2018: North Texas vs Louisiana Tech Preview

North Texas opens conference play on a day celebrating the past and the future. The Mean Green will honor Mean Joe with a statue and break ground on the new indoor practice facility.

It is only fitting that fans of football are treated to an important matchup as the evening’s primary entertainment.

Louisiana Tech comes to Denton boasting a 2-1 record. While NT was beat writer media pick to win the division, Tech were betting favorites to win the West. This was with good reason. In preseason, the Mean Green had a very large question to answer: will that defense be good enough to allow Mason Fine and company some help?

Thus far through four games, they have answered that with a resounding ‘yes’. The defense is not only good enough, but they have been near one of the best in the nation. Sure, the competition is lacking, but it is no small feat what these guys have done, especially considering last year’s rankings.

Tech, by contrast, felt they had lost close games through a combination of bad luck, injury, and questionable coaching — that is Skip Holtz himself saying that. Holtz was beaming at CUSA Media Days when he brought up his favorite talking point: the return of his starting QB. “We have not had a returning starter in a while.”

J’Mar Smith is good, and while he gets unfairly criticized for some mistakes — part of the gig — he is a talent with a good arm and good mobility.

He also is helped by good receivers. WRs Adrian Hardy and Teddy Veal have talent to win one-on-one matchups that can ruin a team playing man-to-man. As good as NT has been in these scenarios thus far — NT has won each matchup and lead the nation in interceptions — you might recall when Tech brought in Carlos Henderson in 2016 and grabbed 8 passes for 133 and 4 scores.

Playing aggressively is fun until you get burned.

The point of bringing up that old game is to remind you that Tech gets talented players into Ruston and last year’s win was against an injured, reloading version 1.

DE Jaylon Ferguson is a problem, he is the nation’s career active sack leader and got himself a strip-sack against LSU last week. CB Amik Robertson is one of the league’s best, and LB Dae’von Washington is good.

Last Week

LA Tech lost 38-21 to LSU after falling behind 24-0 because of some unfortunate mistakes. There were some unlucky turnovers that LSU capitalized on, partly due to some early jitters in such a big game. J’Mar Smith led the comeback attempt mostly by tossing passes to Adrian Hardy — he had 10 grabs for for 181 and 2 scores.

Hardy is 6’2″ 193, a sophomore out of Houston and a former 3-star WR. He originally signed with Oklahoma, but asked for his release the summer after signing day.

Tech had trouble running the ball against LSU’s stout defense, averaging only 3.3 yards per tote, but managed to get yards through the arm of Smith. He had 350 through the air.

After Smith hit Hardy for 42 yards and a score to close within 24-21, LSU then scored two more and shutdown the Bulldogs to win going away.

Louisiana Tech on Offense

J’Mar Smith, the aforementioned quality QB is good. He did not shine particularly brightly last year in Ruston, but he was able to make enough plays to get Tech the lead for a good portion of the game. The main complaint about him was his missed passes that seemingly turned TDs into FGs.

This season, he still has the mobility, and still has the arm. Instead of watching Liberty’s Buckshot Calvert throw wobbly corner routes short of his targets, Smith will toss it up and let his man make a play.

Here are two examples from last week.

and

Liberty tried to hit those one-on-one go routes along the sideline but failed.

North Texas likes to bring pressure, and has done an excellent job putting down QBs who have relatively limited running ability. As you saw above, he can avoid a rusher or two and get the ball downfield. With good receivers who come open, coverage sacks like below are less likely.

On this one, Taylor Robinson gets to Calvert right as he threw, which helped the pass fall incomplete.

Tech will attack much in the same way that Liberty, SMU, and Incarnate Word tried. The Flames had some success running outside zone, but had some bad snaps blow up their drives. They also were uncharacteristically sloppy passing the ball and did not even give their receivers the chance to catch the ball.

If we played that game again in nicer conditions, NT probably allows 20-25 points. Again — being lucky is part of the game, especially when you help yourself be more fortunate.

Some of Liberty’s better runs came on some mistakes. Check this out. The backside tackle wins his block, and essentially blocks two NT defenders. Jamie King probably should have stayed in his gap and ran “down” the line of scrimmage. Instead he tried to fill the gap that Saafi left and got caught. Liberty’s Matthews took the cutback lane and got big yards.

That kind of stuff will not fly against Tech.

RB Jaqwis Dancy is good. He famously overcame stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is the team’s leading back with 242 yards on 27 touches. He shares time with Israel Tucker, the nominal starter, who is at 120 yards on 34 carries. Either can catch the ball and Tech will shift them out wide in the slot.

