AUSTIN, Texas — On Saturday, the No. 8 Texas Longhorns face off against the Houston Cougars at TDECU Stadium, but the matchup of the two former Southwest Conference opponents and the first road game for the Longhorns against the Cougars since 2001 aren’t necessarily the most intriguing storylines.
And that’s because an improved Texas defense under coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has a chance to make up for one of its worst performances last season thanks to a rematch with current Houston quarterback Donovan Smith.
“This football team we’re getting ready to go play has an experienced quarterback who we know all too well — Donovan Smith, the transfer from Texas Tech — and how he played against us a year ago and the challenges that he presents,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said Monday.
When Texas Tech emerged from Jones AT&T Stadium with a 37-34 overtime win over Texas last season, the Red Raiders had a two-percent post-game win expectancy, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly. When the season ended, it was the lowest post-game win expectancy in a victory across FBS.
For Texas Tech, the statistically-improbably win was fueled by a strong performance from Smith, who was filling in for injured starter Tyler Shough. In arguably Smith’s best game of the season, the Wolfforth Frenship product went 38-of-56 passing for 331 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 42 critical yards and a touchdown, including converting a third down with his legs before finding the end zone on a fourth-down run for the first Texas Tech touchdown.
The Red Raiders only converted 7-of-20 third downs in the game, but made up for the inefficiency on third down with aggressive and effective calls on fourth down, converting 6-of-8 attempts, ultimately a season high in fourth-down attempts for offensive coordinator Zach Kittley and tied for the season high in conversions.
Smith’s efforts were critical on fourth down — after running for the first Texas Tech touchdown on fourth down, he completed a seven-yard pass on 4th and 4 early in the third quarter to set up a field goal, ran for a first down on 4th and 1 on a touchdown-scoring drive later in that quarter, ran for five yards on 4th and 4 one play before throwing a touchdown pass to tie the game in the fourth quarter, and completed six-yard pass on 4th and 3 to extend a drive that led to the go-ahead field goal with 21 seconds remaining.
After another strong performance by Smith the following week against Kansas State, a shoulder injury limited him to eight pass attempts for the remainder of the season and perhaps contributed to his offseason decision to enter the NCAA transfer portal.
With Houston looking to replace four-year starter Clayton Tune, Cougars head coach Dana Holgorsen zeroed in on Smith as his target and landed his commitment in late December. In preseason camp, Holgorsen named Smith the “clear-cut starter” following a three-way battle.
Smith hasn’t done anything to jeopardize his position on the depth chart, cutting his interception rate from 3.6 percent to 1.4 percent, improving his yards per attempt while maintaining his completion percentage, and throwing for eight touchdowns in the last two games, including a Hail Mary last Thursday to pull off a remarkable late comeback against West Virginia.
Since Kittley runs an Air Raid-derived offense influenced by his time as a student assistant and graduate assistant under Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech and Holgorsen comes directly from the Mike Leach coaching tree, Texas senior nickel back Jahdae Barron has seen similarities between the offense that Smith operated last year in Lubbock and the offense that Smith will operate on Saturday in Houston.
“I feel like he brought some of those plays with him, the plays that worked for him,” said Barron Monday. “They do quarterback sneaks a lot with him, because they know it works, but he has a great arm and he trusts his receivers with deep balls.”
Smith’s ability to make plays with his legs at 6’5 and 241 pounds is not just of concern for the Longhorns defense because of what he did last season, it’s also related to the struggles Texas had in the Cotton Bowl slowing down Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who ran for a career-high 113 yards with a touchdown on 14 carries.
“We didn’t do a great job of forcing him lateral and building a wall inside. Gabriel took advantage of that with his legs and made some really critical third-down scrambles for him, then obviously the really long one there later in the game. I’ve got to go look at the tape and figure out why that happened. Where did we miss? Were we off on some stunts and different things?” Sarkisian wondered after the Oklahoma loss.
While Texas has benefited from a bye week to work on pass-rush lanes in an effort to keep Smith from scrambling for positive yardage, the offensive benefits created by the plus-one advantage of the quarterback carrying the ball are more difficult to overcome.
“There’s a lot of designed quarterback runs and they’ll probably have a lot of designed runs after the game that we just played. They’ll probably be doing a copycat offense so we have to get him on the ground,” said Barron.
But Smith wasn’t just dangerous with his legs last season — he also threw for 331 yards, completing his first eight passes and 16 out of his first 17 attempts before going through a stretch that included six straight incompletions. Although Smith has cut down on some of the inconsistency this season, particularly in avoiding costly mistakes that turn into interceptions, it’s still imperative that the Texas defensive front crowds the pocket and forces him to reset his feet.
In Lubbock last season, the Longhorns did sack Smith twice, but didn’t generate a single quarterback hurry.
When Smith has time and is in rhythm, he’s capable of picking apart defenses.
“What I’ve noticed from him is that he’s very comfortable and calm in the pocket now and he’s leading this U of H offense,” Texas senior linebacker David Gbenda said Monday. “We’ve got to pressure him. He’s very good. He’s a good leader. He has a good arm. So we’ve got to pressure him and get him on the run and try to make him force throws and just get him out of his comfort zone.”
Last year, Smith consistently found windows behind Texas linebackers given difficult reads by run-pass options or play-action passes. Gbenda expects to see that again, but after the Longhorns struggled to defend sideline to sideline against the Sooners, there’s recent tape of Texas having issues on the perimeter, too.
“I feel like they will test us with the eyes concept with the linebackers in the middle, but they also try to test the perimeter. Just going off of our film from Oklahoma that’s something we need to improve on,” Gbenda said. “They’re going to try to test the perimeter. We’re also probably going to see a little bit of three-back formations seeing how we’ve had problems with that, but I feel like they will try and test us vertically and across the middle.”
If Houston does try to take advantage of the linebackers in conflict, it won’t be as easy this year with the improvement of Texas senior linebacker Jaylan Ford making better coverage drops. Entering the Texas Tech game last year, Ford didn’t yet have any career interceptions, but finished the season with four before recording two this season.
In fact, Ford told Burnt Orange Nation on Monday that his coverage drops have improved “tremendously” over the last 13 months.
“I think for me dropping in coverage and getting better at reading routes, reading the quarterback’s eyes, and then trying to be at the right place to make a play on a ball, I think that has been one of my points of emphasis throughout my career. So, just looking to get better,” Ford said.
On Saturday, the entire Texas defense has a chance to showcase their collective improvement against a quarterback who picked them apart and then celebrated on his home field after a dramatic win.