2017: CUSA Championship Game Preview

FAU has set records for offense this season in total yards, yards per game, rush yards per game, rushing touchdowns, rush yards, yards per rush, points and that’s just a quick browse.

This has been an historic season for the Owls in many ways very similar to the North Texas year which has seen similar records set for points, points per game, passing TDs, total offense, yards per game, and first downs.

By most measures this is a fun pairing and would be more exciting but for the fact that it has already happened. Florida Atlantic famously dominated the previous matchup in Boca Raton 69-31 in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated, if even that is believable.

The concern for North Texas is that the defense was shredded for 500+ yards by Army and this FAU offensive line, led by C Antonyo Woods, is likely thrilled at the chance to blow away North Texas’ defensive line again.

The Mean Green defense held Devin Singletary to 7 yards on his first three carries. The real surprise was the struggling FAU pass game exploded for 357 yards — his most all season. North Texas’ rush defense has been serviceable (I write that with a straight face) but the pass game has been questionable on third downs.

In the October game both were awful. Lane Kiffin is a great offensive coordinator and Kid Briles knows the offense that helped Robert Griffin III to win a Heisman and the Baylor Bears to average about 600+ yards per game. Combining those two offensive minds together with some talent has helped the Owls rewrite the record book fairly easily.

It poses an issue for North Texas’ defense, which is not built to combat this type of offense especially. Power run teams like Iowa, UTSA, and even La Tech were more easily handled through the use of angles and effort. Still, North Texas’ linebackers are somewhere in the middle of the league and that is not going to cut it against a good offense.

Marshall did a great job against FAU, allowing only 353 yards on 63 plays (5.60) including only 189 rushing and 164 passing. The trademark pull away by FAU did not happen in the 4th quarter and the biggest reason for the loss was Chase Litton throwing four interceptions.

Marshall controlled the time of possession and stole a possession with a successful onside kick. If there is a blueprint it is that.

The issue is of course that this is much easier written than done.

Lane Kiffin is one of the better game-planners out there and he and his staff will have a good one to attack this North Texas defense. Seth Littrell and company need some luck.

Kiffin at the league conference call said that his squad got all the luck in the first meeting and he is right. The Owls were beneficiaries of numerous questionable calls including the famous holding on the double-slant play that resulted in an interception.

Offense

North Texas has to score a lot. This game will not be comfortable if North Texas scores less than 40. Beyond that North Texas will need to modify their modus operandi. NT does not huddle but in modern college football that does not necessarily make you supremely fast. NT is 49th in adjusted pace and FAU is first.

The question is if offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and head coach Seth Littrell want to try to help the defense through some ball-control. If NT thinks they can still score effectively while slowing the game down a bit they should do so.

Given what we have seen, however, NT believes the offense should never compromise and should go all-in all the time. This is admirable and probably the best way to attack things.

Jalen Guyton was held out of the Rice game but he seemed fine. He was eliminated from the game after a vicious hit and North Texas was without its deep threat for most of the game. Guyton had not had but one target up to the point where he ws injured anyway and so it made little difference.

Here, he will be vital in stretching the defense. Turner Smiley has been coming on of late, and Rico Bussey is always a threat to make good run after catch yards. Florida Atlantic will focus their efforts on making Mason Fine beat them while being hit.

This is not an unusual tactic, and NT has been able to keep teams honest for the most part with play-pass and deep stuff with max-protection. The Mean Green like their chances with Smiley, Guyton, and Bussey 1-on-1 deep.

Last game, FAU won those battles. Bussey lost a couple of matchups and was out-fought for a jump ball that changed the momentum early. Without Guyton, the only receiver that stood out was Mike Lawrence who had a big game.

The offense put up numbers late, but it struggled early and that was the real issue. This type of offense looks great when it is converting 4th and shorts and moving the ball. It looks awful when it is 4-and-out in their own territory.

This is how the game is played and Seth Littrell will live and die by this philosophy. Nic Smith is a different back than Jeff Wilson. Wilson was great on pass protection but Nic Smith does not have the fumble problems that Wilson does (as of now).

It is not quite blasphemous to say that NT will not lose much in the promotion of Nic Smith to primary back. Smith is the future, and Mason Fine has taken a larger portion of the offense upon himself, as was always the plan. Wilson is a game-changer, and that loss will be significant but will not hinder the offense enough to matter significantly at this point.

Last year Wily Ivery stepped in, and this year it is Nic Smith doing the same.

