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2023 Week 12 Game Preview: Oklahoma State Cowboys @ Houston Cougars

On the fringe of bowl ineligibility, Houston hopes to become the second AAC newcomer to stun Oklahoma State.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Houston Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, November 18 at 4:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN2
  • Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
  • Spread: Oklahoma State (-7)
  • Over/under: 60.5
  • All-time series: Houston leads, 10-9-1
  • Last meeting: Houston 45, Oklahoma State 35 — September 12, 2009
  • Current streak: Houston, 1 (2009)

We’re on from Cincinnati

Year one of Big 12 membership has been an up-and-down experience with plenty of growing pains for the Houston Cougars (4-6, 2-5 Big 12). The highs involved knocking off West Virginia on a Hail Mary and earning a tough-fought road win at Baylor on an overtime 2-point conversion. The lows involved early-season struggles against TCU and Texas Tech, a 41-0 shutout at Kansas State, and coming excruciatingly close to upsetting Texas.

Things finally appeared to trend in the Cougars’ favor. After defeating Baylor, Houston returned home for the first time since Oct. 21 for a matchup with old AAC foe Cincinnati. The Cougars were fresh off a confidence-boosting win, favored, and facing the only Big 12 team without a conference win. But instead of reverting to .500 on the season, Houston fell to 4-6 as Cincinnati emerged in a 24-14 wire-to-wire victory.

“It was a disappointing loss,” Holgorsen said. “I felt like we had a real shot and we did. Defense played good enough to keep us in it. We got some stops and kept it a close game. Offensively, it’s just not good enough. It comes down to being pitiful in the passing game which is perplexing to me because we’ve been good throwing the ball.”

Houston’s No. 1 strength is typically its passing offense led by quarterback Donovan Smith. Prior to the Cincinnati game, the Texas Tech transfer completed at least 73 percent of his passes in four of his last six starts. There were several 300-yard outbursts sprinkled in that span with a pair of games featuring four touchdowns and zero interceptions.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Houston
Houston QB Donovan Smith rushed for a season-high 88 yards against Cincinnati in addition to throwing two touchdown strikes.
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

But Saturday’s game against Cincinnati was a rough performance for the usually-potent aerial attack. Smith finished with 102 yards on 28 attempts, throwing two touchdowns and three interceptions in a turnover laden night. He found other ways to contribute though, rushing for a season-high 88 yards to bolster the run game. The run game hasn’t been a strong point of Houston’s offense this year, but it showed promise against the Bearcats. True freshman Parker Jenkins added 50 yards on 6.8 per carry, but Houston didn’t utilize it much due to playing from behind for nearly the entirety of the contest.

“The running game wasn’t pitiful,” Holgorsen said. “We just couldn’t get enough first downs to get in the rhythm to be able to continue to sustain drives. Donovan did a good job of extending plays with his legs and getting us some first downs on third down. Other than that, the passing game was inept.”

Ramping that passing game up to the next level is going to be a challenge. Emerging star wide receiver Matthew Golden will miss the remainder of the season with turf toe. Golden had been excellent at gaining separation all year, hauling in a team-high six touchdown receptions in addition to making a difference on special teams with two kick return touchdowns. With Golden no longer in the lineup, Dalton Carnes and Stephon Johnson are required to amplify their roles, alongside starting receivers Sam Brown (second in the Big 12 in receiving yards) and Joseph Manjack IV.

“Obviously Matt’s got a bright future, a lot of ball ahead of him,” Holgorsen said. “He needs to heal the right way so he can get back on track next year.”

As Holgorsen alluded to, the promising side of the Cincinnati game was the defensive performance. The last two games were the best two showings by the defense in Big 12 play, limiting Baylor to 17 points in regulation and holding Cincinnati to 24. Generating immense pressure has contributed to this improvement, as Houston rides a two-game streak of attaining at least four sacks. Defensive end Nelson Ceaser has been the season-long ringleader of the movement, but defensive tackles Jamaree Caldwell and Anthony Holmes Jr. also stepped up with multiple sacks against the Bearcats.

Houston DE Nelson Ceaser leads the Big 12 in sacks with 9.5 on the season.
Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But Houston must also force higher turnover outputs. The Cougars have only intercepted one pass in the last four weeks and the last time they won the turnover battle was five games ago against West Virginia. Senior cornerback Malik Fleming will return this week, hoping to add to his interception total after logging three in the first three weeks. Another Malik essential to the Houston defense is outside linebacker Malik Robinson. The leading tackler from that position group, Robinson will be essential to stopping the nation’s leading rusher in Saturday’s contest.

