- Time and date: Saturday, September 2 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: FS1
- Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: UTSA (-2)
- Over/under: 60
- All-time series: Houston leads, 2-1
- Last meeting: Houston 37, UTSA 35 — September 3, 2022
- Current streak: Houston, 1 (2022)
Reliving last year’s classic
It’s a new era for both parties involved. Neither team belongs to the same conference it did when the Cougars and Roadrunners duked it out in the Alamodome last September. On July 1, Houston reassigned its membership from the American Athletic Conference to the Big 12, while UTSA departed from Conference USA and filled the resulting AAC vacancy.
TDECU Stadium is now Big 12 country, and that will be the setting of this two-year non-conference series. Last year’s clash in San Antonio lived up to the hype in every sense imaginable. Houston roared back from 14 down in regulation, took a 3-point lead in the waning seconds, but UTSA responded with a hyper-speed drive to extend the game into overtime. The teams then required three overtime periods to settle a champion. Houston emerged victorious 37-35 when quarterback Clayton Tune flipped into the end zone and the defense registered a subsequent pass breakup during the two-point shootout portion of overtime.
“I think what made it so painful is we put ourselves in such a position to pull off a game we might not have deserved to win away,” UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor said. “We put ourselves in position. We just couldn’t close it out. Some of those were self-inflicted which really makes it worse when you’re the head coach. First games are very unpredictable. There’s going to be some of those mistakes — I understand that. But to give it away and lose a home game last year, I think that just compounded.”
Houston claimed the victory in last year’s meeting, but the Cougars are currently underdogs to the Roadrunners, despite the matchup transpiring in front of a crowd primarily decked in red and white.
“Nobody thinks we’re any good, so let’s line up and see,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I’ve told them that a few times. We’re underdogs at home. Can’t wait. Looking forward to Saturday at 6.”
Traylor also reacted the game’s spread with a degree of surprise, considering the location and the fact that Holgorsen’s Cougars have posted a 20-7 record with a pair of bowl wins in the previous two seasons.
“I can’t see how you would expect to go into Houston and be a favorite. They’ve won 20 games the last two years,” Traylor said. “I’m not trying to put my team down at all, but we have a lot of respect for the University of Houston, their tradition, how good they are at home. It’s very flattering for people to consider us to be like that, but I also think that’s a little bit of stretch when you’re going on the road to play a team as talented as the University of Houston.”
Finding a new Tune to sing in Houston
Houston’s 2022 offense was highly predicated on two four-letter names — Tune and Dell. Quarterback Clayton Tune and wide receiver Tank Dell were among the national leaders in several major statistical categories. Tune ranked seventh in passing yards and third in passing touchdowns, while Dell led the entire FBS in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Both stars leveraged their rampant success into NFL Draft selections, and the Cougars must reload without their focal points of yesteryear.
Donovan Smith was appointed Tune’s successor after a fall camp quarterback battle with Lucas Coley. Smith transferred in from Texas Tech and utilized clutch playmaking to pull off an unlikely stunner over Houston last September. Now lining up with the Cougars instead of against them, the 6’5”, 241 pound quarterback trots out 21 games of experience with a résumé featuring eight starts, 2,687 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and one Liberty Bowl MVP award.
“He’s a coach’s kid. He’s smart, he’s intelligent, he understands how to be a good teammate,” Holgorsen said. “He didn’t come in and try to be somebody he’s not, which I think is key. Every week, he became a better player. Every week, he became a better teammate. His relationship with the receivers and o-line is solid, and he’s getting more comfortable with what we’re asking him to do.”
Smith has developed rapport with a deep receiving corps, headlined by true sophomore Matthew Golden. The former 4-star recruit is the team’s returning leader in receiving yards, showing breakout potential toward the end of last season with two 100-yard showings and five touchdowns in the month of November. Golden will be surrounded by familiar faces at receiver in Joseph Manjack IV and Sam Brown, as well as incoming transfers Stephon Johnson (Oklahoma State) and Joshua Cobbs (Wyoming).
Houston also recruited a pair of 4-star true freshmen in Mikal Harrison-Pilot and Jonah Wilson, but given the logjam of talent at the position, the Cougars will rely more on the veterans toward the dawn of the season.
“I feel good about the starters. I feel good about the three that we have listed (Golden, Manjack, and Brown),” Holgorsen said. “But Boogie Johnson and Josh Cobbs are two older guys that have experience and are just ahead of the young kids right now... Those guys are bringing valuable experience to where we don’t have to have those young kids step in and play yet.”
The Cougars are also equipped with an offensive line oozing with experience. Both offensive captains — two-time First Team All-AAC left tackle Patrick Paul and center Jack Freeman — reside within this group. They’ll aim to pave the way for a stronger rushing attack this year, operated by the quartet of Stacy Sneed, Brandon Campbell, West Virginia transfer Tony Mathis Jr., and true freshman Parker Jenkins.
