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WVU Football Q&A: Staring Down The Musket At Houston

We went behind enemy lines to gain some intel about the Coogs from Sam of The Scott & Holman Pawdcast

NCAA Football: Big 12 Conference-Media Day Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Big win over Frogs,

Holgorsen and Cougars next,

Q&A column.

Musket: Let’s start with the elephant in the room. What’s the temperature level on Dana’s seat? I’m a well known supporter of Dana’s time at WVU, but his Houston tenure has been marked with the same weaknesses that made his departure from WVU as much of a mutual breakup as possible. How likely is Holgo to survive another down year and what’s the Houston fanbase’s opinion on how likely it is that he can right the ship long term in the Big 12?

Sam: I would say the answer to this is two-fold, as it often is with coaching hot seat situations. From the fan perspective, I would say the seat warmth is ‘scorching hot’ or something close to it. Early on in his tenure at UH, Dana had his supporters and I would mostly include myself among that group. He inherited an objectively terrible roster situation from his predecessors: Tom Herman and Major Applewhite, especially on the defensive side of the ball. This staff has done some good stuff, most notably unearthing future pros like: Marcus Jones, Damarion Williams, and Tank Dell, who weren’t star recruits when they got to Houston. The strength of schedule questions are absolutely valid when it comes to Dana’s 1 good team at UH (2021), but I’ll let other people retcon that specific season.

However, I think the fanbase soured on Dana after a massively disappointing 2022 season where the defense collapsed and despite having a future NFL QB (Clayton Tun) and WR1 (Dell), Dana/the offensive staff didn’t figure out it needed to be a pass-first offense until 5 games into the season. A short list of ‘highlights’ from the 2022 season includes:

  • Losing in week 2 at Texas Tech when a stop on 4th down & 20 would’ve won the game
  • A sideline fight between UH players that went viral in the middle of a week 3, home opening blowout loss to Kansas
  • Saying “I aint taking responsibility for that” in postgame comments re: UH’s sloppy early season play after an extremely close, poorly played win over a 5-win Rice team and later having to apologize for said comments
  • Losing to eventual AAC champion Tulane (not so bad), who had to play their 3rd string QB nearly all of that game due to injuries (okay, bad)
  • Surrendering 77 points to SMU’s worst team since 2018
  • Having the last ever AAC football game UH plays in be a loss to Tulsa where a UH legacy making his 3rd career start at QB shredded the Coogs (oh and one of the UH players involved in the early season viral fight got caught slapping a TU player after the game)

Add all of the above to the first loss to Rice since 2010 and a pair of pretty uncompetitive Big 12 losses in the current season, and you’ll get a fanbase that is pretty over the current coach. I think the faith in Dana being able to right the ship long term in the Big 12 is something below nonexistent.

But to go back to what I said at the beginning about this being two-fold: I have no idea what level of administrative/booster pressure exists on Dana right now. In the past UH has made a big deal about high standards for coaches and performance. But under its current athletic director Chris Pezman, UH hasn’t dismissed a head coach where there wasn’t an NCAA investigation involved, since Major Applewhite was let go at the end of 2018. Will they start now with a head coach the administration made a big deal about hiring and who’s owed a big buyout? Seems doubtful.

I do think there are not super unrealistic scenarios where 2023 UH football is so bad (like 0fer vs Big 12 bad) that the power brokers make a change. So much of that will depend on the mood of UH super booster/fast casual restaurant tyrant Tilman Fertitta, as well.

2) Houston has WVU connections all over the roster and staff. How have the transfers Tony Mathis, Sam Brown, Mike O’Lauhglin, and Noah Guzman performed this season and what’s your opinion on one of my all time favorite WVU receivers, Dakiel Shorts, at WR coach?

SR: I’ll start with the positives: Sam Brown has been fantastic in 2023 and I wouldn’t use the descriptor ‘fantastic’ to describe much of the current UH season. Last season was Brown’s first full season being a major part of an offense after playing a little when he was at WVU, and he showed some positive stuff but was also suspended for the Coogs’ 2022 bowl for slapping a Tulsa player after the regular season finale. He’s looked like a dramatically better and more mature player in 2023 and easily Donovan Smith’s most reliable and sure-handed target. He’s already surpassed his 2022 receiving yards total through 5 games, which kind of says it all.

Guzman was a name we heard some in fall camp and sadly he suffered a season ending injury after playing a bunch in week 2 vs Rice. The tight end position doesn’t feature a ton in the current version of Dana’s offense, but Mike O’Laughlin has been the most reliable player of the TE group and Mountaineer fans will be happy to hear he’s been healthy through 5 games of the current season. Mathis hasn’t been healthy the last couple games, but I think on the balance has been the Coogs’ 2nd best RB this year behind breakout freshman Parker Jenkins.

