Steve Sarkisian and the No. 8 Texas Longhorns look to bounce back from Red River heartbreak against the Houston Cougars at the Cage in Houston this Saturday at 3 p.m. Central coming out of the bye week.
Recovering from a loss is always challenging, but as the head coach of the Texas Longhorns, bouncing back after a loss to Oklahoma is even more difficult. Although as strange as it sounds, luckily for Sarkisian and the Longhorns, they play the Cougars on the road.
“As a coach, it’s very difficult to play the week after, because it’s so emotional,” former Texas head coach Mack Brown said back in 2020. ”One thing I learned is you don’t want to lose that game and have a home game the week after, cause they’re still mad at ya.”
This Houston team under fifth-year head coach Dana Holgorsen has seen its ups and downs under his tenure, but have certainly seen a rocky start to the 2023 season with a 3-3 start. Two of those wins were against lower quality out-of-conference teams in UTSA and Sam Houston. The losses include Rice, TCU, and Texas Tech, although the Houston offense has slowly but surely begun to take form as of late after a big 41–39 walkoff win over then-one loss West Virginia team thanks to a last second Hail Mary prayer.
“I think one thing I’ve been impressed with Coach Holgorsen and his team is how they’ve improved throughout the year,” Sarkisian said Monday. “Obviously had a great game Thursday night, a very exciting game, so we know we’ve got a confident football team we’re gonna play against in a sellout game on the road.”
Overall, despite their improvement in the last two games this might be the perfect matchup for the Longhorns to get the season back on track after what Brown called “the midseason bowl game.” Despite the disappointing start to the season, though, Holgorsen and the Cougars will surely bring their best effort, as apparently, “you can go 1–11 as long as you beat Texas,” Holgorsen said this week.
With no offensive coordinator on the staff, Holgorsen controls the offense with the help of his running game coordinator and offensive line coach Eman Naghavi. As a member of the Mike Leach coaching tree, Holgorsen runs an Air Raid-style offense, averaging 37 passing attempts a game.
The Cougars are 34th in the nation in third-down conversion rate, converting at a clip of 44.7 percent. They often find themselves in third down as they miss on the massive amount of passing attempts they make every game — this passing attack currently ranks 44th in passing efficiency at 145.99 with a completion percentage of 65.4 percent with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Holgorsen looked to the transfer portal to retool this offense with nine transfers joining the team this spring, including junior Texas Tech transfer quarterback Donovan Smith. Only fitting this Air Raid offense is led by a former Red Raider.
Smith certainly had a rocky start to the season with three picks, five touchdowns, and an average QBR of 51.33 through his first four games. However, over the last two outings he has started to find a rhythm under Holgorsen’s pass-heavy system.
In those contests Smith has thrown for eight touchdowns, zero interceptions, and 588 yards with an average QBR of 89.5. These games included a 49-28 loss to Texas Tech and the 41–39 shootout win against West Virginia at home, bringing them to .500 on the season.
This will be the second meeting for Smith against Sarkisian and the the Longhorns.
“We’re getting ready to play an experienced quarterback which we all know all too well,” Sarkisian said Monday. “Donovan Smith, the transfer from Tech and how he played against us a year ago and the challenges that he presents.”
Smith led the Red Raiders to a 37–34 overtime win over the Texas Longhorns in Lubbock last year in Week Four that ended in with an overtime field goal. Smith went 38-of-56 passing for 331 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions in the upset, so he is certainly familiar with this Texas defense.
Smith also has some wheels that can create havoc for opposing defensive coordinators — he currently leads the team in rushing attempts through scrambles and designed quarterback runs with 67 attempts for 197 yards and 4 touchdowns. He is often used as the primary red-zone threat for the Cougars, as seen by Houston’s first offensive touchdown against West Virginia coming off a designed quarterback run to close the second quarter.
He has a tendency to hold onto the ball for too long, whether in an attempt to make something happen with his legs or waiting for his wide receivers to separate downfield, so Smith and Holgorsen will likely game plan to get the ball out quickly against this quality Texas defensive front.
As Smith continues to learn the ropes in his first year with the Cougars and the offense continues to work out the kinks without an offensive coordinator, they look to be finding their rhythm at the halfway point of the season.
Unfortunately for Holgorsen’s Air Raid offense, his wide receiving corps has seen the most injuries this season with three wide receivers were listed on the injury report coming into the Texas game, including their starting X receiver, sophomore Matthew Golden, as well as junior Joshua Cobbs and sophomore CJ Nelson.