“I’d throw (Jenkins) in that mix. He’s looked good as a freshman. He’ll play,” Holgorsen said. “And Tony’s got four years of Big 12 experience. Nothing’s going to be too big for him. He’s an old head, he’s a vet, he’s tough, he’s downhill, he’s a good short-yardage guy, and he’s a good team guy — got along with the guys immediately. Stacy Sneed’s looked good. Brandon Campbell’s looked good. All four of them are gonna rotate and play.”
Roadrunnin’ it back with Harris
Frank Harris is the face of an entire program. The San Antonio native is back for his seventh year suiting up for his hometown’s university. Donning No. 0, Harris has been the offensive centerpiece for every one of the program’s significant accomplishments. He guided the Roadrunners to consecutive CUSA titles and claimed MVP honors of the conference in 2022. Harris was one of eight quarterbacks to surpass 4,000 passing yards last season, and he did it with efficiency, displaying a 70 percent completion rate with 32 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
“The belief he gives our locker room, our coaching staff — he touches a lot of people,” Traylor said of Harris. “We know when 0 is behind that center, we’ve always got a chance. It doesn’t matter what the score is and how much time is left — everyone in San Antonio believes we have a chance.”
Harris endured a difficult offseason, however. Several surgeries were conducted on his left knee and resulting infections put him in a compromised physical state. But the quarterback stayed the course with his signature smile, placing confidence in his ability to play football again. Now, he returns to the gridiron for his fourth year as UTSA’s chief signal caller.
“I’m not sure there’s any other kid I could speak on more than I have with Frank Harris in a flattering way,” Traylor said. “It looked really bad all the way up to the month of May. June it started to get a little better, July a lot better, and he had his best practice (Sunday) and he’s excited about playing. Who he is as a leader will go down in history forever for what he did for UTSA and our program.”
Harris is equipped with a talented group of receivers, specifically the tandem of Joshua Cephus and De’Corian “JT” Clark. Cephus and Clark accounted for 985 and 741 receiving yards, respectively, helping UTSA earn status as one of 13 programs to average over 300 passing yards per game last year. But Clark tore his ACL last November and is still recovering, meaning the Roadrunners may require other returning guys like Chris Carpenter and Tykee Ogle-Kellogg to step up on the boundary to aid Harris.
“He’s looking good in practice. He’s obviously been in a red jersey, and it’ll be a game-time decision,” Traylor said about Clark’s status. “We’ll listen to our trainers and to JT, and we just don’t know.”
While Harris, who accumulated 602 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, will be a focal point in the running game, UTSA will keep Houston’s defense honest with incumbent tailback Kevorian Barnes, who led the Roadrunners with 845 rushing yards last year. The running backs struggled to gain yardage on the Cougars last September, but Barnes did not participate in that contest and the sophomore will be unleashed against Houston for the first time Saturday.
Diving in on the defenses
Houston’s defensive line has been an assembly line of talent in the Dana Holgorsen era. The unit has produced a first round draft pick and a second round draft pick in recent years, in addition to boasting star pass rushers like D’Anthony Jones and Derek Parish. Due to their ability to get to opposing quarterbacks with ease, the d-line has operated under the moniker “Sack Ave.” Sustaining the Sack Ave. tradition this year is defensive end and team captain Nelson Ceaser, who racked up 10 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks in 2022, and he’ll work alongside a veteran front of Chidozie Nwankwo, Sedrick Williams, and David Ugwoegbu, the latter who ranked second on Oklahoma’s roster in tackles last fall.
“Most of our vets, the strong leader guys, are on the o-line and d-line, which is encouraging to me,” Holgorsen said. “Chidozie has matured and grown up. Sed Williams has leadership qualities. David Ugwoegbu was a captain at Oklahoma and he’s got 3,000 snaps in the Big 12. It’s encouraging that the captain and leadership stuff is coming from the big people in o-line and d-line. That was the biggest question mark making the jump from the American to the Big 12 was what those up-front bodies look like, and those bodies look different. They’re bigger.”
The exposure to that Houston defensive line is Traylor’s prevailing memory from last September’s showdown. Non-Frank Harris rushers averaged 2.05 yards per carry against Houston’s stout front, and the Cougars registered three sacks and six tackles for loss in the victory.
“Just how we got dominated up front,” Traylor said, recalling the 2022 matchup. “(Houston’s) defensive line just dominated our offensive line. We only ran the ball for 30 yards from the running back position. It’s hard to win a ballgame, which we did not, when you block people up front. We’ve got to be better up front if we want to have a chance Saturday night.”
The most pressing issue the Cougars addressed this offseason was their secondary. Houston fielded the 10th worst passing defense in the FBS last year allowing 279 yards per game, and the Cougars lost several games by allowing teams to thrive in two-minute drill offense. Free safety Gervarrius Owens heads to the NFL as a draft pick and strong safety Hasaan Hypolite transitions to middle linebacker, leaving several spots to be filled.