For all of the not positive feelings around the UH program right now I’m a big Dakiel Shorts fan. He’s been one of this staff’s closers in recruiting and has also had receivers like Dell, Sam Brown, Matthew Golden, and Joseph Manjack show really positive stuff under his tutelage. If you asked me to rank UH football assistants who I’d be despondent about losing, Shorts is probably in a 1a/1b situation at the top of that list with defensive line coach Brian Early.

3) WVU is going to try to control the clock on Thursday and run the ball a ton. How has Houston’s front seven stacked up in the run game so far and what names should we be on the lookout for?

SR: Short answer: not great, Matt! Against Texas Tech and UTSA, the Cougar defense allowed those opponents to rush for their season-best totals and against TCU just barely missed that distinction (Colorado allowed 262 rush yards, UH allowed 250). Out of the many things that worry me about the Coogs’ ability to be competitive in Thursday’s game, none worry me more than the Mountaineer rushing attack against this defensive front.

To that end, I genuinely do not know if there are any names to be on the lookout for because I haven’t seen anything like a standout performance for a full game or close to it from anyone in the Coogs’ front seven. Its harsh, but I haven’t seen any difference makers through 5 games from that group.

4) On the other side of the ball, WVU’s defense has been winning them games and has been much improved from last season’s disaster. We’re obviously familiar with Dana, but has anything changed in his offensive approach at Houston and who are the names to watch if Houston is going to put up points against a stout WVU defense?

SR: The maddening thing, among many, from Dana’s ~4.5 seasons in Houston is I don’t know if I could even tell you what this program’s offensive identity is right now or has been for most of his time here. This is the coach largely responsible for 2 of the very best (2008-09) Cougar offenses I’ve ever laid my eyes on, along with that awesome 2010 OK State offense and several good ones from his time coaching the Mountaineers. I think you guys saw the beginning of this, but at some point during his WVU tenure Dana realized that the kind of up-tempo Air Raid offenses he ran during his time at UH and OSU were going to preclude him from ever having a half decent defense. That point isn’t wrong, but what’s happened is Dana’s offensive identity has transformed into something vaguely 50/50 on run/pass that occasionally incorporates some recognizable Air Raid passing concepts. Oh and the half decent defense mostly hasn’t materialized here, even with a slowed down version of whatever Dana’s offensive philosophy is in 2023.

I will say in 6 of the last 8 quarters UH has played, the offense with new QB Donovan Smith has started to show some genuine positive signs. The caveat is that 4 of those quarters were against new FBS team Sam Houston State and 2/4 of the quarters against Texas Tech this offense was completely shutout and combined for 91 yards. But 4-star true freshman Parker Jenkins, along with Smith, has given the Cougar running game somewhat of a pulse and Dana seems to be figuring out what Smith is most comfortable doing in the pass game. I mentioned Sam Brown earlier and from a talent perspective, UH’s receiver group is the most Big 12-ready on the roster. You’ll likely see a fair amount of Joseph Manjack IV and Matthew Golden being targeted in the pass game from that receiver group. Outside of Jenkins in the run game, I’ll be curious who’s getting the next most carries out of: Tony Mathis and Stacy Sneed.

5) What’s the pulse of the Houston fanbase on the make up of the new look Big 12 and the general moving and shaking around college sports this summer?

SR: I think the UH fanbase is excited to be part of a conference that is actually positioning itself to be the best of the non-SEC/Big Ten long term. Not saying that WVU playing conference games in Salt Lake City and Tucson makes tons of sense. But I think we can all agree college sports has long since blown past any sanity with regard to geographically sensible conferences and this arrangement makes fractionally more sense than whatever the Big Ten and ACC are doing with their respective attempts at realignment ‘manifest destiny’.

You can ask questions about football viability of 3 of the 4 new western additions, but as a UH fan I won’t throw stones in my beautiful glass house. For me personally, beyond the fact that I live in the western US and now have 5 possible future road trips, the thought of adding Arizona men’s basketball to this already high-level hoops conference is a really exciting one. Some of my earliest general college hoops memories are that ’97 Zona team with Miles Simon and Mike Bibby winning the national title and that’s the most consistently excellent and well-supported basketball program west of the Rockies. How can you not be excited about adding that program to what is already the best men’s hoops conference?

Bigger picture, even as a UH fan who is finally for the first time in ~20 years seeing his team not get the shit end of the realignment stick, it doesn’t feel great being a college sports fan. I was still elementary school aged when it happened, but its hard to see what’s happening to Wazzu and Oregon State and not see that they’re in the exact crummy and unfair place that UH, TCU and numerous others were in the mid-1990s when the SWC collapsed. I can hold the simultaneous feelings of being happy for my alma mater and kind of sad for the state of college sports on the whole.

Thanks again to Sam for the prospective from the other side. Follow The Scott & Holman Pawdcast on Twitter/X. The Scott & Holman Pawdcast is available everywhere you get your podcasts.