2017: UTSA Preview

We are midway through #UTSAHATEWEEK and there has been surprisingly little sports hate directed our way. This is likely because UTSA got smacked in the mouth by Southern Miss at home and face a rested North Texas squad boasting the top scoring offense in the league. The usual fandom is unnerved by the situation. This is rational behavior. NT is not the squad it was last season when UTSA fandom was more confident.

Conversely, North Texas is coming off the bye week and the Mean Green fans have good feelings about the state of the program. Having beaten Southern Miss in Hattiesburg two weeks ago, the Mean Green are feeling something like validation in the work they have put in. There is still more of that work to do, as this UTSA squad consists of a good portion of the team that beat NT in San Antonio last year, and has put up solid numbers — even if only against substandard competition.

There is no doubt that North Texas is wary of the difficulties of a bye week. Southern Miss came off a bye before losing to North Texas in Hattiesburg. This week the players and staff saw UTSA wake up from their bye and get shocked by that self same Golden Eagle team in San Antonio. Bye weeks can be dangerous momentum-killers.

Beside that, there is very little seperation between the best CUSA has to offer and the worst. No team can overlook any other and get away with it.

The Game

This is CUSA’s Game Of The Week. The Roadrunners were preseason favorites to take the division (depending on who you talked with) while NT has been the league’s best offense.

UTSA enters the second year of Frank Wilson’s tenure looking to stave off other better offers for their head man. They also look to build on the 6-7 season and bowl loss. Wilson, known as a recruiter, has added talent and built on the squad left over from Larry Coker’s regime.

The numbers say UTSA is one of more complete teams in the league even after last week’s stumble. Looking deeper and you have some reason to be skeptical. Wins at Baylor (17-10), against Southern (51-17), and at Texas St (44-14) were unimpressive from a resume point of view but still noteworthy in the dominance.

A team can only play the foes in front of them, however. Lest anyone overlook this squad, remember that reading too much into the loss against Southern Miss is just as bad of a mistake.

UTSA had yet to see an explosive team like Ito Smith and company. Now that challenge has been burned freshly into their brains as they travel up to Denton.

We noted how similar UNT and USM were in the preview for the conference road opener, and that creates intriguing strategic matchups in this one.

Ito Smith and Jeff Wilson can do similar things, the NT receivers are comparable to the USM guys in production if not height, and Mason Fine is more accurate than Howard and less turnover prone. Each group creates about the same number of explosive plays in combination.

So for UTSA there is a chance to correct the mistakes from last week. That squares with the thinking of UTSA head coach Frank Wilson at his press conference. For the Runners, a second crack at a game they felt got away from them is ideal.

For North Texas, there is a similar opportunity. Watching UTSA get scorched by USM will give Harrell some ideas. USM used the the Runner defense’s aggression against them and RPO’d them for big yards. Howard was accurate. Harrell would not be a good coach if he did not mix in some of that into the game plan. Last game USM tried multiple double-moves after watching UAB have lots of success in Denton. It is a copy-cat game. NT had to prove it could defend the sluggo route. UTSA will try to prove it can stop a good run-pass-option.

NT has faced four FBS Winning opponents and has averaged 33.8 points, 471 yards on 6.74 yards per play.

UTSA has faced one winning FBS opponent (USM) and put up 29 points, 469 yards, and 6.17 yards per play.

In the four games against FBS winning opponents, NT has allowed an average of 39 points, 434.5 yards on 5.72 yards per play.

UTSA has allowed one winning FBS opponent (USM) 31 points, 458 yards on an incredible 8.98 yards per play.

It is difficult to get sense of this game on just the numbers, as NT has faced four winning teams in five contests and UTSA just the one. We cannot say whether UTSA’s potent run game is going to slow down as it did against USM or if it was a one-time thing as was NT’s vs SMU. We do not know if Dalton Sturm’s career high 367-yard, 3 TD game was just more of the evolution of his QB play or merely what USM allows teams to throw when they play good competition.

Southern Miss pass defense, last two games:

  • Mason Fine – 24/40 366 yards, 8.9 ypa, 2 TD 1 INT 144.75
  • Dalton Sturm – 27/43 367 yards, 8.5 ypa, 3 TD 1 INT 152.85

Southern Miss pass defense, first three games:

  • 3 opponents combined – ~11/24 122, 5 ypa, 1 TD 2 INT 89.76

As always, this game will turn on which program controls the philosophy of the game. North Texas would love another shootout game where Mason Fine and his group try to outscore Dalton Sturm and his. While Sturm has been efficient and good, as we saw last week, UTSA was out of their comfort zone and they made mistakes — drops, turnovers, etc.

