Football, Sports, WVU Sports

WVU looks to extend winning streak in first meeting with Big 12 newcomer Houston

MORGANTOWN — The transition into the Big 12 has been a tough one for the four conference newcomers this season. Houston, BYU, Cincinnati and UCF are a combined 1-8 in conference games so far this year.

West Virginia, which will play all four newcomers this season, faces its first new conference-mate tonight with a game at Houston’s TDECU Stadium (7 p.m./FS1). The Mountaineers (4-1, 2-0 Big 12) will look to extend their four-game winning streak against a Cougar team (2-3, 0-2) that has underperformed through five games.

“To me, it’s just about us continuing to get better,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “I know that’s coach-speak or whatever, but we’re on this winning streak and we really haven’t played a three-phase game.”

Despite winning four games in a row, WVU has been out-gained on offense by all four of its FBS opponents this season. West Virginia is in the bottom third of the league in both scoring (26.4) and yardage (347.4), but Brown believes the Mountaineers are poised to break out coming out of their off week.

“We’re at the healthiest that we’ve been from a skill perspective,” he said. “Our quarterbacks are continuing to mature so we’re on the verge of playing some good offensive football.”

This is also the Mountaineers’ easiest matchup, on paper, so far in Big 12 play. The Cougars, led by former WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen, have the second-worst scoring defense (29.8) and allow the most yards (405.8) per game in the conference. Houston is third-worst in both rushing (163.6) and passing (242.2) defense.

“(West Virginia is) really, really good at blocking and tackling,” Holgorsen said. “You turn the video on and you can see it. They don’t miss a whole lot of tackles and offensively, it’s all about the run game and blocking people up front. So It’s a huge challenge for us for where we’re at.”

Houston has allowed over 200 rushing yards three times this season, including in both of its Big 12 games so far. The Cougars gave up 208 rushing yards to UTSA, 250 to TCU and 239 to Texas Tech.

Against a WVU team that runs the ball twice as much as it passes (225 runs to 113 passes), Holgorsen knows the Cougars need to be better.

“We’ve got to stop the run,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve been pretty good about that over the last four years, but we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Offensively, WVU fans will not be surprised at the fact that the Cougars have the third-best passing attack in the Big 12 under Holgorsen. Houston is averaging 281.2 yards per game with quarterback Donovan Smith, who has also run for 163 yards and has scored 12 total touchdowns.

“I would say (Holgorsen’s offense) is quite a bit different than what they had with (former WVU quarterback) Will (Grier) just because Donovan Smith is more of a runner,” Brown said. “He can do both, so they’re calling some QB run plays and doing some different things in the read (option) game. A lot of the pass concepts are the same, though.”

True freshman Parker Jenkins has taken over as Houston’s starting running back and leads the team with 218 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Former WVU receiver Sam Brown leads the Cougars with 518 receiving yards, the best mark in the Big 12.

Brown, a sophomore, spent two seasons at WVU in 2020 and 2021. He played in four total games and caught 10 passes for 108 yards with the Mountaineers.

“Anytime you lose a player, especially a talented player, you look back and think, ‘What could I have done different,’” Neal Brown said. “At that time, it was probably the best decision for him and maybe the best decision for us. When he left, I remember telling our staff that kid has got special talent and if he matures like I think he’s capable of, he’s going to be a great player. And here we are.”

This is the first-ever meeting between WVU and Houston on the gridiron. The Cougars are still looking for their first Big 12 conference victory. 

The Mountaineers will play each of the other three Big 12 newcomers — UCF (Oct. 28), BYU (Nov. 4) and Cincinnati (Nov. 18) — later this season.

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