Important games come in different varieties. There is no doubt you were told of the importance of the UTSA game in early October. It was a very important game. The fun thing about winning important games is that they beget even more important ones later. Such is the case here.
North Texas controls their destiny in the CUSA West division, holding a 4-1 record thus far. While Bowl Eligibility is near, it is actually the secondary goal in this particular game. While winning bowl games and calling them championships is a thing, winning the actual CUSA championship is perhaps a little more prestigious.
Entering this season, Louisiana Tech and UTSA were expected to compete for the division title and likely face WKU out of the East. Instead two former Sun Belt foes lead the division. So it goes.
Louisiana Tech is a good team. Despite losing games against UAB and USM, they remain a good team. Those losses were not of the blowout variety, and it could be persuasively argued that bad luck was the biggest driver in each one. J’Mar Smith (6’1″ 216 RSSO) is a talented QB and can do the things UAB’s AJ Erdely and UTSA’s Dalton Sturm did to beat the NT secondary on the ground and through the air.
RB Jarred Craft (6’0″ 222 SR)is talented, experienced, and can beat teams that rely on arm tackles. WRs Rashid Bonnette (6′ 0″ 169 RSO), Marlon Watts (6’2″ 197 SR), Teddy Veal (6′ 0″ 189 RSJR), and Kam McKnight (6’2″ 232 RSJR) have talent even if they have not put it all together. Teddy Veal is the leading pass-catcher with 50 grabs for 583 yards and 3 scores. The Tulane transfer runs good routes, has good hands, and can make a play after the catch.
This game will not necessarily be about outscheming or surprises. At this point for both teams, getting the respective squads to play a full 60-minutes of their brand of football is the key. North Texas has yet to put together 4 quality quarters. La Tech has yet to play to their preseason billing outside of the early outings against the SEC teams.
North Texas’ defense is trying to prove that unit has actually been better than the abysmal passing numbers suggest, while trying to heal. Meanwhile the Tech defense won the game last week but also helped put them in a precarious spot.
Ruston is a tough place to play, but the last time Tech hosted a game Southern Miss mounted a furious comeback to steal the game in OT.
Attacking the La Tech Defense
Mason Fine is playing the best football from a QB position in the league right now. Not only is he putting up the best production, but he is toughing out and making relatively few mistakes. The La Tech defense, however, is the best he will have faced since FAU a couple of weeks back. Like the Owls, the Tech defense is interception-happy, placing second in the league with 11. FAU leads with 14.
The good news for the Mean Green is that Tech has only managed 5 INTs in conference play (FAU 11) and while Mason can be a bit loose when running for his life, he is deadly accurate on the deep passes.
Tech lines up in a 4-2-5, as most teams in the league do. They are lighter through the middle than your average CUSA team — DT Jordan Bradford is 6’2″ 280 (JR), and Keonatye Gardner is 6′ 4″ 280 (JR). DE Jaylon Ferguson (6′ 5″ 269 RSJR) is the guy to watch on the edge. He has four sacks and 5 QB hurries on the year to go along with two blocked kicks. True Freshman corner Amik Robertson (5’9″ 182) is small but is leading the team in INTs with two and returned one 61 yards (e shares the lead with three others). LB Dae’Von Washington (5’10” 215 RSJR) is second to Robertson in tackles wit h23 and hs a couple of INTs himself.
The quick line on this team is that it is young, light, but talented. NT cannot expect to waltz over this squad — especially on the road — and make plays. Still, La Tech had trouble with Southern Miss and this blog has noted the similarities between USM and NT. Tech had trouble tackling Tez Parks and Ito Smith and they could struggle with a healthy Jeff Wilson and a progressing Nic Smith. Beyond that Keon Howard looked great passing against them and Mason Fine is a much better passer.
Defensively, only FAU has been able to shut down Jalen Guyton, and even then Mike Lawrence got free. The question is not if LT can slow any one particular receiver but if they can stop all of them and if that will be enough. NT has had trouble on short yardage but the light Tech defense may be the answer to our prayers.
