2016 HOD Bowl: NT 31 Army 38

And so ends the best five win, eight loss season in North Texas history.

NT lost our favorite bowl game in entertaining fashion while showcasing a glimpse into the offense we were promised (marketed?) when Littrell got here. The opponent was and is perfect: a resurgent Army team with a contrasting style that will be on the schedule for the foreseeable future. If things break right, this annual tussle could turn into a thing.

Alec Morris became the QB we wanted when we hoped for a record-breaking season while Rico Bussey & Turner Smiley were making plays and Jeff Wilson was making cuts for TDs.

The North Texas offense looked potent but it wasn’t enough — especially when they needed potency to win the game. I can live with the result considering the circumstances.

Everything past four wins this year was gravy. Getting to the HOD Bowl where 39,117 people watched an entertaining college football game was more than a just reward for a program turnaround.

NT came into this game missing some significant pieces and yet you really could not tell. Like, if you did not look closely you probably did not notice did you?

Glancing through twitter, the message board, and the post-game cheery gathering at Dots suggests that most NT fans agree with this sentiment. It is good to know most people are rational.

The hard questions still should be asked. We still need to know if Littrell can recruit and continue to build the program. He made progress this season, but the defense regressed as the season progressed, while the offense — especially the pass game — took until the last few weeks to show signs of quality.

There are very good reasons to think Littrell did about as good a job as could have been done with the talent and resources he had available to him, and that is part of the reason everyone feels so good about an eight-loss season.

Game Recap:

Your friendly neighborhood NT Blogger is tired from a long drive and so we will rely on some choice recaps for the heavy lifting, while sprinkling in some thoughts.

Army jumped out to a quick lead by – what else? – running the ball. We figured Army would counter NT’s defensive plan from October with some changes. For the most part those changes meant Army was able to convert on third down at a better rate, but they were also able to bust open huge gains. Two games in a row NT has allowed 65+ yard TDs. NT’s defense has struggled, and it has a lot to do with personnell.

North Texas had four TD drives and a FG which equal the magic number of FIVE scoring drives. They’ve been pretty consistently getting three and two, and so we had a bonus TD score (thanks in large part to the muffed punt). The highlight of the game1 was the twin TD drives to end the first half. NT displayed the kind of variety that portends good things for next year. Rico Bussey had his only two catches, both of which were great including a fade route for a score. Jeff Wilson took a screen pass designed to get back some of lost yardage to penalties to the house.

NT threw two INTs in the second half, one of which came on a poorly executed trick play, and Army managed another TD. The majority of the time was chewed up by Army’s 18-play 66-yard drive that took up 10:35. NT pulled out a drive to get Trevor Moore in FG range for a clutch FG.

Then OT.

Army converted a ballsy 4th and 3 and NT stalled. The end.

Offense

Jeffrey Wilson looked spry and early on he was finding lots of room. Army stuffed him on back-to-back short yardage runs at midfield that turned the ball over on downs. If you have been paying attention all year, you know this has been an issue all season, and pretty much lost the UTSA game.

Alec Morris had the best game of his career and this without Goree and Robinson. Turner Smiley played like a true #1 Wideout, while Tyler Wilson showed flashes of a future as a possession guy. Jeff Wilson had six grabs for 46 yards (including a score) putting him at 26 touches for 127 yards 2 TDs on the day. The offense is designed to get the ball to playmakers and it did just that. If Mason Fine or one of the new guys can replicate this kind of distribution, good things will happen.

Drive-killing penalties were still too common. We did not expect anything different but I was holding out hope we would see a miraculously penalty-free game. Still, the line protected Morris and he was able to make plays, which is all we can ask. A good portion of this was because Morris was quick and decisive with the ball, something he was bad at against SMU. His lone mistake was (probably) caused by getting hit, though, so pass protection and QB play were not completely perfect.

I thought we would see more trick plays, but NT only pulled out one. This was probably because of the way the game played out. NT moved the ball better than expected, and no trickeration was required. When Harrell tried the WR pass, it was simply poorly executed. Tyler Wilson nearly was sacked, and instead of tucking the ball and running for whatever he could, he lofted a pass into double coverage where it was intercepted.

Everyone will want the final drive back. It featured a loss of four yards by Jeff Wilson, a drop by Thaddeus Thompson, and a desperation heave into traffic.

Defense

Whoa. Army improved on their 302 from October with 480 yards in this one. There were no turnovers in this one, but NT did not help themselves here either. The safeties often overran the pitch, the linebackers could not get off blocks, and the line had trouble with the FB Dive. That is how you get gashed for huge yardage.

To be fair, Army had a lot of time and motivation to improve on their previous effort and played about as well as they could. NT has been feeling the effects of attrition and shallow depth. Ekeler and Reffett will not let the squad use that as an excuse, and the relative improvement over last year is still huge. NT had a solid defense for most of the year but it fell apart in the second half of the Southern Miss game, for all of the UTEP game, and in the HOD Bowl.

That said, the defense pulled out a huge stop at the end of regulation, allowing the offense to tie the score. If things broke slightly differently, Morris leads the team to a game-winning TD. I prefer the scenario where the defense gets the stop on 4th-and-3 as they did three other times on 2-pt conversion attempts.

All you want is a chance to win the game and two of the three North Texas phases had exactly that.

Special Teams

Trevor Moore: clutch.

Coaching

I would like to have seen Seth Littrell go for broke when NT faced a 4th and 2 with 24 seconds left in the game. Army played with ridiculous aggression all game — the October broadcast mentioned their study of advanced stats indicating the value of 4th down attempts — while NT seemed unsure. When you stop and think “What is NT’s go-to play?” you can see why Littrell is a bit more conservative in those areas.

The run game simply cannot lineup and get 2-yards with confidence. The pass game is similarly questionable. And so you kick I guess.

North Texas did not have much in the way of strategy to look at here. The defense was gashed repeatedly, and the offense moved the ball by executing base plays for the most part. The real coaching impressiveness came in the squad not giving up yet again. NT stormed back in the first half in a situation we saw McCarney’s later teams give up.

Rally Corn Dog

It helped us.

Other

Minor bowl games are akin to birthdays. It seems like everyone has them but we only care about the one or two that are important to us. NT played in a relatively unremarkable bowl but I still had fun. I had an excuse to watch my favorite team play college football one more time in an historic stadium with friends and family.

I cannot speak for the individual members of the team but I strongly suspect they had fun like I did. When calculating the ROI on some of these things it is important to include that in the calculus.


  1. Going to do a deeper dive on this later