a nail-biting 34-30 defeat to the Sooners in the Red River Rivalry, surrendering a game-winning drive in the final minute. The Longhorns look to rebound against Houston, and although they’re fresh off a loss, there’s no denying the talent they present in all facets of the game.
“There’s not enough time in this press conference to explain all the challenges that Texas brings,” Holgorsen said in his weekly presser. “They’re a complete team. They’ve had two weeks. Coming off a loss to Oklahoma, I can only imagine what their mindset is. They’ve been dominant all season. But to have two weeks coming off that game, I’m sure they’ll be as motivated as anyone in college football coming to Houston.”
Like many top 10 teams, success starts with good quarterback play. Quinn Ewers is far more advanced in his second year as a starter, increasing his completion rate from 58 to 70 and his average yards per attempt from 7.4 to 9.3. He tossed a pair of picks against Oklahoma but still exhibits an impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11-to-3, and he’s facilitated three 320+ yard showings this year.
“Not only him, but the back is good, the three receivers are good, the tight end is good, they’re big up front, so you got to prepare for all of it,” Holgorsen said of Ewers. “Ewers is playing well. I didn’t really watch much of what he did last year. We’ve really just focused on what it is this year, and he’s playing at a high level. He’s a pocket guy, he can make every throw, his arm talent is there. They don’t run him a whole lot, but he can scramble around and get some first downs and stuff.
Texas is loaded at skill position talent all around. The Longhorns may have lost the reigning Doak Walker Award winner in Bijan Robinson, but Jonathon Brooks is the ninth-leading rusher in the FBS with 726 yards on 6.7 per carry. And Xavier Worthy remains one of the toughest receivers to cover in the conference with an insane release package, ranking third in the Big 12 with 453 yards on the year.
“Those receivers are extremely hard to recover,” Holgorsen said. “And then the running back — you're like, ‘Who’s this dude?’ He played behind two NFL guys last year so that dude is exceptional and as good as anyone in the country.”
Nationally-ranked juggernauts like Oklahoma and Alabama recorded 34 and 24 points on the Longhorns. Nobody else — including 4-2 Kansas’ high-powered offense — collected more than 14. Texas operates with a suffocating defense allowing 16.3 points per game, which is situated at 15th in the country. Inside linebacker Jaylan Ford is an undeniable force as the team leader in tackles, tackles for loss, and interceptions, but what separates Texas from other defenses is the sheer amount of size on the interior. Defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat is 6’4”, 362 pounds, and ranks second on the team with four tackles for loss, while 6’1”, 308-pound Byron Murphy II and 6’5”, 317-pound Alfred Collins are other athletic forces Houston’s offensive line must counter.
“They’re just all really good dudes, really good players, sound, and they play fast,” Smith said of Texas’ defense. “That’s something you see on film and they really play fast. They come downhill and try to hit you and make plays and be physical up front. They’ve got those big guys up front — just a really good all-around team.”
Gaining an advantage over Texas in the trenches won’t be easy. The Longhorns are adept at stopping the run at the first level, allowing just 112 rushing yards per game on a 3.4 average. Houston hasn’t exhibited the sharpest ground game thus far, ranking 95th in the FBS in output. But Holgorsen and the Cougars must find other ways to gain an edge, and the longtime head coach succeeded in past meetings with the Longhorns.
“How I was brought up in the air raid has worked for a long time,” Holgorsen said. “The many times we competed against Tech in the 2000s and what Hal (Mumme) did at Kentucky — people had never seen that before. So it’s kind of run its course so to speak. Everybody’s always gonna run mesh and run wide cross and run sail routes and stuff like that. The principles are gonna be there, but how we do offense now is a little different. I don’t know if that will give us any advantage, but we’ll see.”
The Cougars are aware the Vegas oddsmakers are labeling them as longshots to win this ballgame at TDECU Stadium. It will be one of the most electrifying atmospheres in the venue’s 10-year history. But after picking up a massive win against West Virginia and gaining a stream of confidence, Houston’s general feeling about this upcoming matchup could best be described as ‘excitement.’
“We’re excited about it,” Holgorsen said. “You’re not a competitor if you don’t want this challenge. It’s gonna be fun. They’re a good team. It’s gonna be exciting and it’s football, so regardless of who you play, you just line up and try to do your job. We’ll prepare the right way. We’ll be excited about playing.”
Houston is certainly a better team than it was when it commenced Big 12 play against TCU in Week 3. The Cougars are finally in an offensive groove with Donovan Smith excelling through the air, piling eight touchdown passes on opposing defenses in the past two games. In order for Houston to win this game, a similar performance from Smith must be observed and his talented group of receivers must find openings against a Texas secondary which forces a 54.9 completion percentage.
Texas should have the edge at the line of scrimmage, preventing Houston from gaining significant production on the ground. Thus, when pitted against a relentless Texas defensive line, the Cougars must revert to screens and quick passes to replace runs and slow-developing plays. But the Longhorns defense isn’t easy to register points on, and even explosive offenses like Kansas struggled to move the sticks — faring 0-of-8 on third downs after struggling to gain ground on first and second.
Houston should be able to score a decent amount given its offensive firepower, but Texas counters with a versatile offense led by dynamic playmakers Jonathon Brooks and Xavier Worthy in addition to an unforgiving defense which tends to thrive on critical downs.
Prediction: Texas 42, Houston 24