- Time and date: Saturday, September 30 at 3:30 p.m. ET
- Network: FS2
- Location: Jones AT&T Stadium — Lubbock, TX
- Spread: Texas Tech (-8.5)
- Over/under: 51
- All-time series: Houston leads, 18-15-1
- Last meeting: Texas Tech 33, Houston 30 — September 10, 2022
- Current streak: Texas Tech, 5 (2010-22)
Setting the scene
Is this a budding rivalry?
Texas Tech (1-3, 0-1 Big 12) and Houston (2-2, 0-1 Big 12) met in non-conference play in 2021 and 2022, and both matchups unfolded in roller coaster fashion. In the 2021 meeting held at NRG Stadium, Houston squandered a 21-7 halftime lead thanks to a barrage of second half interceptions. The Cougars nearly exacted revenge in the 2022 return trip to Lubbock, but Texas Tech capitalized on a series of critical plays to escape in a 33-30 double overtime thriller.
Now, Texas Tech and Houston share a conference as the Cougars rose to Big 12 status this offseason. The teams meet in Lubbock for the second consecutive September, with Houston aiming to snap a 5-game skid in the series. The Cougars have several Texas Tech ties within their personnel, including head coach Dana Holgorsen who served as a Red Raiders’ assistant from 2000-07. Despite Texas Tech stumbling to a 1-3 start, the fifth-year Houston coach who is all too familiar with Jones AT&T Stadium believes his team is walking into an intense environment in its Big 12 road opener.
“I spent eight years there and this is my seventh or eighth time back there,” Holgorsen said. “You’ve got to do a good job of blocking things out. They’re gonna have a great crowd. They’re gonna be ready to play. They’re not gonna give up on their team. They’ve got three losses in three tough, hard-fought games.”
Donovan Smith changes sidelines
If there’s an opposite of the phrase, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” it would pertain to Houston quarterback Donovan Smith’s situation. Smith served as Texas Tech’s starting quarterback in the prior year matchup in Lubbock with the intention of upending the Cougars. He did just that, delivering on a multitude of do-or-die plays — including a pivotal 4th and 20 in first overtime — to lead the Red Raiders to an unlikely 33-30 double overtime win.
“He’s a special player to me. I’m a big fan of Donovan. I respect him tremendously,” Texas Tech head coach Joey McGuire said in his weekly press conference. “If you go back in this game last year, the 4th and 20 that he converted to (Jerand) Bradley to allow us to win that game — I’m excited to see Donnie. I’m gonna give him a big hug before the game and then we’re gonna try and kick his tail.”
Now, Smith suits up with an interlocking UH on his helmet as opposed to a beveled Double T, aiming to switch the triumphant feeling to the visiting sideline in this year’s grudge match.
“I do my job when it comes to Donovan,” Holgorsen said. “I think Donovan’s mindset will be okay. Some of the other kids we’ve had that transferred from there, I don’t think handled going back there very well. It’s an emotional thing when you are on a team and then you leave, and then you go back there to play. It is when you coach too.”
One advantage Smith carries into this game at his former home stadium is knowledge of the Texas Tech defense. Smith played under McGuire and both current coordinators and possesses a detailed understanding of the Red Raiders’ playbook, but Texas Tech’s coaching staff believes it’s a double-edged sword.
“He’s seen our defense. He definitely will study it all week and see what (defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s) gonna throw at him,” McGuire said. “But it also gives us an advantage. We’ve seen his arm angles whenever he releases the ball. We’ve also seen whenever he’s gonna pull the ball down. We’ve experienced his running. Those guys kinda know his running style, so that’s gonna be a very cat-and-mouse part of the game.”
Behren Morton assumes starting role
Devastating news struck Texas Tech during its 20-13 loss in West Virginia last Saturday. Senior quarterback Tyler Shough suffered a broken fibula toward the end of the first quarter, an injury which will keep him out for at least six weeks, and possibly, the length of the season.
Shough started against Houston in the 2021 opener, but a lack of availability due to long-term injuries prevented him from suiting up against the Cougars again. This is the second year in a row he suffered a major injury the week prior to facing Houston. Last year, Donovan Smith served as Shough’s replacement. This year, it will be redshirt sophomore Behren Morton, a former 4-star recruit who earned four starts for the Red Raiders last season.
Morton completed just 13-of-37 passes in the West Virginia game, firing for 158 yards and one touchdown in the low-scoring bout. Drops and other controllable issues plagued Texas Tech’s passing offense in Morton’s most significant action of the season, but the sophomore has shown to be a capable starter before with back-to-back 300-yard, multi-touchdown showcases in October 2022.
“He’s the guy. He’s ready to go,” McGuire said. “Whenever you’re in the situation you’re in with Tyler going down, Behren understands that it’s his team and he’s gotta do a good job of leading this team, and he will.”
