2017: Southern Miss Preview

Ladies and gentleman, our favorite little college football team travels to Mississippi this weekend for a very large and important conference game. Among the slate of CUSA offerings it is the best matchup by some margin.

Southern Miss has long returned out of the nadir that was the 2012-2014 seasons where they went a combined 4-32 after 2011’s 12-2 conference title winning season. Jay Hopson took over for Todd Monken after the 2015 season and has Southern Miss continuing a winning trend, though not a dominating one.

Still, the Eagles boast a productive offense and a solid defense. For NT fans wanting a peak into the future, this Southern Miss team is not a bad state of being for the NT program. The offensive and defensive philosophies are similar and the personnell is also. Ito Smith is Jeff Wilson plus an extra 10%. *

  • _This is not a knock on our guy, but Ito Smith is going on his third 1K season and has amassed 4500+ yards and 36 TDs rushing and passing. He’s really good.

The lead-in talk this week is about NT’s productive offense and Southern Miss’s stingy defense, but there is more to this matchup than that. NT leads the league in scoring at 37.8 but also 23.0 ppg vs winning FBS teams. Southern Miss comes in 4th in both total scoring (30.0) and vs winning FBS teams at 17.0 (vs Kentucky) per game.

NT played two winning FBS teams and is allowing 454 per game while Southern Miss’ defense was stifling against Kentucky allowing a total of 254 — 176 passing and 78 rushing. That is impressive until you consider UK only managed 436 yards against Eastern Kentucky. It could be more that UK is bad than Southern Miss is good.

Still, it would be foolish to overlook USM. ULM is a solid enough team, and Kentucky is an SEC squad with all the recruiting advantages. Southern is hurt and an FCS squad but every CUSA team has played one of those thus far.

What most Eagles fans are afraid of is a shootout. NT has displayed more of a propensity to score against a variety of defenses. NT moved the ball fairly well and had a 41-yard score against Iowa, at least as good of a defensive team as Kentucky but USM has only managed the 45 against Southern while NT put up 59 vs Lamar.

As always the team that plays their game will have the best chance to win. NT will want a higher paced game — not a shootout per se. Last week UAB controlled the clock on the first drive before NT got a couple of stops and quick scores. The pressure to keep pace with NT’s scoring forced UAB into pass-first mode and NT capitalized on it on standard downs (first and second) with some sacks and a solid pass rush. Obviously NT did not do very well on passing downs when UAB started throwing with abandon.

Kwadra Griggs has tossed 681 yards and 7 TDs vs 1 INT. He has been stellar on 2nd down passing (likely from a play-action look) going 18/26 (69.2%) for 271 yards and 5 TDs including 10 completions of 15+ yards and 4 of 25+ for a rating of 220.24.

The good news is North Texas is excellent on 2nd downs allowing only a QB rating of 95.24 and a completion percentage of 45.5%.

Last year NT feasted on the turnovers in Denton, but Kwadra Griggs does not throw interceptions often (only the one) but has fumbled thrice.

For the NT defense, two-thirds of the game plan has worked beautifully. Finding a way to improve even half of the terrible passing down performance will go a long way toward improving the chances of winning. NT was bad against SMU and did not quite have the offensive efficiency to keep up then. Even though the UAB game involved a blown 16-point lead, it was closer to the ideal game: NT got up big enough to be able to afford the leaky defense.

Historically NT has done decently against USM. Last year North Texas blew a 20-0 lead and had to get a late Wily Ivery 11-yard TD to go up. Nate Brooks sealed the game with an interception. Two seasons ago (I realize this is less relevant but still) Jeff Wilson had himself a day in Hattiesburg.

Attacking The Southern Miss Defense

Southern Miss lines up in a hybrid 4-2-5/3-3-5 that is very similar to Reffet’s defense. The Nose tackles Delmond Landry (6’4″ 305 lbs) and Demarrio Smith ( 6’2″ 265 lbs) are big but not space-eating types. Defensive Tackle Draper Riley is also 304 lbs and 6’4″. DEs LaDarius Harris and Xavier Thigpen are the Bandit defensive ends, tallish rangy pass rush types.

MLB Sherrod Ruff, SLB (Will linebacker) Racheem Boothe and Wolf (basically like NT’s Jack) all run in the 215-230 range. Rover (Nick in North Texas terminology) Jomez Applewhite is 6’1″ 180 lbs. Rod Crayton, the backup (according to the depth chart) is the leading TFL man with 3.5 to his name with 6 run stuffs (tackles for loss or at the line). Racheem Boothe is second on the team with five stuffs.

