- Time and date: Saturday, November 4 at 3:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: McLane Stadium — Waco, TX
- Spread: Baylor (-3)
- Over/under: 57.5
- All-time series: Baylor leads, 14-13-1
- Last meeting: Baylor 47, Houston 7 — October 14, 1995
- Current streak: Baylor, 2 (1994-95)
Houston and Baylor meet as Big 12 opponents for the first time ever. The last meeting transpired in 1995 during their final year of sharing Southwest Conference membership. However, the Cougars and Bears nearly squared off in the unorthodox 2020 season.
Houston was scheduled as a makeshift opponent for Baylor following COVID-19 cases within the Louisiana Tech football team. But one day before kickoff, the Bears announced a cancelation due to COVID cases within their program, extending the drought to 25 consecutive years without playing the Cougars. The long wait officially ends Saturday at McLane Stadium.
Salvaging the inaugural Big 12 season
How will Houston respond? The Cougars are fresh off an abysmal 41-0 beatdown at Kansas State, getting completely shut out for the first time since 2000. Houston is now 3-5 on the season and 1-4 in Big 12 play with a third of the regular season slate remaining.
A roller coaster October featured Houston defeating West Virginia on a Hail Mary to claim its lone Big 12 win, going toe-to-toe with conference frontrunner Texas, and getting skunked by Kansas State. After going through the gauntlet of emotions, the team must reset to start November for a pivotal matchup against a Baylor squad toting an identical 3-5 record.
“It’s pivotal, and we’ve known this would be the case for sometime. Things that have happened this year are not surprising to me,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “The month of October was a tough month. We knew it was gonna be a tough month. The buildup to the Thursday night game was huge. The win was huge. The mighty Texas Longhorns 10 days later was challenging, none of which were more challenging than we faced last week. I could have told you that when the schedule came out. I’m glad to get to November and I’m excited to move on to Baylor.”
Houston has dropped three of its last four contests, and the only win in that span transpired on a Hail Mary miracle. The Cougars are in desperate need of a get-right victory against an opponent of similar stature. Baylor already escaped AAC transplants UCF and Cincinnati in one-score victories, but Houston hopes to become the first newcomer to take down the Bears.
“Must-wins and all that stuff — I mean every game is a game that you need to line up and try to win,” Holgorsen said. “This is certainly one for us and them. We’ve certainly had similar seasons.”
At 1-4 in conference play, competing for a Big 12 championship is essentially out of the question for Houston in year one of league membership. But several objectives remain on the table, and most notable among them is bowl eligibility. Competing in a bowl game is standard for the program, which has appeared in the postseason in 15 of the last 18 seasons. In order to do that, Houston must fare 3-1 against the likes of Baylor, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State, and UCF.
“Our goals are still out there. We got games I expect to go compete in. We didn’t compete very hard last week. I don’t think that’s who we are,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve got games on our schedule moving forward that are a little bit more favorable than what we dealt with last week. I think we all know that.”
Overcoming slow starts
One recurring theme which has contributed to the five in the loss column for Houston is starting slow. The Cougars are losing first quarters by an aggregate score of 87-41. In Big 12 play, it’s 52-24. The only time Houston held a lead entering the second quarter was in Week 4 against Sam Houston — the only winless program in the FBS — by a score of 10-7.
Houston isn’t accustomed to operating with the lead in the early going and that’s one item Holgorsen has reiterated to his team every single week, especially after Kansas State posted a 28-0 lead before halftime last Saturday.
“We’re gonna talk about it again,” Holgorsen said. “I thought that was pretty much the key to the game for us to be able to hang in there with those guys.”
Fast starts is a major point of emphasis heading into the Baylor game. But this issue isn’t exclusive to Houston. The Bears have been outscored 56-26 in first quarters this year, only holding advantages over Long Island of the FCS (7-0) and Cincinnati (3-0). Both teams hope to come out stronger offensively and finally alter the trajectory of a trend which has been damaging all season.
“I’ve coached for 32 years. If we have slow starts, you focus on it, you talk about it, and eventually it works itself out,” Holgorsen said. “If you obsess over it, that creates pressure and that’s usually not the answer.”
A glance at the Cougars in this matchup
Houston’s offense unquestionably moves best through the air. The Cougars rank 41st nationally in passing yards per game and 109th in the ground department. There have been two Big 12 games where Houston failed to generate 50 rushing yards as a team. The passing game is usually reliable, but suddenly stalling in that facet is what contributed to the shutout at Kansas State.
Still, Houston trots out of the conference’s best quarterbacks in Donovan Smith. The Texas Tech transfer ranks second in passing yards and second in passing touchdowns, exhibiting efficiency with a completion percentage of 65 and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 16-to-5. Smith only attained 88 yards on a 13-of-26 showing at Kansas State, but his previous three performances show what he’s capable of against Big 12 defenses.
