2018: North Texas at UAB Preview

North Texas travels to Birmingham for the biggest game of the season. Be not alarmed, you have heard that phrase before. One aspect of being a fan of a good team is that there are usually more than one Big Game of the season, ultimately culminating in the Biggest.

So will it be this season, if North Texas can overcome a very tough, very physically challenging game against UAB this Saturday. After the loss to Louisiana Tech on the 29th of September, NT fell behind in the race for the division and does not control their own fate alone. That is, NT can win this game and every other game and the slightest chance exists that the Mean Green would be left at home.

As previously discussed, this game is for the division championship inasmuch as it puts Louisiana Tech, North Texas, and UAB in a three-way-tie if NT wins. It is a real possibility that the final tiebreaker, well, breaks the tie: the most recent team to compete in the title game loses. That is to say, NT could lose the 8th and final tie breaker and be eliminated even if they win the rest of the games.

That might get you upset, but if North Texas were to lose? Well, that would be worse. NT would need UAB to lose three of the next four — against marginal competition — to win this division. Oh, and NT would still need LA Tech to lose twice more, also.

The good news is that LA Tech is likely to drop one more — a road trip to FAU still looms for them — and so this division might come down to NT vs UAB this weekend.

Now you understand the stakes. Let us discuss the game and the team. The Blazers have NT in town for Homecoming, and while that can sometimes be interpreted as an insult, this was just the way the schedule broke. Also, having the biggest crowd for a big game might be a good strategy. This weekend is also Children’s Harbor Day, where UAB plays for the “name on the back” by putting the name of a patient on the name of a jersey. It is a really cool thing.

North Texas will be walking into a super tough environment. UAB has been playing well since they returned to the game after a brief absence. Head coach Bill Clark is on the Bear Bryant Coach of the Year Award watch list, along with Seth Littrell, and has stocked his roster with JUCO guys. As we saw last season, taking the Blazers lightly is a mistake. North Texas had a good lead evaporate as QB AJ Erdely threw them back into things, meaning that NT had to fight for a win late, and needed every yard of Jeff Wilson’s 211 to win.

Last year UAB were known for their tough defense and good run game. That is true this year, but they are simply better at things. They come into this season averaging over 200 yard per game on the ground, and sacked J’Mar Smith into a horrible game on the road.

These two teams come in with good arguments as the two best in the league based on their play. Others may be more talented or have a little bit more history, but there are no teams in this league playing like these two are.

Last Week and the Season

UAB destroyed a bad Rice team in Houston, 42-0. WR Xavier Ubosi had four grabs for 196 yards and 2 TDs. One of those scores was a 96-yarder where he overpowered and outran the Rice secondary. While both Charlotte and Rice are bad, two of the worst teams in the league, LA Tech is good. Let us discuss that game instead.

Two weeks ago, UAB went into Ruston and outlasted LA Tech for most of the game, before pulling away with two late TDs to win 28-7. Tech QB J’Mar Smith managed only 9/23 for 107 and 1 INT. He was sacked five times by a ferocious UAB defensive line.

QB AJ Erdely, the man that threw for 300+ against NT last year, managed a measly 136 against the Tech defense, and misfired on his own quite a bit. He started 0-12 passing against the Bulldogs. Eventually, the Blazers were able to establish the run, hit some play-action passes, and pull away.

UAB has beaten Savannah St, Tulane, Charlotte, Tech, and Rice. They lost on the road to Coastal Carolina 47-24 in an awful game that had many questioning their season early.

UAB on Offense

This team is built around the run game. They come into this game averaging 232 a game, just four yards per game behind conference leader FAU and about 80 yard more than NT does. They run for about 5 yards per pop, and have 18 rushing TDs on the season. They average just under 46 running attempts per game. They run on first and second downs about 75% of the time. They want to run.

The offensive line is good, does not allow sacks, and does not allow many tackles for loss. Four of five are seniors and all are at least fourth year players — center (72) Lee Dufour, 6’4″ 310 lbs is a redshirt junior. They like to bring in TE/H-Back 44 Logan Scott 6’5″, 250 lbs senior to help out, and that can cause problems.

Running back 28 Spencer Brown is also big — 6’0″ 220 lbs — he is the sophomore back who had a breakout season last year. Lucious Stanley (2), 6’0″, 215 lbs, is the young freshman who spells him. The WRs you might remember from last season: 3 Andre Wilson, 5’10” 180 redshirt senior, and 13 Collin Lisa, 5’10” 175, redshirt senior. Xavier Ubosi (7), is big and tall at 6’3″ 215. He is also a redshirt senior and had his big breakout game last week.