Houston expects a bit of a paradigm shift with Morton taking over the starting quarterback reins. Designed quarterback runs were a focal point of the offense with Shough, who accumulated 149 rushing yards and two touchdowns through four games. Although Morton can be a capable runner, he operates more as a pocket passer and Holgorsen expects the QB rushing element to evaporate from the Red Raiders’ offensive strategy, especially given their limited depth in the absence of Shough.
“I know they ran Shough a lot. I remember watching the Wyoming game saying, ‘They’re running Shough a lot,’” Holgorsen said. “I would assume because they’re down a guy that they’re gonna be a little more careful with that. I know I would. Morton’s more of a gunslinger. He’s a West Texas guy, a coach’s kid. Based on last week, especially in the second half against West Virginia, they’re gonna try to run the ball more.”
Houston offensive preview
Houston entered its Week 4 contest against Sam Houston with a desire to establish dominance in the run game. The Cougars struggled mightily out of the backfield to launch the season, averaging 2.7 yards per run against UTSA and 2.2 against TCU. But Houston reworked its strategy against Sam Houston, attacking the boundaries more and relying on the offensive tackles to pave the way. It worked, as the team produced as a season-high 186 rushing yards, complemented by three touchdowns.
“We were a little more outside zone oriented last week,” Holgorsen said. “We wanted to do a better job of getting things on the perimeter. (Sam Houston) was so inside heavy with junking things up and twisting that we wanted to get the ball on the perimeter. I will say Tech is big and thick inside. They’ve got two d-tackles that are All-Big 12 players that have been there for it seems like six years that have started a boatload of games. Are we gonna be able to run it right at them in inside zone stuff? I don’t know.”
True freshman Parker Jenkins was the spark the run game needed to ignite. The young running back earned his first collegiate start against Sam Houston and capitalized on the opportunity with 105 yards and a hat trick of touchdowns — snapping Houston’s 6-game streak without a rusher above the century mark. Jenkins retains that starting role as he heads to a more hostile environment on the road in Lubbock.
“I’m not worried about Parker Jenkins and his mindset,” Holgorsen said. “He is a humble kid. He is a 4.0 student. He goes home and he studies. It’s too good to be true. He plays with low pads. He has great leg drive after contact. He’s got good ball skills. He’s got to keep working hard on his pass protection. But he’s a 4.0 kid and he goes home and he’s a great teammate.”
Houston may not have the luxuries of Tank Dell this year, but the receiver group is still one of the strongest units on the team. True sophomore Matthew Golden is one notable playmaker in the unit, demonstrating his speed and agility with a 98-yard kick return touchdown against TCU. Golden is also Houston’s overwhelming red zone threat with four of the Cougars’ five red zone passing touchdowns this year. Through four games, the more explosive option has been Sam Brown, who is one of two Big 12 receivers with 400 yards thus far. Brown has produced at least 60 yards on an average exceeding 15 yards per catch in each outing, but he remains in search of his first touchdown.
“He’s had a great start to the season,” Holgorsen said of Brown. “I thought he blocked his tail off, which makes me happy because he’s becoming an unselfish player. I was on his tail last week about getting into the end zone — being the leading receiver in the Big 12 and not having a touchdown... It’s gonna come to him. I don’t need him pressing like that, worrying about that.”
Brown is responsible for the majority of 20+ yard plays this year, but explosive playmaking is something Houston’s offense must work on as a whole. The Cougars have only scored one offensive touchdown outside the red zone this season, and it transpired in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s blowout win over Sam Houston.
Texas Tech offensive preview
Texas Tech is typically known for its dynamic passing attack, but this year’s team has seen more of its success on the ground. After struggling with the run in the opener at Wyoming, the Red Raiders have been stellar in that department since, attaining at least 160 yards as a team in three consecutive matchups. McGuire aims to make it the team’s identity going forward.
“It’s really a thing I think is gonna carry us to make us a better football team,” McGuire said of the run game. “Running the football settles the game down. It takes pressure off the offensive line from the standpoint of the pass rush, and it definitely takes pressure off the quarterback. It’s not because of the situation we’re in. It’s what we’re doing well.”
The Red Raiders are led by senior running back Tahj Brooks, who enters Saturday fresh off consecutive 140-yard performances and ranks third in the Big 12 in rushing. While the passing attack completed just 15-of-43 attempts at West Virginia, the 5’10”, 230 pound running back kept the offense churning with 149 yards on 25 attempts.
“They got one of the best backs in the Big 12 in Tahj Brooks,” Holgorsen said. “I know that’s going to be an emphasis for them. They’re big and they’re experienced up front. They’ve got receivers and stuff that can play — I know that — but how (the Shough injury) changes them — I think they’ll continue to try to run the ball more and get the ball into those receivers’ hands in the passing game.”