Golden is questionable for Saturday’s matchup with a groin injury and would be a massive hit to this Cougars passing game if he is unable to go. This year the former four-star recruit has totaled 27 receptions for 295 yards and four touchdowns.
Golden is utilized in multiple different ways from jet sweeps to downfield routes and even acts as a return specialist for the Cougars. If Golden is unable to suit up, this would be a huge loss for the Cougars and would leave the bulk of receiving duties up to third-year sophomore Samuel Brown at the X position and third-year junior Joseph Manjack IV.
Brown leads the team in receptions and receiving yards with 37 catches for 644 yards and two touchdowns. He has proven to be Smith’s favorite target with 90-plus receiving yard games in four of the team’s six games. Along with Brown and Golden is Manjack, a USC transfer. Manjack is shifty in the slot and acts as a safety valve in the middle of the field for short and intermediate passing attacks despite standing 6’3.
Sophomore Oklahoma State transfer Stephon Johnson made his name known after the storybook ending the Cougars saw against West Virginia last week. Catching the tipped Hail Mary pass in the end zone with zeros on the clock made Johnson a legend in Houston football and likely earned him a bigger role moving forward in this Houston passing attack. Johnson has 12 receptions for 158 yards and two touchdowns on the season, but if Golden is limited or unable to go against Texas, look for Johnson to have a bigger role.
Due to the Air Raid offense, the wide receivers are the lifeblood of this offense. On the year they total 1,658 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns, but with injuries to Golden, Cobbs, and Nelson, they will likely have to rely on former rotation receivers such as Johnson to maintain Holgorsen’s air-it-out philosophy.
The running back room is shared by freshman Parker Jenkins and sophomore Stacy Sneed.
Jenkins leads the team in attempts with 47 carries for 242 yards and three touchdowns on the season. Standing 5’11 and weighing 196 pounds, Jenkins acts as the team’s power back, although there is very little smash-mouth, run-it-down-your-throat football in the Air Raid.
The second horse in the stable is sophomore Sneed, who is lightning fast and able to create big chunk plays upfield around the outside. The 5’11 185-pound sophomore acts as the change of pace back with 37 carries for 206 yards and a touchdown.
The two running backs complement each other well and are both capable pass catchers out of the backfield. However, they have not been used much in receiving roles with the duo only totaling 14 receptions for 103 yards on the season.
Houston is relatively balanced in their rushing and passing attacks — 48 percent of the play calls are run plays, although only 31 percent of those carries are taken by the running backs.
The offensive line seems to be the Cougars’ most veteran unit on the team with four seniors and one junior on the starting front. The line is led by fantastic fourth-year junior left tackle Patrick Paul (6’7, 315 pounds), who many believe to have future NFL potential.
The offensive line returns three returning starters, including Paul, senior center Jack Freeman (6’3, 300 pounds), and a familiar face, former Texas senior right guard Tyler Johnson (6’5, 320 pounds). The line also holds two returning rotation linemen from last year in Tank Jinkins (6’3, 320 pounds) and Unije Reuben (6’5, 310 pounds).
This offensive front is big and holds continuity with every starter weighing over 300 pounds and possessing multiple years of experience in Holgorsen’s system. Despite the size and continuity of this Cougars front line, they have had trouble keeping Smith clean in the pocket, allowing 15 sacks for a total loss of 92 yards on the season.
Behind the talent of Paul and their two tight ends, Matt Byrnes and senior West Virginia transfer Mike O’Laughlin, they are able to set the edge effectively for outside runs.
Just like his former mentor, the late great Leach, Holgorsen-led teams are marked by a lot of offense and not a lot of defense, allowing an average of 31 points on the season and 41 points in conference play.
Third-year defensive coordinator Doug Belk and the Cougars run a 4-2-5 defensive scheme with multiple defensive backs on the field at all times. They have returned five starters from last year, and have looked towards the transfer portal to retool this defense.
Sarkisian commented on the Cougar’s defense Monday saying they have “a very active defense on the defensive front with what they do with [Nelson] Caeser coming off the edge and so, all in all, we know this team presents a lot of challenges.”
With so many experienced defensive backs on the field, they are also able to create turnovers efficiently, but prone to allowing big chunk plays through the air and on the ground.
The defensive front is led by fourth-year junior right defensive tackle Nelson Caeser (6’3, 250 pounds), who leads the Cougars in sacks and the defensive line in tackles. In total the Cougars have gotten home nine times for 47 sack yards on the season, 4.5 of which come from Caeser alone.