Other than the score, here are some indicators to keep an eye on:

  • 3rd Down Conversions
  • TOs
  • Average Field Position
  • Rico Bussey catches

Defense

This is the big question. Florida Atlantic put up 804 yards of offense and North Texas is now written on a bunch of FAU records. The contested portion of the game was over in the first half, and even then in the first quarter.

North Texas could not deal with the tempo, and could not get lined up. NT had too many defenders organizing themselves when the ball was snapped. This, of course, is the idea behind going super-fast as FAU does. They are first in adjusted pace, and there is no reason to slow down for North Texas.

Lane Kiffin thinks his offense can go score for score with North Texas if need be, and thinks his defense can come up with one or more timely stop and NT’s defense cannot do the same.

This was evident in the October game and was true to an extreme degree. NT did not ever stop FAU all game.

Of course, the NT offense did not help things by gifting the ball to FAU quickly and often in the first quarter. Still, the defense tried to do what it could and forced some third down situations early before getting sliced up by big plays in the pass game — a common occurrence this season.

Defensive coordinator Troy Reffett is known for his aggression and we will need to see more of that than less. The issue last time was that FAU is ready to exploit aggression — again, because they have good game planners — and often hits over-aggressive teams with devastating counters.

Every FAU highlight package includes a receiver running free over the middle thanks to a Run-Pass-Option or a trick play 1 that stems that tide.

Those counters or constraint plays are drawn up to keep your defense playing honest football. FAU believes that they can win with their base stuff against North Texas’ base stuff and uses the constraint plays to keep you in your base.

Simple, yes? Yes. That is a good offense in a nutshell. The teams that cannot keep defenses in base, or cannot win vs a defense’s base are the ones that lose. Last year NT could not keep defenses out of the box and they struggled. Now? Well Guyton keeps everyone back and there is so much more room for everyone.

The pass game for FAU has been better in the last three weeks — averaging 200+ a game — and that is a concern. After 12 games the defense is what it is: a poor passing down defense.

If FAU has not figured out the pass game and instead was benefitting from playing poor teams only, then we can feel a little better. In any case, the important thing is to win the first quarter. FAU came out last time and scored on the first possession, putting the pressure on North Texas immediately.

The best defense is likely a good offense. We saw NT take possession first against Army, as Littrell anticipated the concern of ceding possession to an offense that likes to dominate proceedings. Marshall had a surprise onside kick that worked in their favor.

If North Texas cannot force three-and-outs or turnovers, look for some possession-maximizing calls — an onside, a 4th down attempt, a punt fake.

Indicators beside the score:

  • First Quarter plays

If NT is on the field for a long time — large number of plays in this case — then this will be a long afternoon in Florida. The Owls ran 29 plays in the first quarter (to North Texas’ 15) and only had three incompletions. By then the score was 24-0 and the defense was visibly gassed.

FAU made North Texas work on defense for every one of those 29 plays.

The good news for NT is that they forced four third down attempts. The bad news is that FAU converted on 3rd/4th or kicked a field goal in all situations.

Overall

This is what the game is played for: championships. The College Football Playoff relies on resumes, and committees. The league title is all about beating the teams in front of you ever week. North Texas has done that against every opponent. The one they have not will be standing in front of them on December 2nd.

Worse teams have overcome bigger deficits with bigger talent disparities. Vegas has North Texas somewhere at 10.5 point underdogs. The advanced numbers point strongly in favor of The Lane Train and all for good reason.

North Texas is on a miracle turnaround run but so is Florida Atlantic. These two former Sun Belt champs are battling it out for the CUSA title that most observers thought would be held in Ruston or Bowling Green.

Just a few short years ago Rice held this up and now just fired the man who led them there. That is a testament to how quickly fortunes can change in this game. It would be a shame to blow this opportunity.

My brain is screaming about how in every aspect of the game North Texas is just a smidge behind FAU. North Texas offense is explosive and efficient especially with the pass. Florida Atlantic’s offense has been more explosive and more efficient especially with the run.

NT’s defense has done enough to win games — especially late in the 4th quarter where the are ranked in the top 26 in S&P+ — but Florida Atlantic’s has gotten turnovers that feed the offensive machine.

NT’s coaching staff is filled with good coaches showing promise or showing their skills. FAU’s has a staff of some of the game’s best offensive and defensive minds in recent years.

My heart, of course, says North Texas will find a way to do the difficult task of beating Florida Atlantic in their place to win the title and really declare a win for #newDenton.

MGN Prediction: North Texas 24 Florida Atlantic 38

MGN Heart Prediction: NT 41 FAU 40

Listen to your hearts, friends.


  1. Against Marshall FAU broke out a WR pass that was extremely wide open.