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2023 Week 4 Game Preview: Sam Houston Bearkats @ Houston Cougars

Dana Holgorsen and the Cougars look for a bounce-back against the FBS newcomer Bearkats.

TCU v Houston Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 23 at 7:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN+
  • Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
  • Spread: Houston (-12)
  • Over/under: 38
  • All-time series: Houston leads, 4-2
  • Last meeting: Houston 31, Sam Houston 10 — September 10, 2005
  • Current streak: Houston, 4 (1948-05)

Setting the scene

The FBS expanded from 131 to 133 this year, welcoming in a pair of FCS newcomers in Jacksonville State and Sam Houston. While Jacksonville State notched a pair of victories already, the Bearkats remain on a mission to celebrate their first triumph since the upgrade.

Sam Houston (0-2, 0-0 CUSA) saw an incredibly early bye in Week 3 after facing a pair of difficult non-conference opponents in Air Force and BYU. While the Bearkats have yet to record a touchdown this season, they played stellar defensive outings against currently undefeated squads, limiting them to a combined 27 points. They’ll try to make that signature defense travel an hour south of campus as they head down I-45 to face their second Big 12 opponent of the season.

Houston (1-2, 0-1 Big 12) hopes to avoid becoming the victim of Sam Houston’s defensive prowess, after being unable to register an offensive touchdown in their Big 12 opener in a 36-13 loss to TCU. Houston has been marred by sluggish starts lately and hopes to buck that trend while snapping a 2-game losing streak to conclude non-conference play.

Sam Houston Bearkats outlook

Sam Houston’s first season in the FBS has fared much better than expected... and the team hasn’t even scored a touchdown yet. The Bearkats dropped their opener 14-0 at BYU and then returned to Huntsville, TX to host Air Force, where they fell in 13-3 fashion. BYU and Air Force are a combined 6-0 and those offenses functioned well in Week 3 against the likes of Arkansas and Utah State, so Sam Houston definitely has something special in its defensive arsenal.

Due to an early Week 3 bye, the Bearkats’ sample size is smaller than the rest of the country, but the team ranks first nationally in passing defense — by a lot. Yes, facing an option-based Air Force offense certainly factors into Sam Houston’s per game allotment of 78.5 passing yards, but the Bearkats are countering quarterbacks well by limiting opponents to a 58.3 completion percentage. The Sam Houston defense has seen an FBS-high 46.5 rushing attempts per game, and yet, the unit is thriving against that onslaught of rushing attempts by allowing under 3.8 yards per carry.

NCAA Football: Division I FCS Championship-South Dakota at Sam Houston
Trevor Williams is averaging 13.5 tackles per game through his first two contests as an FBS player.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

What’s really impressive about those two defensive performances was the Bearkats didn’t use turnovers as a crutch — they simply recorded stops. Sam Houston has yet to intercept a pass this season and it has only scooped up one fumble. BYU punted nine times when pitted against this unit, while Air Force booted four balls away. Those Mountain Time Zone teams combined for 1-of-4 on fourth down attempts as well.

The ringleader of this defense which keeps catching opponents by surprise is middle linebacker Trevor Williams. A seasoned veteran, Williams has been playing college ball since 2018 and racked up numerous all-conference selections in the FCS along the way. Through two games, the 5’9”, 210 pound backer racked up a monstrous 27 tackles — more than double the amount of any other Bearkat. Sam Houston hasn’t invaded backfields to an astounding degree, but Williams is always present on the second level to stop the run, which is an element Houston’s offense is currently workshopping at the moment.

But for everything that can be lauded about Sam Houston’s defense, the opposite is true for the offense. The Bearkats have one 45-yard field goal this year, and that’s it from a scoring perspective. Their drive summary against BYU read like: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, end of first half, interception, interception, punt, punt, punt, interception. Five of those punts were three-and-outs. Not much progress was witnessed against Air Force, with a drive summary of: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, field goal, punt, punt. Six of those punts were three-and-outs, adding up to 11 on the season.

Sam Houston v Brigham Young
Keegan Shoemaker has thrown all 47 passes for the Sam Houston offense in 2023.
Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

The jump to FBS will certainly be a work of progress for this offense which punted an astounding 18 times in two games, including 13 times in first halves alone. It starts with establishing a stronger passing attack. Keegan Shoemaker has played every snap at quarterback thus far, completing 26-of-47 attempts for 191 yards and three interceptions. Shoemaker is expected to get the start, but the Bearkats also have a quarterback with vast FBS experience on the roster in former Arizona starter Grant Gunnell, who might see playing time if the offense continues to stall.

The problem with the passing game is Sam Houston isn’t gaining any push on the ground. In addition to fielding the third-worst passing offense in the country at 95.5 yards per game, the Bearkats rank dead last in rushing offense at 37.0 yards, generating just 1.4 per carry. Again, the sample size is small, but the discrepancy between Sam Houston’s total offense (132.5 yards per game) and East Carolina’s second-to-last offense (254.7 yards per game) is nearly twofold. Houston’s defense gave TCU fits in the first half and shut down UTSA to 14 points, so this week presents another challenge for K.C. Keeler’s squad which hopes to buck these unwanted offensive trends.