For the Mean Green offense, the challenge will be in getting around the big tackles. NT has had success on standard downs, but has been poorer on power runs in short yardage. Southern Miss will likely win the short yardage battles, so the game will be if NT can get to the edge or if the misdirection runs are succesful (power/counter).

Jeff Wilson and Nic Smith have the speed and shiftiness to get to the second level with enough room, but Southern Miss’s line is going to be tough to move. If SoMiss is stopping Jeff with just the front six (plus Rover/Nickel combination for the seventh) then NT will have a long day. North Texas has been good in staying on schedule and getting first downs.

NT’s receiving corps and pass game is probably the best Southern Miss has seen all season. Mason Fine and Jalen Guyton will continue their long range bombing attempts as the defense shows some looks they like. Generally, when defenses have dropped more into the box to stop Jeff Wilson, that is when NT goes deep. Guyton has taken the top off every defense in front of him thus far, and at the very least will challenge Southern Miss’s DBs. They have good experience in the secondary and that is key for a good defense.

Defending Southern Miss

The offense begins and ends with Ito Smith. This season he’s already put up 109 yards receiving to go with his 333 and two scores on the ground. Griggs has been productive at QB and but the offense has not been overly explosive on the scoreboard. Still, the offense can move the ball and explosively well, which seems odd. Allenzae Staggers (6’2″ 169 lbs) remains the best WR on the team, the most targeted, but third in catches behind Korey Robertson (6’2″ 215 lbs) and Ito Smith.

The offensive line boasts two redshirt seniors, a junior, a redshirt freshman, and a redshirt sophomore. There is good size all along the line but not a whole lot of experience together or in general. Injuries have forced some shuffling around but overall they have done a good job keeping Griggs upright and giving Ito Smith daylight.

Smith does not need much daylight to do his thing.

He is quick and shifty and can make plays from all over the field. North Texas’s defensive line has done a great job of getting penetration by slanting hard. The Mean Green line is light, and Iowa did a great job of using their size advantage. Still, NT was able to make it tough all game.

Southern Miss does not have the same kind of advantage here, but they will try something similar. Griggs is also elusive and can extend plays like Erdely did last week. Southern Miss has all the ingredients to challenge NT’s weaknesses — a good back that demands attention, a QB that can throw deep and extend plays, and a wide out corps with size and strength.

Last season Nate Brooks did a great job of staying with Allenzae Staggers all game but he has struggled of late. While the depth chart lists Nate Brooks as a starter, I think we will see more of Eric Jenkins if Southern Miss is successful on double moves early.

North Texas has shown a couple of good things through four games: the ability to stifle the run game, and the ability to get to the QB. UAB came in averaging 265 a game on the ground and was held to a little over 100 (before subtracting QB sacks).

The key here will be if NT can figure out the leaky secondary.

Griggs does not throw the best deep ball (he floats it and it is a little short) but he has playmaking receivers that can go up an get the ball and everyone is dangerous after the catch — especially Smith.

Elsewhere

Special Teams have been poor for NT but Jaelon Darden has looked good returning kicks, and Evan Johnson nearly won the game on his own last week and certainly got a huge assist in actually winning it with his big kickoff return.

Trevor Moore has been clutch, and there was a blocked punt. If the punt game can continue to improve — or if the offense can simply keep the punt unit off the field as they did for much of last week — then things will be great for NT.

Special Teams helped SMU seal the blowout a few weeks ago, and helped win the game last week. Do not discount the importance of the ST unit especially on the road.

Overall

Southern Miss opened as a 7.5 point favorite and that has settled in at about 8 now. The advanced numbers point heavily in their favor but all have a good portion of the preseason predictions in them (as much as 43%).

S&P: 71
NT: 95 (LW 105)
COW: 32%

SRS: 69
NT: 90 (LW 95)

FPI: 83
NT: 100 (LW 97)
COW: 27.8%

Sagarin: 88
NT: 121 (LW 128)

FEI: 68
NT: 109 (LW 109)

Massey: 90
NT: 107 (LW 146)
COW: 25%

COW = Chance of Winning

Last season North Texas stole a game but nearly gave it away and that team’s defense was more solid in the secondary, but much weaker offensively. Southern Miss is now more solid at QB and at home. The question for our guys is this: Can North Texas’ offense score enough to overcome the leaky secondary?

My heart says NT finds a way to do so. My brain tells me that Southern Miss has enough advantages to pull this out.

MGN Prediction: Southern Miss 34 NT 30