Taking a peek at the Pokes

Houston and Oklahoma State haven’t squared off since 2009, but Dana Holgorsen and Mike Gundy have crossed paths countless times through the years. Holgorsen served as Gundy’s offensive coordinator in 2010 for an Oklahoma State team which finished third nationally in points per game, third in yards per game, and second in passing yards per game — shattering plenty of school records at the time.

During Holgorsen’s West Virginia tenure, he squared off against Gundy every year from 2012 to 2018, and Oklahoma State triumphed in five of those seven matchups. This will be the eighth-meeting between the longtime Big 12 offensive gurus.

“He’s been there forever. He’s one of the best coaches in the country and I think this might be one of the best coaching jobs he’s done,” Holgorsen said. “They’ve got 52 new players on their team, and it took a while. That program is set up for success. I know a lot about it and they’ve had a lot of success for years and years. They’re in the Big 12 race so they have a lot to play for.”

Oklahoma State (7-3, 5-2 Big 12) controls its own destiny for its second Big 12 Championship Game appearance in three seasons. The Cowboys did not appear bound for this showdown in Arlington, TX four weeks into the year, sitting at 2-2 with a 33-7 home loss to South Alabama. But until last Saturday, Oklahoma State rode a 5-game win streak, edging quality opponents including Kansas State, Kansas, West Virginia, and Oklahoma.

Cincinnati v Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State RB Ollie Gordon had six consecutive 120-yard performances before last Saturday, including two of 270+ yards.
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The Cowboys’ midseason success came courtesy of unthinkable performances by running back Ollie Gordon II. Gordon currently leads the FBS in rushing yards at 1,250 and his 6.7 average is superior among the 25 ball carriers with the most attempts. Gordon won the Doak Walker National Running Back of the Week honors in three consecutive weeks, posting 168 rushing and 116 yards on Kansas, following it up with 282 rushing yards and four touchdowns against West Virginia, and concluding the stretch with 271 yards and two touchdowns versus Cincinnati.

Last Saturday was an uncharacteristic performance for the likely All-American, picking up just 25 rushing yards on 12 carries with his second fumble of the year. The result for Oklahoma State was a jarring 45-3 loss to Big 12 newcomer UCF in monsoon conditions, but Holgorsen realizes this performance was an anomaly and anything but the norm for the 6’1”, 211 pound sophomore tailback.

“He’s one of the best backs in the country,” Holgorsen said. “You can take that and throw that game away last week. They’re coming off of Bedlam. They’re coming off of five Big 12 wins. That was a perfect storm last week, literally. It rained the entire time. That’s not Oklahoma State. I don’t even want to watch it.”

Defensively, Oklahoma State brings loads of pressure from the linebacker positions with inside backer Nickolas Martin and outside backer Collin Oliver sharing identical stat-lines with 11.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks on the season. Oliver is second in the country in forced fumbles with four, and Houston must be wary of his presence after losing most turnover battles in Big 12 play.

The Cowboys’ secondary is going to play a lot of 7-man and 8-man zone coverage against Houston’s pass-happy offense. Strong safety Cameron Epps is one of the more disruptive members of the unit with three picks and four pass breakups on the season, and this unit aims to prevent Smith from his fourth consecutive game featuring at least 250 passing yards on 69 percent completion at home.

“These guys are big, they’re physical on both sides, they’re fast on defense,” Holgorsen said of Oklahoma State. “They got a tricky scheme — the drop-eight thing that we see a lot. They went out and hired it and they’re doing good at it. Offensively, I’ve never seen so many called run plays. They call 90 percent run plays and hand it to that back and the backup’s pretty good too. Then they RPO the heck out of you with big receivers. It’s gonna be incredibly challenging.”

Oklahoma State v UCF
Oklahoma State QB Alan Bowman threw for 605 yards and five touchdowns in his last meeting against Houston, five years ago.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Alan Bowman is Oklahoma State’s quarterback operating the RPOs. Although it was pre-Holgorsen era, Bowman’s presence is a familiar site to Houston faithful. Last time he squared off against the Cougars in 2018, he suited up for Texas Tech and delivered 605 passing yards and five touchdowns in a 63-49 barnburner.