Houston Cougars outlook

The last two weeks haven’t been the brightest for Houston, which is in the midst of transitioning into the Big 12. After an inspiring season-opener win — pegged as home underdogs — against UTSA, the Cougars limped out of the gate in consecutive matchups against Rice and TCU.

Week 4 presents a golden opportunity to rebound from all of the frustration and the location is in the ideal setting of TDECU Stadium. Houston still hasn’t left the confines of the city this year, and the Cougars will host their third home game in four weeks against this new neighboring FBS team.

But Sam Houston’s defensive success against the likes of BYU and Air Force prove Houston must see tremendous offensive improvement this Saturday to avoid an upset bid. The Cougars have registered just three first half touchdowns this year — two on offense — while allowing seven as a defense. Gaining yardage hasn’t particularly been the issue, but rather, finishing drives. Houston gambles on a fair share of fourth downs and is 2-of-10 on the season, which is the lowest percentage in the FBS among teams with more than six attempts.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Houston
Stacy Sneed leads Houston in rushing yards this season with 103, and he is the only running back to score a touchdown thus far.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Greater success on first and second downs can help avoid a lot of these situations. As a start, Houston hopes to see better results in the run game which is currently 113th in the FBS at 108 yards per game, picking up just 3.2 yards per carry. The Cougars rotate a stable of backs in Stacy Sneed, Brandon Campbell, Tony Mathis Jr., and even true freshman Parker Jenkins has worked his way into the rotation. The good news for Houston is Mathis is expected to return this week after missing the TCU game, and he ranks supreme on the team with a rushing average of 6.1.

The run game also involves a hint of quarterback Donovan Smith, who possesses an impressive degree of mobility with a 6’5”, 241 pound frame. The Texas Tech transfer rushed for three touchdowns against Rice and he’ll take a fair share of designed runs on a weekly basis. As a passer, it’s been a mixed bag for Smith with TCU presenting a lot of challenges, but he showed tremendous poise in the UTSA game by refraining from a turnover and again in the second half of Rice by spearheading a 28-point comeback to force overtime.

The strength of Houston’s offense lies within the receiving corps. Sam Brown is enjoying a breakout year with 343 yards on 20 receptions — although the FBS’s 10th leading receiver is still in search of his first touchdown. But the scoring plays have been allocated to Matthew Golden, who corralled three of Smith’s four passing touchdowns on the season. Golden is an explosive deep threat, and his playmaking ability was on full display last week when returning a kick 98 yards for a touchdown to earn Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Week.

On the other side of the ball, Doug Belk’s defense has been stellar in the turnover battle this year, tied for 11th in the FBS with seven takeaways this season. That’s especially a welcome sign heading into a matchup against Sam Houston’s struggling offense, and cornerbacks Malik Fleming and Isaiah Hamilton will look to add to their season résumés in the turnover department. Fleming recorded his third pick of the season last week, and he is an electric playmaker with the ball in his hands — presenting the threat of a pick-six at any moment. Meanwhile, Hamilton recorded an end zone interception and a forced fumble in Week 2, looking to build on that performance in his first season at Houston.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Houston
Malik Fleming recorded his third interception of the season against TCU after picking off a pair of passes against UTSA in the opener.
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

But the issue with the secondary is it yields 308 passing yards per game, which is the seventh-highest mark in the FBS, producing similar results to what was observed in 2022. However, Sam Housotn is one of three passing attacks averaging under 100 yards per game, so the Cougar secondary won’t encounter the aerial explosiveness it did against opponents such as Rice and TCU.

Houston has excelled with backfield pressure throughout the season despite suffering multiple minor defensive line injuries. Nose guard Chidozie Nwankwo returned to the lineup last week to produce 1.5 tackles for loss, and that is one position where the Cougars exhibit impressive depth — also showcasing Hakeem Ajijolaiya who is in the midst of his best season to date. These nose guards free up lanes for defensive end Nelson Ceaser, who possesses 3.0 sacks on the season as Houston’s unquestionable premier pass rusher.


Houston’s offense desperately needs a spark. A defense performing as well as that of Sam Houston’s isn’t the ideal medicine to get the offense jump-started. Still, the Cougars should get a jolt in the run game with the return of Tony Mathis Jr. which can open the passing game up for Donovan Smith. The inability to establish anything on the ground doomed the aerial attack against TCU, so the Cougars will be hunting for substantial gains from the running backs early on.

Sam Houston’s offense has not figured anything out thus far, and the three-and-out is the all-too-common result of a given possession. Houston’s defense has provided substantial backfield pressure, created turnovers, and made opponents work for their yards. This mismatch alone should allow the Cougars to prevail in their home den and improve to 2-2 before leaving the city to face Texas Tech in Week 5.

Prediction: Houston 27, Sam Houston 7