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Monday, December 4, 2023


Week 1 Preview: A season-opening, season-defining rematch vs. UTSA

Last year’s game at UTSA proved to be a battle for the ages, with the Cougars pulling out a triple-overtime win. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

This time has finally come. The newly Big 12-initiated Houston Cougars kick off the much-anticipated 2023 season Saturday night at TDECU Stadium.

This year’s season-opener — a rematch against UTSA, whom UH beat in a triple-overtime thriller this time last year — will not be some non-conference record-padder of a mismatch.

In 2014, UH opened TDECU Stadium against the Roadrunners in hopes of christening the new home arena with a rousing win. What it ended up being was a 27-7 disappointment that saw UH commit six turnovers.

This year, in the Cougars’ debut as a member of the Big 12 Conference, head coach Dana Holgorsen and company will look to prevent history from repeating itself. On the other hand, the Roadrunners are coming off 23 wins in the last two seasons and are thirsty to avenge last year’s loss.

The Cougars will enter Week 1 with 12 newcomers on its two-deep depth chart, as well as several returners in increased roles. Undoubtedly, this first look at the 2023 UH Cougars against a borderline Top-25 opponent will likely set the tone for the rest of the year.

Before kickoff, The Cougar will take a look at the most critical things to watch heading into this game.

Sack Ave vs. Frank Harris

The most prominent returning Roadrunner is quarterback Frank Harris. In 2022, the seventh-year senior enjoyed career highs in passing yards (4,059) and rushing yards (600) while accounting for 41 touchdowns.

In order to stop the veteran, it all starts with the Cougars’ famous ‘Sack Ave’ defensive line led by breakout hopefuls in junior edge rusher Nelson Ceaser and senior lineman Chidozie Nwankwo. In last year’s matchup, Harris proved slippery for the UH D-line, only going down three times while throwing for 337 yards and rushing 71 more.

“We had him bottled up a lot last year and we weren’t able to get him on the ground,” said defensive coordinator Doug Belk. “For us, it’s just going to be about staying disciplined.”

If UH wants a chance at stopping the Roadrunners’ offense, the pass rush — particularly at the ends with Ceaser and senior Oklahoma transfer David Ugwoegbu — will need to contain Harris and ensure that he has no room to run.

Protecting the new guy under center

On the other side of the line of scrimmage, the Cougars’ offensive line has to give its new quarterback Donovan Smith enough time to find his rhythm in his first game as a Cougar.

Though Smith has 21 games of experience under his belt as a Texas Tech Red Raider, he will be spending Saturday night getting used to his new teammates in a new home stadium. In order for Smith to find his footing with his dynamic receiving corps, star junior left tackle Patrick Paul and company will need to keep that No. 1 jersey clean.

Perhaps as a way to keep pressure off the new signal caller, the Cougars have been bullish on the team’s run game despite Alton McCaskill’s departure to Colorado. Offensive line coach and run game coordinator Eman Naghavi has wowed players and coaches alike so far since his arrival in the spring.

“I would say that the run game is going to be something that surprises people this year,” Paul said. “The way he (Naghavi) schemes the runs up and the way he teaches is something that I think is going to be really good for us this season.”

If Houston’s rushing attack headed by junior Tony Mathis and sophomore Stacey Sneed backs up Paul’s words, then Smith’s job will be that much easier in his UH debut.

UH secondary vs. UTSA pass catchers

While the D-line will look to corral Frank Harris in the backfield, a reshuffled UH secondary will have its hands full with a wide selection of Roadrunner pass catchers.

Five newcomers will likely get significant playing time in the Cougars’ defensive backfield, while senior corner Alex Hogan will make his return after missing the final seven games of 2022 due to injury.

On the other side, UTSA will return four of its five top pass catchers from 2022. Joshua Cephus will look to slot into the WR1 spot after a near-1,000-yard season last year while veteran tight end Oscar Cardenas is poised to build off of a solid 2022 season. De’Corian Clark, a second-team All-Conference USA selection in 2022, is a game-time decision due to a knee injury.

Needless to say, Houston’s transfer-laden secondary will need to get on the same page quickly, or else the Roadrunners will have a field day in the air.

Taking care of the ball

A team laced with new faces in its first game together almost always leads to one thing: mistakes. The most costly of those mistakes? Turnovers.

Donovan Smith will need to find his timing with new receivers, make clean exchanges with new running backs and be on the same page with new linemen. Meanwhile, a veteran UTSA squad will be itching to capitalize on any and every miscue, misstep or miscommunication.

“Limiting the mistakes all around is really the key to the game,” Smith said. “(It’s about) whoever messes up less.”

These new-look Cougars will make mistakes in their first game together. But if those incompletions do not become interceptions and those missed assignments do not turn into strip sacks, then UH will be on stable enough ground to beat the Roadrunners.

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