Clinging onto bowl hopes

Houston was officially pushed to the fringe last Saturday. With Oklahoma State and UCF looming on the schedule, the Cougars cannot afford another loss or else they won’t reach bowl season for the first time since 2019.

Houston understood the challenges of transitioning from the AAC to the Big 12 prior to the year launching, but regardless of the circumstances, attaining a bowl was the standard the whole time. That objective is still on the table, but Houston must defend homefield against a Big 12 contender as the first of two steps into sustaining the goal.

“Everybody’s goal is a bowl game,” Holgorsen said. “That’s the standard that you want to be in. I don’t care — year one (in the Big 12), year ten — we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a lot of work to do. Just continuing to build it — build buildings and build the roster — there’s a lot of work to do and looking forward to all that. But with that said, I don’t care if it’s year one, your goal is a bowl game.”

Senior night at TDECU Stadium

Prior to Saturday’s home finale at TDECU Stadium, Houston will hold a ceremony to recognize 18 different seniors: Max Banes, Antonio Brooks, Nelson Ceaser, Trimarcus Cheeks, Malik Fleming, Jack Freeman, Gavin Gately, Brian George, Alex Hogan, Hasaan Hypolite, Mike O’Laughlin, Patrick Paul, Malik Robinson, David Ugwoegbu, Reuben Unije, Kelan Walker, Laine Wilkins, and Sedrick Williams.

“It’s an older group that’s been year,” Holgorsen said. “A lot of sixth-year guys. There’s even a seventh-year guy. We’ve been here going in on five years now and a lot of these guys have been here the entire time. You got Kelan and Jack that were here prior to me being here for a year — just an older group that has been there with us through thick and thin, had success in the American, and helped make this transition into the Big 12. It’s a special group that means a lot to me.”

Holgorsen confirmed it will be the final home game for two team captains who will forgo their final year of eligibility and likely test out the waters of the NFL. One is likely NFL Draft selection Patrick Paul who has started every game at left tackle since 2021 and attained First Team All-AAC status twice. The other is defensive end Nelson Ceaser, who currently leads the Big 12 with 9.5 sacks on the season. Both Paul and Ceaser were members of Holgorsen’s initial recruiting class in 2019.

Houston team captains, C Jack Freeman and OT Patrick Paul, are among those participating in senior night at TDECU Stadium.
Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“They’ve been here five years. They’re playing really well. They’ve got their degrees, so we wish them the best of luck,” Holgorsen said. “Need to finish this year strong and then we’re gonna wish them luck. They’re gonna be in all-star games and all the rest.”

It will be an emotional night for those involved, simultaneously celebrating their time at Houston while attempting to salvage bowl eligibility and finish their careers strong in front of the home fans.

“It’s kind of like the cliche where they say it goes by in the blink of an eye or snap of a finger,” strong safety Hasaan Hypolite said. “You look up, one day you’re a freshman and the next day you’re giving advice to the younger guys coming in on your way out. It did kind of fly by.”


Although the goals and reasons at this point in the season differ, it’s a must-win for both teams. Oklahoma State is fresh off a 45-3 beatdown to UCF and in order for the Cowboys to maintain their Big 12 title hopes, winning out is likely a necessity. Mike Gundy’s team must flush the tape from that UCF game where they were plagued by four turnovers, failed to produce any production on the ground, and struggled to counter UCF’s up-tempo, RPO-based rushing attack — allowing 293 yards and three touchdowns. Getting Ollie Gordon back in rhythm is essential, as his prowess in the run game is the foundation for the offense, and everything else falls in place after him.

Houston is another team coming off a brutal loss, as bowl eligibility is now in jeopardy. In order to clinch a bowl game, the Cougars must take care of the ball like they did in their prior three home games. Two of those outings featured zero turnovers and it’s not a coincidence those were the only times Houston broke 30 in regulation this year. Houston must return to aerial excellence under Donovan Smith and keep the ball moving against a pass defense which ranks 115th nationally.

In the end, Oklahoma State has the edge with Gordon in the lineup as Houston struggled to counter dominant rushing teams like Kansas State and Cincinnati. Slow starts have plagued the Cougars, which have only led after one first quarter all year and only scored a touchdown on one opening drive. If these ongoing trends sustain, Oklahoma State remains a step ahead the entire time and escapes TDECU Stadium with the victory.

Prediction: Oklahoma State 32, Houston 21