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2023 Week 9 Game Preview: Houston Cougars @ Kansas State Wildcats

Last week, Houston looked capable of beating anybody in the Big 12. Does that translate in Manhattan, KS?

UH Quarterback Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, October 28 at 12:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN2
  • Location: Bill Snyder Family Stadium — Manhattan, KS
  • Spread: Kansas State (-17.5)
  • Over/under: 60
  • All-time series: No previous meetings

Setting the scene

Last Saturday, the Houston Cougars looked capable of beating anybody in the Big 12. That wasn’t always the case this year. Houston was thoroughly dominated by TCU and Texas Tech to launch Big 12 play, getting outscored 30-0 in second halves against those in-state opponents. But an unlikely Hail Mary finish to stun West Virginia and earn a Big 12 win in the standings seemingly changed the trajectory of Houston’s season.

Houston stormed back from a 21-0 deficit against a top 10 Texas team that hadn’t been challenged by anybody but undefeated Oklahoma. The Cougars had the game tied until the late fourth quarter, and when Texas regained a 31-24 lead, Houston maneuvered down to the Longhorns’ 10-yard. A controversial spot deprived the Cougars of victory, however, and they turned it over on downs to conclude a gut-wrenching, but promising defeat.

Now, a talented Kansas State team is on the docket in Manhattan, KS on Saturday morning.

Houston Cougars outlook

Houston (3-4, 1-3 Big 12) nearly pulled off a signature victory against the Longhorns, and now it’s time for Dana Holgorsen and Co. to build on the positives from that heartbreaking finish.

For one, the passing offense remained extraordinary. This is clearly Houston’s identity now. The Cougars nearly took a fourth quarter lead last week with negative rushing yards in the box score, but the aerial attack has been potent enough where they can thrive one-dimensionally. Quarterback Donovan Smith becomes increasingly comfortable in the offense each week, and he continues to push the envelope of what this offense is capable of. His last three Big 12 games featured 11 touchdowns and one interception, resetting his career-high with 378 yards against Texas. Smith has displayed remarkable efficiency too, riding a 4-game streak of exhibiting a completion percentage exceeding 69.

Texas v Houston
Houston QB Donovan Smith set a career-high with 378 passing yards against Texas. It was his third-straight game with at least three touchdown passes.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

It’s not always a fast start for Smith, but he heats up as the game progresses. Slow starts have been a theme in general for the offense, losing first quarters by an aggregate score of 80-41. Winless Sam Houston is the only opponent Houston led at the commencement of the second quarter, and even that game was 10-7.

Part of the slow starts are Houston’s increased propensity to run in the first quarter. The Cougars are 108th nationally in rushing yards per game and they rack up 3.7 yards per carry. Parker Jenkins and Stacy Sneed are the main running backs at the moment and this could be another challenging game for the duo, pitted against a sharp Kansas State defensive front.

But Houston’s offense continues to thrive with one of the deepest receiving corps in the Big 12. Sam Brown leads the conference in receiving yards with 78 yards of separation, claiming 629 on the season. Houston receivers also claim the ninth and 14th spots on the Big 12 leaderboards — the only team with three top 15 receivers. Matthew Golden is the separation specialist and the go-to target on the goal line with a team-high six touchdowns. Meanwhile, Joseph Manjack IV is the most physical of the bunch, fresh off a career performance against Texas after dominating the Longhorn secondary on crossing routes.

Houston moves the ball well with these receivers, but finishing drives is of utmost importance. In order to do that, fourth and short conversions are often necessary. Houston ranks in the bottom 10 of the FBS in fourth down conversion rate at 4-of-15 on the year, and that includes a 1-of-5 showing on 4th and 1. On the flip side, the Cougars’ defense has surrendered 11 fourth down conversions on 14 attempts, so those critical downs have been detrimental on both ends.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Houston
Houston DE Nelson Ceaser is the Cougars’ top pass rusher with a career-high 5.5 sacks to go along with 8.0 TFLs this season.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Cougar defense played exceptionally well last week, a significant upgrade from their previous three Big 12 contests. Texas shot out of a cannon to a 21-0 lead in the first 18 minutes of clock but was held to just 10 points for the remaining 42 minutes. Defensive tackle Jamaree Caldwell left the game due to cramping, but he was the driving force behind the stellar defensive finish. Caldwell produced two sacks and provided heaps of pressure from the interior, and his presence is certainly needed against Kansas State’s All-American caliber offensive line.

Houston didn’t even force a turnover against Texas. The Cougars simply generated stop after stop in the second half, limiting the Longhorns to 3.8 yards per carry on the ground. That statistic must carry over in order to pull off an upset bid against Kansas State, and that requires shedding blocks at the first level. Nelson Ceaser is the team’s top backfield invader with 8.0 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks on the season, and his services will be needed more than ever in the Little Apple on Saturday.