Against Texas Tech, West Virginia, and Texas, Smith averaged 322 yards per game on a 72.8 completion rate, delivering 11 touchdowns and just one interception. The 6’5”, 241 pound quarterback isn’t just an aerial specialist — he’s useful in the run game as well. Holgorsen utilizes him as a runner based on the opponent’s defensive scheme, but those situations might not appear against a Baylor defense which has only surrendered more than 32 rushing yards to one quarterback all year.
“It’s situational,” Holgorsen said. “We didn’t run him against Texas. The d-line was an issue for us and we didn’t want to run him up through the tackles. Against K-State, they were more condensed in there to where we felt like we could get some people under the edge. It’s all gameplan oriented... Quarterback run game is a part of our game. It’s a part of everyone’s game right now.”
Baylor ranks 121st nationally in run defense, yielding over 220 yards to three teams this year including the two other teams transitioning from the AAC to the Big 12. Rushing has not particularly been a strength for Houston, but the Cougars hope to become more multidimensional on offense, especially after the passing game didn’t produce its normal outcome in Manhattan, KS.
The run game features a jumble of running backs, but it’s headlined by a true freshman. Parker Jenkins has been the usual starter since Week 4 and is the only Cougar to produce 100 rushing yards this season when he bolted for 105 and three touchdowns on Sam Houston. The highest yardage output a Houston running back has attained against a Big 12 defense is 78 (Stacy Sneed against West Virginia), and Jenkins hopes the knowledge he’s acquired throughout the year can get him close to that total.
“It came faster than I expected especially with Tony (Mathis Jr.) coming in,” Jenkins said. “I feel like I’ve improved as a football player. I’ve been able to read defenses better with Coach (Mike) Jinks and the other backs helping me with that. As a freshman, I’m not used to the tempo of it and the schemes of it, but they’ve helped me a lot with that.”
Houston’s wide receiver corps is loaded. Sam Brown leads the Big 12 in receiving yards with nearly 100 yards of separation. Matthew Golden is also an explosive playmaker with a team-high six offensive touchdowns to go along with two kick return touchdowns. The usual third name rounding out the group is Joseph Manjack IV, but an injury from two weeks ago held him out of the Kansas State game.
If the highly-physical receiver is unable to suit up in Waco, Houston has other options at its disposal. One is rising talent Dalton Carnes who was placed on scholarship this week. Carnes has been a steady contributor in Big 12 play, totaling 13 receptions for 150 yards against conference competition as part of the rotation.
“He showed up and played hard this past Saturday, made some big catches,” Holgorsen said. “Throughout the course of the week, I let some people break it down that had a good performance the previous week. Highlighting what he did and him sticking it out — because he was gonna transfer because he just wanted to play — for him to stick it out and get playing time and get into the rotation and make plays against the University of Texas, we’re gonna put him on scholarship.
Another injury Houston dealt with last Saturday was the absence of its leading pass rusher. Defensive end Nelson Ceaser ranks supreme on the team with 5.5 sacks and 8.0 tackles for loss and serves as the unquestionable leader of the line. If Ceaser remains unavailable, that increases the role for Nadame Tucker who picked up three tackles and one stop behind the line of scrimmage in Manhattan.
However, Tucker’s job may become easier due to the overwhelming presence of Jamaree Caldwell. The 6’1”, 325 pound defensive tackle has been the Cougars’ best defender as of late, providing ample pressure in the A and B gaps and registering three sacks across the past two weeks. Caldwell was recently granted another year of eligibility, but for the present moment, his presence will be essential against a Baylor offensive line which yields 2.9 sacks per game — most in the Big 12.
“Obviously it’s huge to be able to get him back for another year,” Holgorsen said. “He’s turned into a heck of a player. Last year you saw flashes of it, but he was very injury prone, he was too heavy. This year he’s got his weight down and he’s playing at a high level.”
Houston’s secondary initiated the year as one of the top turnover producing units in the country. Cornerbacks Malik Fleming and Isaiah Hamilton both secured three interceptions on the year. But the Cougars have only picked off one pass since Week 4. Baylor counters this secondary with quarterback Blake Shapen who has remained relatively mistake-free up until this point. The former Big 12 champion gunslinger features a stat-line of six touchdowns and one interception this year on high volume — firing for 300+ yards in three of his five starts.
This matchup should feature a litany of points as the offenses are the strong suits of both teams. Specifically, the passing offenses are the strong suits. Houston and Baylor rank 109th and 112th in rushing yards per game, respectively, but Donovan Smith and Blake Shapen are capable of firing for 300 yards on a routine basis. Expect a slew of explosive plays in this one with receivers like Sam Brown, Matthew Golden, Monaray Baldwin, and Ketron Jackson Jr. enjoying productive statistical outings.
It’s going to be back-and-forth football decided in the final minutes, replicating the close-knit fashion of Baylor’s other games against former AAC teams. The pass rushes are of similar caliber, but Houston potentially operating without Nelson Ceaser changes things. But Baylor offers the better aerial defense, and that might be the difference when these teams — both desperate for a win — meet for the first time in 28 years.
Prediction: Baylor 33, Houston 28