Alex Hogan returns as the starting nickelback, veering from his previous role as boundary corner, after breaking up a team-high 10 passes in just six outings last year. But outside of Hogan, Holgorsen reloaded most of the secondary with a heavy reliance on the transfer portal. Houston brought in transfer cornerbacks including All-AAC selection Malik Fleming from East Carolina, FCS superstar Isaiah Hamilton, and former Texas A&M commit Brian George. Additionally, New Mexico transfer A.J. Haulcy will occupy the No. 1 free safety spot.
“Isaiah Hamilton’s played almost 2,000 snaps in college. I realize it’s FCS, but he’s made this jump. He’s a playmaker, he’s got great ball skills, and he’s picked us several times (in practice),” Holgorsen said. “Malik Fleming, I didn’t hand pick him. It was his decision to come here. But watching him for the last two years, nobody covered Tank Dell better than he did. He’s got a lot of experience and played almost 3,000 snaps in college. We knew we needed some help at DB. Our depth last year, we all would agree was not good. When we had some guys go down like Alex Hogan, there weren’t capable backups to go in for him.”
Like Houston, UTSA was a more offensive-centric team in 2022, but the defense still trotted out a series of stars. The Roadrunners must do plenty of retooling on that side of the ball after experiencing notable losses including linebacker Trevor Harmanson (72 tackles, 6.0 TFLs) and defensive backs Corey Mayfield Jr. and Clifford Chattman who combined for a monstrous 136 tackles, eight interceptions, and 26 pass breakups.
“Our defense took a hit over there now, so we have to replace some of those guys,” Traylor said. “I understand they lost Tune, but man, they replaced him with a good quarterback in Smith. I know they lost Tank, but we think Golden’s gonna be pretty good as well.”
Returning to anchor the Roadrunners is their leading tackler from 2022 in inside linebacker Jamal Ligon, who registered 88 takedowns to go along with a pair of forced fumbles. Additionally, premier pass rusher Trey Moore remains in San Antonio after recording 8.0 sacks and 18 tackles for loss from the outside linebacker position. The secondary will aim to limit Golden’s production with No. 1 cornerback Nicktroy Fortune and the omnipresent Rashad Wisdom, a strong safety who makes his triumphant return after suffering a season-ending injury last October. Like Harris, Wisdom is a San Antonio native and sports the No. 0, and he’s similarly been a longtime contributor with 253 tackles and five interceptions across four seasons.
The first Big 12 atmosphere in H-Town
2014 was the last time the programs met in Houston, and it was a historic night as it coincided with the grand opening of TDECU Stadium. However, like all three matchups in this series, the result favored the visitor and the Roadrunners invaded the Cougars’ new home in a shocking 27-7 takedown.
That is the fourth most attended contest in TDECU Stadium history with 40,755 in the building. With over 40,000 tickets sold for Saturday, the atmosphere should be similar, but Houston aims for a different result to usher in a new era of Big 12 membership. As demonstrated by the increased support, the excitement in the fanbase due to the conference move is certainly palpable.
“I hope it resonates with fans,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve sold more tickets for this game since I’ve been here. This is what Houston’s always wanted as far as games that make sense. I don’t want to get on a flight and fly to Philly to see Temple, or Tampa — not saying anything negative about those programs, it just doesn’t make sense for Houston.”
Traylor believes the Alamodome atmosphere provided an extra boost to UTSA in the 2022 matchup, so without that edge this time around, he’ll need his time to execute all facets of the game at a higher level.
“It’s way different this year,” Traylor said. “It’s an us against the world kind of deal. You don’t have all those false start penalties that our crowd created, which they’re known for creating. You’re not gonna get those this year. We’re gonna have to go in there and be even better than we were last year if we want to put ourselves in position to win the ballgame late.”
The city of Houston is also experiencing undesirable record numbers in terms of the weather. July featured the second-highest average temperature on record, and just last Sunday, the city experienced 109-degree weather — tying the Houston all-time record. Although this game kicks off at 6 p.m. local time, the high on Saturday is currently remains in the triple-digits, and severe humidity could also have an effect on depth and conditioning at TDECU Stadium.
“The humidity’s gonna be hot like always in Houston,” Traylor said. “You just better be prepared and play a lot of kids. It’s gonna be hard to get through that game with one set of kids. You better be three-deep and hydrating.”
Even though both teams were offensively-geared in 2022, last year’s matchup featured a lack of scoring as the game headed into overtime tied at 24-24. As seen with some of the Week 0 scores last Saturday, lower-scoring games are commonplace in openers, especially this season with coaches adjusting to the new clock rules.
Houston and UTSA are matched quite evenly, and this contest feels like a coin flip as demonstrated by the spread. Houston possesses the advantages in the trenches on both sides, but the Roadrunners counter with impressive skill position players and a formidable linebacking corps. Last year’s matchup couldn’t have been any closer, and in the sequel, this game will be decided by one scoring drive in the waning minutes.
As recent history suggests, the electrifying playmaking of Frank Harris usually prevails — as it has 23 times in the past two seasons. UTSA can open its AAC tenure with a massive road victory in Big 12 country thanks to the dual-threat nature of their longtime quarterback, who has led countless game-winning drives before.
Prediction: UTSA 28, Houston 21