Kansas State Wildcats outlook

Kansas State (5-2, 3-1 Big 12) surprisingly didn’t garner a ranking after shredding TCU in 41-3 fashion, but defending Big 12 champions certainly put the conference on notice in the lopsided result.

Where did Kansas State dominate TCU the most? Honestly, those 38 points of separation can be attributed to third down success. TCU went 2-of-13 and Kansas State regularly got its defense off the field. Meanwhile the Wildcat offense moved the sticks with ease and converted 10-of-13 attempts, all while displaying a multidimensional offense which averaged 9.4 yards per pass and 6.6 per rush.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Kansas State
Kansas State RB DJ Giddens won Doak Walker National Running Back of the Week honors in Week 4 for posting 207 yards and 4 TD on UCF.
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas State is a running team through and through. The Wildcats produce service academy-esque numbers in the rushing department, generating the third-highest total in the FBS at 232.7 yards per game. Containing DJ Giddens is an issue for many teams, and the emerging star has 626 yards on a 6.1 average this season. There are enough leftover carries for Florida State transfer running back Treshaun Ward to have 426 yards to his name on a 5.5 average. Each back surpassed the 80-yard threshold last week, and Houston can expect a heavy dose of both runners, who offer different builds and running styles. And most impressively, Kansas State has not lost a single fumble this season.

Another player that must be accounted for in the run game is whoever is playing quarterback for Kansas State. The Wildcats are now experimenting with a two-QB system, involving 2022 starter Will Howard who won the Big 12 Championship Game and emerging true freshman Avery Johnson. Johnson burst onto the scene two weeks ago in a win over Texas Tech, completing 8-of-9 passes and dominating the ground with 90 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 13 attempts. Johnson remained a lethal rusher against TCU, but Kansas State rotated Howard into the game as part of this new system.

Howard, who surpassed the century mark on the ground against Oklahoma State, rushed for 62 yards on four attempts on the TCU defense, and he also made his mark as a passer. The veteran quarterback tied his season-high with three touchdown passes and refrained from a turnover in the dominant victory. Howard and Johnson are expected to rotate throughout the game Saturday with Howard leaning more toward the air and Johnson as the ground-oriented quarterback.

Regardless of the quarterback, he will be fortified by a tremendous Kansas State offensive line. The Wildcats are as good at run blocking as anyone in the country and they’ve kept their quarterbacks upright with nine sacks allowed in seven games. Left guard Cooper Beebe is a certain NFL Draft selection this April, and he’s the best at his position in the Big 12 — providing an increased challenge for Houston’s interior defensive line.

Trench warfare favors Kansas State on both sides. Not only do the Wildcats impose their will on opposing defensive fronts — their defensive front does the same to other offensive lines. Kansas State is situated at 24th in run defense in the FBS. This facet of the defense is strongly supported by outside linebacker Austin Moore who leads the team in tackles (42) and tackles for loss (8.0). Even the safeties thrive to a tremendous degree in this aspect and Kobe Savage is one of the better tackling defensive backs in the conference with 38 takedowns on the year.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Texas Tech
Kansas State SS Kobe Savage intercepted two passes against Texas Tech in Week 7, increasing his career total to five.
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

But the good news for Houston’s offense is Kansas State is more susceptible to getting beat in the passing game, and this was very evident in the loss to Missouri. Kansas State’s passing defense is one of the worse units in the Big 12 at 113th nationally with a per game allotment of 254 yards. The Wildcats are no stranger to allowing home run plays in their 3-3-5 defense, and they will likely employ a drop-eight strategy to counter Houston. Jacob Parrish is among the notable names in the secondary, and he’ll draw the matchup against either Sam Brown or Matthew Golden. Parrish is the Wildcats’ most disruptive cornerback with seven pass deflections and he has an interception on 22 tackles on his season résumé.


Houston’s front demonstrated tremendous progress against Texas by preventing the Longhorns from dominating on the ground. That challenge is going to get a lot tougher in Manhattan, KS where the Wildcats have roamed free on opponents all year.

The Cougars must counter four different style runners in running backs DJ Giddens and Treshaun Ward as well as quarterbacks Will Howard and Avery Johnson. There’s exceptional versatility within that group, and Kansas State can ride the hot hand when that is established. The Wildcats’ passing offense isn’t bad either, averaging 242 yards per game with a dominant tight end in Ben Sinnott and a big-play receiver in Phillip Brooks. The solid aerial presence makes Kansas State that much more difficult to defend.

Houston does not have the luxury of being as multidimensional, but the Cougars are specialists. Donovan Smith can fire an efficient 300 yards on just about any Big 12 team, and the recipe shapes up nicely against Kansas State. The Wildcats have been porous on the back end and Houston enjoys great receiver depth and a bevy of options Kansas State must account for.

Both offenses should move with ease, but the main difference in this one comes down to the trenches, and that’s where Kansas State thrives to a remarkable extent.

Prediction: Kansas State 37, Houston 28