LOOKING AHEAD FOR ISU FOOTBALL: Week four, the Houston Cougars

Nov 18, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Oklahoma State Cowboys safety Trey Rucker (9) tackles Houston Cougars quarterback Donovan Smith (1) during the first half at TDECU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: Fourth in a 12-part series previewing each of Iowa State’s 2024 regular-season opponents.

AMES — Houston’s entering a new era and will face Iowa State for the first time in program history on Sept. 28 at home.

 The Cougars fired Dana Holgorson after losing five of their last six games en route to a 4-8 finish in 2023. So new head coach Willie Fritz will try to guide Houston back from the type of season the Cyclones endured in 2022 — and the former Tulane coach hit the portal hard to address pressing needs on defense.

 Houston ranked 130th among 133 FBS schools last season in third-down defense, allowing conversions in a whopping 48.5 percent of such situations, so an overhaul of personnel was clearly required. 

 So Fritz and his staff brought in 12 transfers on that side of the ball alone, including senior cornerback/returner Bryan Massey (SMU), senior safety Hershey McLaurin (West Virginia), and senior linebacker Kendre Gant (Louisiana).

 How much can those (and many more) additions help the Cougars improve on defense, though? Probably quite a bit, but not nearly enough. Houston ranked 101st or worst in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense last season.

 Houston also found help in the transfer portal on offense, luring former Michigan State tight end Maliq Carr onto campus. The 6-6, 265-pound senior has hauled in 54 catches for 696 yards and five touchdowns in his well-traveled career and will give veteran quarterback Donovan Smith — who Cyclone fans will know from his time at Texas Tech — a key weapon on an erratic, but potentially explosive offense. 

 Iowa State vs. Houston: 3 things to watch

 **How much of a problem will Donovan Smith be? The 6-5 junior passed for a then-career-high 322 yards and three touchdowns to help Texas Tech beat ISU, 41-38, in 2021, then scored a rushing touchdown in the Red Raiders’ 14-10 win over the Cyclones in 2022. Smith can make every throw and is always a threat on the ground, but he can also be turnover-prone. Expect ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock to focus on that flaw and put his players in positions to exploit it. 

 **Can ISU start conference play with a road win for the first time since 2020? The Cyclones have lost three consecutive Big 12 road openers and even though they’ll have the week two road matchup with Iowa under their belt, it won’t be easy to win at Houston. ISU did win its final four league road games last season, however, so that string of success could carry over into 2024.

 **Can the Cyclones get the ground game going? The Cougars will likely put eight or nine defenders in the box in hopes of making ISU one-dimensional. That strategy proved to be a sound one for the Cyclones’ foes last season, but if the experienced offensive line performs as expected against a thin Houston D-line, there could be lots of room for Abu Sama and company to exploit.  

2024 prognosis

  Houston’s defense couldn’t stop anyone last season and though it will be improved, ISU should be able to amass 30-plus points and start conference play 1-0.