UAB will do a lot of things to keep the defense from loading up on the run. A good portion of these things are fairly common — a jet sweep motion to keep the defense honest, some counter-trey reads, bubble screens to keep the safeties looking — but it is all built on their ability to block well.

Here are a couple of examples of how good the run game is. In the first, LA Tech had their run fits correct, but the safety takes a bad angle and it means we have a Spencer Brown pay dirt trip. This is well-blocked, and no Tech player gets into the backfield. That puts their talented back in space against a safety. North Texas has had the occasional mistake in the run game, and has allowed a good run or two. Against a Spencer Brown, that is not good.

In this one, we see how Tech was selling out to stop the running back, but forgot — or chose not — to account for Erdely and paid for it. These plays were consecutive. The first gained five and the third-and-one was for the TD.

This season NT has been terrific against the run but this team will challenge their ability by sheer force of will and dedication to the cause. They want to run, believe in the run, and will do it.

The good news is that last year’s NT defense was not as good overall, but shutdown the run game for a good portion. It struggled against the pass game through mental mistakes and those have largely been addressed this season.

AJ Erdely is dangerous when he is on, but he does make mistakes and he is prone to throwing an interception against this NT defense. If it all comes down to stopping the Blazers from getting into the end zone, NT can win. If it comes down to stopping UAB from getting a first down I am less. confident.

UAB on Defense

The front four is good, y’all. The defensive front got to J’Mar Smith a ton, and they get good pressure by themselves. Everyone is big, strong, and experienced. Garret Marino (2), 6’2″ 290, redshirt junior and 41 Quindarius Thargood, 6’4″ 290, redshirt senior are really good.

Nose tackle Andrew Rush, 6’5″ 350 (!!!), senior is a load and allows the linebackers to make plays. Chris Woolbright lead the team in tackles along with Fitzgerald Mofar.

UAB is getting to QBs 3.83 times per game.

North Texas has thrown on everyone this season and when they keep Mason Fine upright, this should be the case again. Last year, Jalen Guyton MOSSED a corner and scored in a highlight play. Jeff Wilson ran for 211.

UAB can be run against. Tech had some success with Kam McKnight, and Coastal Carolina ran for 296 on just 38 carries. We know that DeAndre Torrey is a home-run hitter, and getting good, physical runs from him will be key.

North Texas does not need a Jeff Wilson type of game from any of the backs, but it needs them to run hard and get some yards to keep the pass rush off of Mason Fine and the chains moving.

Seth Littrell has talked a lot about staying ahead of the chains, and the run game is a huge part of this. The offense has had miscues, dropped passes and some poor routes.

If this were in Apogee, we could feel a little better about the ability of this team to overcome some mistakes. UAB will be hyped up at the occasion and if North Texas does not match that energy, it could be a long day offensively.

Mason Fine did well to avoid Southern Miss’ pass rush — and their blitzers — and find the right play even if that play was only a short pass. UAB likely knows it cannot sit in a soft zone forever — they’ll bring pressure and mix it up. Still, they probably liked what Jaylon Ferguson showed against North Texas, and will try to win some of those same matchups.

NT, too, has learned from that game at the end of September.

North Texas can be consistent, but they have not been all season. NT has been explosive, but only in spots. This would be a great time for Mason Fine to throw for 400 and for Jalen Guyton to go off.

As it is, NT tried to get the pass game started by throwing a ton early last game. Some of that was because of the numbers they were shown by USM, and the matchups presented.

The big completion to Mike Lawrence came on a 5-wide set that NT has not shown much at all. That could be the key to getting Lawrence going again, although it will require Mason Fine to take more hits.

Special Teams

North Texas is ranked 4th in S&P+ special teams rating, and that is a good summary of how well the team has played in this area. The two misses (one blocked) by Hedlund against Tech are the only two major mistakes NT has made.

Given the stakes in this one and how close it will be, this could turn on a special teams play by either team.

Numbers

In this space we usually post the regular and advanced rankings. Instead, we’ll just post this:

North Texas and UAB are at the top of all of the advanced numbers here. These two are the best teams in the league (right now) by some margin. The Vegas line has moved from somewhere between 0 and 1. That is to say, it is a push.

UAB is at home and should be good. North Texas did not travel well to UTEP, but dominated a bad Arkansas.

I can see this game going a lot of different ways. I do, however, bleed green. North Texas has the best QB in the league, a good defense, two of the best coordinators in the game, and the momentum of a special season.

Before the season I had this as a loss, but I think NT has already goten their bad luck game — Tech — and their bad road game — UTEP — out of their system.

Terrible Prediction:

North Texas 31 UAB 21.