The Houston Cougars, in the midst of transitioning from the American Athletic Conference to the Big 12, seemed to find their footing at the dawn of October. Houston opened the month downing West Virginia on a walk-off Hail Mary to secure its first-ever conference win since the move this summer. One week later, the Cougars took a top 10 Texas team down to the last possession, falling 10 yards short of the tying, or potential game-winning touchdown.
All of that progress was seemingly eradicated when Houston left the state of Texas for the first time in the 2023 season. The Cougars’ first-ever road trip to Manhattan, KS was certainly one they’d prefer to erase from memory. Kansas State eviscerated Houston from the opening kickoff until the final whistle, throttling the Cougars in a 41-0 shutout. It is one of 16 FBS shutouts this year and the only one involving a Big 12 team on the losing end. Houston scored zero points for the first time since falling 48-0 to Texas in 2000.
“Well that’s what Big 12 championship football looks like,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said to open his postgame press conference.
The reigning Big 12 champion Wildcats looked just like that designation would suggest. Kansas State essentially ended the contest by halftime with a 28-0 lead, out-gaining Houston 277-83 with over 20 minutes of possession in that timeframe. The Wildcats set the tone immediately, piecing together two lengthy drives while Houston countered with punts. The Wildcats continued to pounce on the Cougars, forcing punts, winning the turnover battle and forcing four turnovers on downs to move Houston to 4-of-19 on fourth downs on the season (5th-to-last in FBS).
“It is disappointing,” Holgorsen said. “We knew it was gonna be a challenging environment. They’ve sold out 100 in a row or whatever. Homecoming. They’re coming off a 41-3 win. Their last 10 quarters of football have been as good as anyone in the country.”
Houston has been no stranger to slow starts this season. The Cougars have been outscored 87-41 in first quarters this year, and their only first quarter lead transpired against winless Sam Houston in Week 4. But Houston regularly digs itself out of such holes. It scored 35 unanswered after trailing Rice 28-0 in September and 21 unanswered after trailing Texas 21-0 last week. But this time, there was no response. Starting quarterback Donovan Smith couldn’t ignite Houston’s typically-sharp passing attack, finishing 13-of-25 with 88 yards while only one receiver exceeded 20 yards on the day.
“All I talked about all week was starting fast. We talked about it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and today at the hotel,” Holgorsen said postgame. “We started our practice with things that would get them going quick. And it all played into the early start, we’re gonna have to get up. I thought our guys in the hotel were awesome. Traveled good, were good in the hotel. Had energy in pregame. Then you kick it off and it’s just we’re getting beat everywhere.”
Houston entered the game shorthanded without two key starters, spanning both sides of the ball. Wide receiver Joseph Manjack IV was a crucial component when Houston erased a 21-0 deficit to Texas. But coming off a career-high performance, Manjack was unavailable against Kansas State after suffering a brutal hit in the waning minutes of last week’s contest. Also, the Cougars’ premier pass rusher Nelson Ceaser was unavailable due to an injury suffered in practice. Ceaser leads the team in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (8.0). That additional source of pressure was desperately needed as Kansas State efficiently completed 21-of-24 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns.
“When you come play a team like this, a game like this, you want to have all your parts,” Holgorsen said. “Not having (Ceaser) and not having Manjack, that makes it harder. It’s gonna be hard. It makes it harder. I’m certainly not using that as an excuse, but in order to defeat the defending Big 12 champs who is playing at a very high level, you kind of need all your people to give yourself a chance. Hopefully we get those guys back for the next game.”
Kansas State is on a hot streak, collecting three consecutive wins with an aggregate score of 82-3 in their last two outings. But the Wildcats are by no means the last challenging opponent Houston will face in its inaugural Big 12 season. Not letting a humiliating shutout defeat the Cougars twice is an emphasis going forward. Houston remains on the road next week, hoping to become the first Big 12 newcomer to pick up its second conference win Saturday in Waco.
“It’s Big 12 football. There’s gonna be hiccups. There’s gonna be growing pains. It’s not fun. It’s not enjoyable. It’s tough. It’s a great league. Every week’s gonna be hard. We need to get over this as soon as possible. We need to move on to Baylor. I don’t think that’s who we are as a football team... We need to go get ready to play Baylor to prove that’s not who we are right there.”
As far as the team’s focus after suffering a defeat of that magnitude, Holgorsen showed no concern, pointing to the maturity and poise of the student-athletes in his locker room.
“We got good kids. We don’t have any attitude issues. We don’t have anybody pointing fingers. We’ll get ‘em back,” Holgorsen said. “We have kids that care. So we’re gonna line up on Monday and we’re gonna practice and we’re gonna get prepared to go play Baylor.”