This isn’t a terribly impressive feat, however it is not for nothing. For reference the team with the 50th most sacks in the nation through six weeks is Wisconsin with 15.
A major addition to this defense has been senior Oklahoma transfer defensive end David Ugwoegbu (6’4, 250 pounds). Ugwoegbu has been able to get to the quarterback 1.5 times and has totaled 19 tackles on the season.
This unit has struggled throughout the year defending the run game, allowing 972 rushing yards on the season. Against more difficult conference opponents they have had even greater struggles, averaging 214.3 rushing yards per game, including 250 yards against TCU and 239 yards against Texas Tech.
Jonathan Brooks and this Texas rushing attack will likely be a point of emphasis against this Houston defensive front that has continued to struggle against the run this season.
The linebacker corps is led by red shirt senior Mike Malik Robinson (6’0, 230 pounds), who is a tackling machine. Robinson currently leads the team in tackles with 44 total and 19 solo, acting as the leader of this defense through the middle of the field through his quick play recognition and ability to fly to the ball. Robinson missed most of the 2022 season with a pectoral injury, but has returned with a vengeance this year.
Robinson is flanked by fourth-year junior linebacker Jamal Morris (6’2, 225 pounds) who transferred from Oklahoma. Morris has totaled 32 tackles on the season and as the Cougars mainly run a 4-2-5 defense, the inside linebackers occupy the center of the field with their speed.
The two linebackers are not terribly large, but they are fast and efficient, disguising coverages like defensive backs and using their secondary-like skill sets to make plays in the open field.
This Cougars secondary has been efficient in creating turnovers through the air, tying for 27th in the country with seven interceptions on the season. Senior East Carolina transfer Malik Fleming leads the team in interceptions with three on the year.
They also hit hard and blanket the back end of the field with multiple defensive backs at all times. Sophomore New Mexico free safety transfer Adari Haulcy blankets the back end of the field and acts as a Jamaal Adams-type safety. He is fast and efficient at making critical open field tackles, with 31 solo tackles through the first six weeks.
Despite this defensive back-heavy defense, West Virginia quarterback Garrett Greene was able to carve them up with the deep ball, completing 20-of-38 passes for 391 yards, two touchdowns, and a QBR of 80.2%. They were able to take one away through the air against Greene on a tipped ball in the end zone, but overall West Virginia was able to take advantage of this secondary.
The Cougars have a great return team with 463 return yards and two touchdowns on the season. Golden’s availability will have a huge impact on this unit along with the wide receiving corps, as he plays a major role in their return team — he had a 100-yard return for a touchdown last Thursday against West Virginia.
With Golden out, Fleming will likely handle the punt and kick returns alongside Sneed. Fleming had a 52-yard punt return touchdown taken away by penalty last week and has the speed and lateral quickness to get vertical in the punt return game.
This special teams unit will be a point of contention for Sarkisian and the Longhorns ahead of this week’s matchup. “Obviously two great returners with Golden and Fleming in the kick return game and the punt return game,” said Sarkisian Monday. Texas will need to limit these talented returners ability to shift momentum with any big plays and ideally avoid punting altogether.
The field-goal unit is led by senior Alabama transfer Jack Martin, who has certainly had his struggles in the field goal game this year. Martin has gone 4-of-8, only succeeding on 50 percent of his attempts this year. Because of those struggles, Holgorsen has become more aggressive on fourth down, as the team is slowly but surely losing faith in their veteran place kicker.
This Cougars defense is littered with experience, but have seemed to have trouble gelling with the four transfer starters that have been brought in this offseason. They allow a lot of points, as many Holgorsen and other former Leach coaches have done in the past.
Chunk plays and rushing attacks have been the Achilles heel of this Houston defense and the bread and butter of this Texas offense, so the game plan for the Longhorns should be to attack this Cougars team on the ground with Brooks and their impressive rushing attack. That should open up the offense to allow for big passing plays downfield to create a lead early.
On defense the plan should be to limit Smith’s ability to hurt the Longhorns with his legs. With arguably their best receiver struggling to get back on the field with a groin injury, this Longhorns secondary should be able to limit this Air Raid passing attack by making Smith uncomfortable in the pocket. Sarkisian and Longhorns cannot let this turn into a shootout through the air — they must prepare for 30-plus passes this game,and not give Smith a clean pocket to run or throw.
Texas is favored by 23.5 points, according to DraftKings.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.