The tackling in the secondary has been an issue for the Bulldogs and Jalen Guyton, Jaelon Darden, and Rico Bussey are really good at yards after the catch.
Defending La Tech
J’Mar Smith is a good QB and can run. That will be a problem. Jarred Craft is a good back but is not Kenneth Dixon and that is great news. In the pantheon of CUSA backs, Craft does not rank ahead of FAU’s Motor Singletary, UTSA’s Jalen Rhodes, or USM’s Ito Smith. Having seen those other backs, the defense should be well prepared for the LT run game.
Smith had trouble throwing on the suspect USM defense, and threw an awful INT late. The LT line has been under construction and their performance against an improved NT defensive line could be the entire game. While the LT line boasts some JRs and SRs, the group lacks game experience and time together.
The key, as always, will be in stopping the run game and succeeding on passing downs. North Texas is top 40 on standard downs, and bottom 30 on passing downs. For those who follow the program closely, this is not surprising. The defense has suffered more on third-and-long than it has on third-and-short.
Andy Flusche has had an underrated season and the rest of the line has been good to great. The missing ingredient has been a dominant pass rusher. Josh Wheeler has been slowed at times because of injury, and his status for the game in Ruston is in question*. While others have sacks to their name, Josh Wheeler is a sack specialist.
* He is listed on the two-deep.
When this blog and others mentions depth and roster issues, this is what is meant. While the secondary is deep — this was known coming into the season — every other position has hope at best, and question marks at worst. It is not the worst situation to have, but it is tenuous. Much has been made of the breakdown last year, but the difference was that NT entered into a tough part of the schedule then, and the weakest this year. La Tech is not the same team that won handily in Denton last season, and even then NT played a good first half.
Louisiana Tech does not have the horses to explode for big yards and big TDs the same way, and their hesitancy as they search for reliable contributors will allow North Texas some room for error. With a defense struggling to prove the improvement, and minor injuries slowing things down, room for error is welcome.
Tech only managed 22 against UAB and 27 (in OT) against USM, two teams that NT averaged 44.5 against. Troy Reffett’s group only needs to slow the offense enough
NT opened as 3-point underdogs and that has moved to 4.5 points as of this writing. The advanced numbers guys as a whole think NT will lose and a good portion of that is because the Mean Green are on the road.
S&P: 81 NT: 54 (Last Week 67) COW: 65% SRS: 86 NT: 89 (LW 87) FPI: 92 NT: 97 (LW 97) COW: 35.4% Sagarin: 131 NT: 114 (LW 109) NT 1.53 underdogs FEI: 78 NT: 104 (LW 99) COW: 21.6% Massey: 108 NT: 104 COW: 34% COW = Chance of Winning
There is a real question about this team’s ability to travel and play well. Each of the three losses came on the road and there is a real good possibility that two of the five wins would have been losses if played outside of Denton — UTSA, UAB. That is the pessimist’s view. SMU and FAU are clearly better than the preseason predictions and losses on the road to those teams are not terribly shameful.
Iowa, is a Power 5 team and for all intents and purposes that game concluded about as well as could be hoped. The lone road win was a gem of a comeback, which still carries concern. North Texas spotted USM an early big lead and only then proceeded to mount the comeback.
Again, there is real reason to be concerned for this team. The good news is that North Texas is playing better than La Tech right now — not those other squads — and Tech has real questions about tier own form. Losing to Southern Miss by blowing an 11-point lead will not sit well with them if North Texas begins to mount a comeback.
The point is that every team has psychological hurdles to overcome. On the football field, the edge is slightly in North Texas’ favor considering the experience, the form, and the talent. Louisiana Tech has talent, but they are not exactly putting that into production.
MGN Prediction: NT 35 – LT 31
La Tech leads the series 9-6, but NT leads in Ruston 5-4.