Sturm is best when he can play-action off a powerful run game and find his targets down the field. For the best part of this season he has been able to do that, boasting a nice TD/INT ration and a great YPA number (9.3).

Conversely, North Texas has been solid against the run — look at the yards per attempt (3.52 against winning FBS) instead of yards per game (139) — and poor against the pass. Everyone felt much better about Eric Jenkins starting last week and more solid-to-decent pass defense should be enough if the offense is as prolific as it has been.

Again, North Texas wants a team like UTSA to spread it out and pass, as it feels it has the advantage in speed and matchups. NT has also been sack crazy against FBS winning competition, posting 10 in four games for 2.5 per.

UTSA was sacked three times last week which was worse than their season average. North Texas should be able to get to Sturm if they can slow the running game.

Attacking The UTSA Defense

UTSA lines up in the 4-2-5 as is common in CUSA, and will show multiple fronts defensively. DTs Kevin Strong and Baylen Baker are 6’4″ and 295 lbs, and 285 lbs respectively. Senior SAM (Jack in NT terminology) Marcus Davenport is a handful at 6’7″ 255. He is one of seven returning starters on defense for UTSA which include corner Austin Jupe (6’1″ 200 Sr) and S Nate Gaines (6’2″ 220 Sr).

The face of the defense is MLB Josiah Tauaefa (6’1″ 240 So) who is from right outside of Denton and famously was overlooked by the previous NT staff. Much has been made of the snub, especially as he makes a name for himself in San Antonio. He flies around and makes plays. Seth Littrell praised his football smarts at this week’s press conference.

“You may [fool] him once, but you won’t get him again.”

The Roadrunner defense is built upon their front four, and Marcus Davenport in particular. He is quick and explosive to the ball. USM used this against him — sacrificing Ito Smith on a couple where he got blown up — by reading him early and often with much success. The front is big and strong and will not allow much inside. Once again, North Texas will likely find much of their success outside. Southern Miss used misdirection (including some WR sweeps) to get to the edge, and then did play-action off of that to attack the inside once UTSA started flowing hard to the edges.

The secondary has good experience and decent size. Southern Miss was able to exploit the DBs with play-action — even the ultimate play-action: a flea-flicker — and NT will likely try something similar. Mason Fine is more accurate and the NT pass game is better generally and so NT may only go to the trickier stuff if the base pass game is not clicking.

The key, as always, will be in protecting Mason Fine from frequent hits. UTSA’s 2016 defense was arguably better in some ways and NT was able to move the ball fairly smoothly with a much worse offense. Still, if NT is rusty from the bye, the Runners have the experience and talent to take advantage.

This group is already hurting from the scorching USM put on them — 9 yards per play! — and their pride will be riding on this game.

UTSA’s Jupe had some trouble with lobs and jump balls and Rico Bussey will probably challenge him more often. On the other side I don’t know that anyone in the secondary can run with Guyton or Smiley. If Fine has time and is accurate, there should be good stuff out there.

Defensive Coordinator Pete Golding coached previously at Southern Miss (which is why there are many similarities in the defenses) among other places and has produced really good units in his time. This group is statistically one of (if not the) best in the league. This game will go a long way toward figuring if UTSA is the kind of defense the talent and numbers say they are, or they were simply beating up on weaker (and discombobulated) opponents.

Defending The UTSA Offense

The numbers say that UTSA is about as explosive and North Texas albeit slightly differently. UTSA QB Dalton Sturm is a senior QB enjoying his best season yet. He is in line to set the all-time UTSA TD pass mark sometime this season as well. Not bad for a former walk-on. He has the highest rating (174.44) and best completion percentage (70.9) to go with his 9 TDs against 1 INT.

Southern Miss got to Sturm a handful of times, and made him use his arm. He responded well, escaping for big yards on scrambles, and using his feet to toss TDs. He can climb the pocket and deliver a good ball under duress4:20 mark in the video below or click the link. He is a good QB.

He is a good QB and yet North Texas will want him to throw 50 times. USM allowed 367 yards but that was in part due to their leaky secondary. DB Curtis Mikell was targeted often with success (he did get an interception) as Sturm would look over toward his side.