Despite escaping with a victory, one of Texas Tech’s persistent issues in last year’s matchup with Houston involved losing the battle in the trenches. Houston totaled 14 tackles for loss in the 2022 meeting, stuffing the Red Raiders’ run game to 2.7 yards per carry. But the run blocking has been one of the sharper areas for the Red Raiders thus far, utilizing unique and creative schemes to optimize Brooks’ statistical output.
“We are athletic in the offensive line,” McGuire said. “Our gap schemes are what we’re doing best right now. We’ve got some guys that are some athletic pullers. Caleb (Rogers) is a really athletic guy. Both our guards are doing a really good job on their pullout blocks. Our tight ends have been incredible. We had one play last week against West Virginia that was really effective with both the tight ends pulling, had a really good run with Tahj.”
Texas Tech is 0-3 in one-score games. While the opener at Wyoming was a matter of not generating an opportune defensive stop, the subsequent losses to Oregon and West Virginia involved a lack of offensive execution in clutch situations. Finishing strong offensively is one major area of emphasis for the Red Raiders under their new starting quarterback.
“When you’re in one-score games and you’re not finding ways to win the game, then somewhere in there, it’s having to correct some bad football,” McGuire said.
Houston defensive preview
One promising development in Houston’s defense — fresh off allowing under 15 points for the second time this season — is the emergence of middle linebacker Jamal Morris. The second-year Cougar and former Oklahoma Sooner commenced the season in a bench role but claimed a starting spot for the Big 12 opener against TCU. Morris played disruptive defense against the Horned Frogs, loading the stat sheet with eight tackles and two pass breakups. He totaled four tackles against Sam Houston and will play a key role Saturday as a run stopper as he makes his third trek to Lubbock in four years.
“There’s still so much season left to play, but so far I’d give myself a strong ‘A’,” Morris said of his play thus far. “Last game, I had a good game but kind of felt myself being a little lazy as we started running the score up. I want to be that consistent guy no matter who we’re playing, no matter the talent. But as far as the situation I was put in and the start I got against TCU, I feel confident. We’re only going to get better as a defense and I’m only gonna get better individually.”
Another depth chart change the Cougars made during this early portion of the season involved moving outside linebacker Hasaan Hypolite back to his former position of safety, in response to injuries to strong safeties Antonio Brooks and Noah Guzman. The third-year team captain reverts to his old duties, hoping to progress a Houston pass defense which ranks 109th in yards allowed per game.
“Hyp’s got a lot of experience,” Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk said. “He started the year at WILL linebacker and gave us a bunch of quality reps there. At TCU, he played nickel, and last week, he started for us at boundary safety where we needed some help. He provides a lot of value, a lot of position versatility, so we try to put him where he needs to be for us to be competitive.”
Although the Cougars yielded over 300 yards through the air to Rice and TCU, the secondary is doing one thing particularly well. Houston is tied for 13th in the FBS with nine turnovers generated on the season, notably corralling six interceptions — with cornerbacks Malik Fleming and Isaiah Hamilton combining for five. But the offense doesn’t always capitalize on these opportunities created by the secondary, and Houston has produced just two touchdowns and zero field goals off nine takeaways this season.
“Any time we have an opportunity to get our offense the ball back, that’s the No. 1 goal is to eliminate points and explosive plays and create turnovers,” Belk said. “We have guys who have been in position who have been able to make plays. The more effective we can be in affecting the quarterback and creating turnovers, we’re gonna continue to preach those things because it gives us a better chance to be successful and win football games.”
One hindrance preventing Houston’s defense from reaching its full potential thus far is penalties. The Cougars committed 11 penalties for 95 yards against Sam Houston, setting new season highs in both unwanted categories. The yellow flags were especially lethal to Houston in last year’s overtime loss to Texas Tech, as the Cougars committed 12 penalties for 126 yards in a loss by the slimmest of margins.
“Defensively, we gave up a touchdown on that first drive which put me in an awfully bad mood, but there were three penalties,” Holgorsen said, reflecting on the Sam Houston game. “Other than that, we settled in and played good. There were some opportunities to do some very, very undisciplined dumb stuff and we didn’t do it, but with that said, the penalties were too high.”
Texas Tech defensive preview
Texas Tech has primarily been guided by its defense this year, as demonstrated by the scoreboard in the 20-13 loss to West Virginia. The Red Raiders feature the nation’s 44th ranked passing defense, surrendering 201 aerial yards per game, while the front seven is limiting the run to 3.8 yards per carry. The unit has played overall sound football, amassing seven turnovers through four contests and preventing a litany of explosive plays.
“Statistically, we’re not giving up as many big plays which was a big goal of ours going into the year,” Texas Tech defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter said in his weekly press conference. “We’ve actually got more sacks and tackles for loss. We’re playing the run better. Part of that’s a function of who you play, but I like where we’re at.”
