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Week 7 Preview: Holgorsen hosts old friends in West Virginia

UH head coach Dana Holgorsen takes the field Thursday to coach the Cougars against his former team in search of Houston’s first-ever Big 12 win. | Anh Le/The Cougar

After a weekend off, the Houston Cougars look ahead to a Thursday evening matchup with West Virginia at TDECU Stadium in hopes for a change in fortune for their inaugural Big 12 season.

Losses to TCU and Texas Tech in past weeks have left much to be desired out of Houston’s initial in-conference showings.

On Thursday, Houston will take the field against the Mountaineers for the first time ever, hoping a clean slate will give way to a first-ever Big 12 win and a return to .500 at 3-3.

Old friends turned on-field foes

While West Virginia is a new opponent for the Cougars, UH head coach Dana Holgorsen knows the Mountaineers all too well.

Now in his fifth season at the helm in the Third Ward, Holgorsen coached West Virginia for eight seasons — seven spent in the Big 12 conference — before departing for Houston in 2019.

Holgorsen pays little attention to the noise around Thursday night’s reunion.

“The best way I’ve figured out how to approach it is turning the phone off and getting to work,” Holgorsen said. “This is for the fans, the fans get into that.”

Fixing the fundamentals

Holgorsen described the tackling against Texas Tech as among the worst he had seen since arriving in Houston.

Holgorsen said the blocking was problematic, but not the root of UH’s offensive struggles.

“At the end of the day you have to get back to what the good-old basics of football are,” he says.

Houston’s leading tackler entering Thursday is senior linebacker Malik Robinson, with 17 solo tackles through five games.

West Virginia has two players — Beanie Bishop Jr. and Lee Kpogba — who have tallied more than Robinson, with 24 and 22 respectively.

In terms of blocking, the Cougars have allowed 13 sacks against, comfortably the highest total of any Big 12 team so far that has played five games.

West Virginia, on the other hand, has allowed just seven sacks against.

Playing until the final whistle

UH’s struggle to keep in-step with its Big 12 opponents through 4 quarters has been a marquee problem through its first two conference games.

In total, the Cougars count themselves on the wrong side of a 30-0 combined point differential against its first two Big 12 opponents.

For Houston to compete with West Virginia on Thursday evening it will need to compete through all four quarters. Particularly on offense, where up until this point there has been a struggle to maintain physicality through two halves.

Searching for an identity

The Houston offense is no-doubt still searching for its identity entering Thursday night.

Sophomore wide receiver Samuel Brown described the bye week as an opportunity to find the team’s identity entering its now-unrelenting stretch of Big 12 games.

“I feel like this is the time we’ve got to figure out who we are as a team,” Brown said.

This season has seen the departure of offensive mainstays and the introduction of new offensive leaders in Houston. While the UH offense was bound to need time to find its identity and chemistry, there is a sense that the bye week was the last chance for the team to put the pieces together and reach its potential.

Moments of brilliance have been present, but sporadic on the offensive side of the ball.

Brown has been a breakthrough star, leading the Big 12 in receiving yardage and tied for the conference lead in receptions. His yards per game average (103.6) — also the best in the conference — is over twenty yards better than the next best receiver.

Freshman running back Parker Jenkins was named Houston’s backfield starter in time for the Sam Houston game, where he recorded a breakthrough performance marked by three touchdowns and 120 rushing yards.

Against the Red Raiders, though, Jenkins was much less convincing.

The stakes

A win against West Virginia on Thursday would mark Houston’s first-ever Big 12 victory, and a much needed confidence-boost entering a crucial stretch of UH’s 2023 campaign.

On the other hand, a loss to the Mountaineers would leave the Cougars 0-3 and at the bottom of the conference with its most daunting opponent of the season just nine days away: Texas.

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