UTSA is best when it can run the ball and play-action after. Offensive Coordinator Frank Scelfo runs an old power look with lots of offset I and twins right and left. When everything is clicking there are lots of max-protect, play-action options for Sturm to hit WRs Josh Stewart (6’4″ 210 Sr), Kerry Thomas Jr (6’0″ 205 Sr), and Greg Campbell Jr (6’1″ 190 Jr). Sr Marquez McNair had two scores last week (he’s related to the late Steve McNair)

This look is not uncommon for NT, and there is a lot of tape and experience to draw from (Florida, UTSA, UTEP, Iowa in the last two seasons) with both good and bad examples. NT has been much improved over last season in filling the run gaps. In Iowa the run defense was mostly overpowered late.

Is this UTSA offensive line more talented (bigger, stronger, quicker, and more mentally agile) than Iowa? No. Is this UTSA line better able to execute than Iowa (execute blocks, complete assignments, stick to the plan)? No.

The key for NT’s defensive line will be if they can rise to this challenge. It is easy to get hyped for Iowa in Kinnick. It may not be as easy to get hyped for executing perfectly against UTSA.

UTSA’s right side boasts the most experience (35 starts combined) while the left side is the least experienced (6 starts). Center Austin Pratt (6’2″ 290) has 23 starts and 27 appearances. The front five average about 300 lbs and have good height. TE Shaq Williams (6’4″ 255 Sr) has good size but is prone to drops. He dropped a couple of crucial passes against Southern Miss.

RB Jalen Rhodes (‘5’9″ 200 Jr) is fast and shifty between the tackles. He can get to the edge quickly, but UTSA likes to run inside and establish things. He had a good outing vs NT as UTSA ate up the clock late after some turnovers. Rhodes is not Ito Smith but should not be taken lightly either.

Thus far we have not seen a dominant NT defensive performance. UAB and Southern Miss were able to play their game for stretches. The Blazers memorably had two bookend long TD drives where they exerted their will. If this game follows that pattern but with a better defensive secondary performance now that Jenkins is starting, then this should go NT’s way.

Elsewhere

Special Teams have played better as the season has progressed. Jaelon Darden and Evan Johnson are threats to house it each time they touch the ball. Trevor Moore is still clutch, and the punt game has improved. UTSA has a good special teams unit although their punting team had some issues last week. This game could turn on a field position battle.

Overall

Vegas opened with NT as 4.5 point underdogs and that is now at 2.5. The advanced numbers point toward UTSA, as no efficiency or explosive metric likes the NT defense. Generally speaking, they all have a variation on the same theme: NT with a good offense, bad defense. UTSA with a good offense and a great defense.

While I have a great respect for the numbers, I also see an improving NT defense that cannot be captured by the stats just yet. NT has outproduced expectations each week, and each game on the schedule has looked better with more data. SMU is much better than we thought, Iowa gave Penn State a scare, UAB beat La Tech, and Southern Miss beat UTSA. The S&P+ has moved NT up slowly but surely with each improving performing but it will be a while before NT can overcome the early bad 3rd down numbers statistically.

That means it might be a while before the numbers reveal the improving defense.

S&P: 63
NT: 80 (LW 95)
COW: 47%

SRS: 73
NT: 74 (LW 90)

FPI: 79
NT: 93 (LW 100)
COW: 53.0%

Sagarin: 107
NT: 80 (LW 121)
NT 2 point dogs

FEI: 34
NT: 83 (LW 109)

Massey: 90
NT: 105 (LW 107)
COW: 39%

COW = Chance of Winning

Predictions

Last game I picked Southern Miss mostly on the strength of two things: 1) the leaky secondary and 2) NT having yet proven it could win a tough game.

The secondary was solid and there was plenty of adversity to overcome. This game has huge implications but is a stepping stone toward a full-on pressure game. UTSA is favored after all and at least one NT player has taken note of this fact.

I believe the NT secondary will do enough to reward the ferocious NT defensive line for their standard down efforts (seriously, the defense is damned-near elite on standard downs). Mason Fine has plenty of revenge motivation to unleash and Jeff Wilson is having himself a season. I think NT has enough to outlast a Runner team that will give a good effort in a loss.

MGN Prediction: North Texas 38 UTSA 30

Fun Facts

McNair is related to Steve McNair, King Newton is the son of Cowboy great Nate Newton, and the Quality Control coach is Giovanni Vizza, holder of a few NT passing records.

Start the discussion at discuss.meangreennation.com