The rapid ascension of inside linebacker Ben Roberts has been one reason for Texas Tech’s defensive success this year. Roberts ranks second on the unit in tackles with 28, and he’s affected every area of the stat sheet with one interception, one forced fumble, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a share of a sack.
“He’s stepping up,” DeRuyter said. “He puts in extra work. That’s what it takes at this level if you want to play early. You’ve got some natural God-gifted attributes that can be a linebacker — he’s got speed, he’s got size. But he’s got that desire to be a great player, so he’s spending extra time watching film, getting with coach, working on his technique, and it shows. One of the better plays he made that ended up not being a play because we had a penalty on third down, they threw a swing pass out in the flat and it’s him in a lot of space and he gets the guy down short of sticks. That tells me the kind of ability he has.”
Like Houston, penalties have been a heel for the Texas Tech defense in recent weeks. Against West Virginia, the Red Raiders committed nine penalties for 96 yards. Texas Tech’s defense did an overall stellar job limiting the Mountaineers, stifling them to 3-of-13 on third downs, but four separate third down stops were negated due to Red Raider penalties. Critical third down defensive holding and pass interference calls extended drives to produce 17 of West Virginia’s 20 points last Saturday.
“The penalties we’re talking about are holding penalties and defensive pass interference,” DeRuyter said. “Some are more egregious than others. We’re gonna be a physical defense, and I want our guys getting hands on receivers. You’ve gotta do it when the receiver’s in front of you so that we can get our hands out when the ball’s in the air. We’re getting lazy with our technique at times and we’re reaching out and grabbing them. It’s something we’ve got to continue to drill and something we’ve got to get better at.”
Texas Tech will look toward cornerback Malik Dunlap and free safety Dadrion Taylor-Demerson to polish technique and execution in the secondary. Dunlap leads the unit with three interceptions, and he’s been dangerous with the ball in his hands, boasting 77 interception return yards and claiming one pick-six. Taylor-Demerson, nicknamed “Rabbit,” has been sharp on the back-end, tying for the team-high with 23 solo tackles. His execution in zone coverage will be a significant determinant dictating how Houston’s pass-friendly offense succeeds in Lubbock.
“Rabbit’s playing at a really high level right now,” DeRuyter said. “By the way Rabbit’s playing, even though he doesn’t have traditional NFL measurables — when NFL pro scouts come out, he’s not the first guy they look at. But he’s playing as good as anybody on our defense right now and he’s making our checks. For the first four games, he’s been a guy who’s helped erase things when things are not perfect. He’s getting guys down.”
Player to watch
Nelson Ceaser, DE, Houston: Houston’s defensive line has suffered a slew of injuries this year, but one consistency is the presence of defensive end Nelson Ceaser. With a team-high 3.5 sacks on the season, Ceaser is continuing Houston’s tradition of “Sack Ave.,” the moniker assigned to the defensive line after their tradition of success taking down opposing quarterbacks. Last year, Houston’s d-line gave Texas Tech fits and sacked the Red Raiders six times, and defensive end Derek Parish was responsible for 4.5 individually. Ceaser looks to play the Parish role in the return trip to Lubbock, pitted against an offensive line which yields 3.0 sacks per game — tied with Houston for last in the Big 12.
Jerand Bradley, WR, Texas Tech: Jerand Bradley converted the critical 4th and 20 which otherwise would have resulted in a Houston victory last September. The receiver is off to another stellar start in 2023 as the team leader in receptions (20) and receiving yards (241). Houston’s secondary allowed significant production in the passing attack to Rice and TCU, and Texas Tech can capitalize on this element with the Behren Morton to Bradley connection. The receiver has scored against in all three matchups against FBS competition this year, and he’ll look to cruise past Houston defensive backs en route to his first 100-yard showing of 2023.
The past two Houston vs. Texas Tech matchups have been more on the defensive-oriented side. Last year’s meeting entered overtime tied 20-20, featuring just four touchdowns throughout the contest.
Houston and Texas Tech have not produced their desired results offensively this year, primarily due to a lack of explosive playmaking. However, both teams recently discovered more success in the rushing department, and this should add a greater degree of multidimensionality to both offenses. But the determining factor in this one comes down to how well Texas Tech attacks Houston’s secondary.
When the Cougars’ pass defense is on its game — which was observed against UTSA and Sam Houston — the defense becomes an absolute force to be reckoned with. But teams that pick apart Houston’s secondary early on — Rice and TCU — have coasted by without much issue.
Saturday is an essential game for Behren Morton, and we’ve seen the sophomore shred defenses en route to 300 yards before. Houston is capable of countering with its own aerial attack as Matthew Golden and Samuel Brown can carry a fair share of the offense. But in the end, the deciding factor will be Tim DeRuyter’s defense producing several more key stops — something the unit has excelled at for most of 2023.
Prediction: Texas Tech 30, Houston 21