Redshirt sophomore C Kody Russey, 6’1″ 285 lbs, leads an experienced line. He is flanked by redshirt JR RG Ethan Reed, redshirt SR RT Michael Rodriguez on the right. He has redshirt freshman LG Joshua Mote, and O’Shea Dugas, SR LT, on the left.

The run game did not produce much early, and after Tech got down, there was a focus on passing. NT likes to stop the run with numbers in the box and dare teams to throw.

Teams often try to play-action, max-protect, and try to win a matchup outside. Thus far NT has been great at defending this.

There have been mistakes, however.

Calvert ignored his TE down the middle and stared down his man, throwing incomplete.

Above, we see Calvert hit his man Stubbs against NICK Jameel Moore. This is a tough route to defend. Liberty had some success moving the pocket and hitting comeback routes this way. It is a good way to change the angles and get away from pressure.

Last year we saw plenty of this from Tech, including one where Smith just scampered in for six when he saw no passing options.

Overall, however, NT was able to blow up a lot of the plays Tech had last year. Veal and Hardy are good, and they will win their share of battles, but so will the NT corners.

Reffett’s defense is designed to put a tremendous amount of pressure on the offense to be perfect every time, and to withstand and absorb negative plays while moving the ball. This can mean the occasional big play allowed, but overall it has been tremendously successful thus far.

LSU is the most talented team Tech has faced, but they have a tendency to let off the gas a bit. LSU were coming off a big win, and it is a little understandable if they let up after going up so big so quickly.

The Bulldogs have struggled a bit — at South Alabama — and have shown some good things. We still do not know too much.

Louisiana Tech on Defense

Mason Fine walked his offense down the field early, and then handed off to victory late. That is the classic approach. Pass to win, run to seal the deal. There are the occasional drops that are frustrating, but it is awesome to see a consistent Rico Bussey, Jr. put up numbers.

He is the team’s leading pass catcher and TD maker. He scored against Tech on a little deep fade route and did something similar last week against Liberty.

The short version is that Bussey and Guyton can win matchups against Amik Robertson and L’Jarius Sneed. Given the similarities — Tech runs the same kind of defense NT does, but relies more on redshirt SR DE Jaylon Ferguson, 6’5″ 262, to get their pressure.

The whole defensive line is stout — DT Jordan Bradford, DE Matthew Ydarraga, DT Keonatye Garner — are good and experienced. North Texas’s Jeff Wilson ran for 165 on that defense last season, breaking tackles and running away from guys. He was helped by the NT offensive line, which had a great day blocking.

The reappearance of the run game comes at a perfect time. We may be in for a repeat of the UTSA game from last year — a potential NFL lineman hitting Fine repeatedly as NT tries to hit the defense over the top.

North Texas wants to get Tech out of their zones, get them in man coverage and look to WR Jaelon Darden on their nickel corner. Darden has been electric, and has beaten every team deep this season.

As usual, this football game will come down to the linemen. NT’s linemen are good, and playing better football than last year. NT does a lot of zone blocking and even with the same players returning, it can take some time to get the right feel of when to leave your block, when stay and combination block, etc.

Last week North Texas sealed things by relying on the run game. On one drive OC Graham Harrell ran outside zone and a counter play excessively. NT lined up in the same look but just took advantage of the smaller Liberty line.

Liberty’s DE 11 tried to shoot the gap — a typical reaction against teams killing you on stretch zones — and NT countered that by pulling a lineman into his gap, sealing him, and getting yards. The next time (very next play) that NT ran the stretch zone, he was not so eager.

This is how constraint plays work.

Tech has decidedly better defensive linemen than Liberty, but are comparable to Arkansas’. South Alabama, a good rushing team, put up 217 yards on 5.05 yards a pop with 3 scores. North Texas has been good in short-yardage regardless, and that bodes well. That was an issue last season.

If North Texas can pass the ball like they have thus far, they should be good. If the run game is even average, NT should put up lots of points. If not, Tech has enough talent to turn mistakes into turnovers.

Special Teams

Tech has kicked only 12.5% of kickoffs for touchbacks. NT has kicked 41% and none out of bounds. Tech has done so once. Tech’s kicker has missed one, while NT is 10/10. Hedlund has not had a pressure kick like Trevor Moore’s clutch stuff from last season.

NT’s ST coach Marty Biagi has his group playing extremely well, and is ranked 6h in S&P+ ratings for special teams.

Numbers, Advanced and Otherwise

Regular Numbers

NT (FBS Rank) Category LA Tech (FBS Rank)
48.8 (12) Points 35.0 (45)
510.8 (17) Total Off 490.0 (27)
166.0 (81) Rush Off 168.0 (76)
345.3 (12) Pass Off 322.0 (14)
15.8 (12) Scoring Def 27.0 (78)
308.0 (19) Total Def 334.3 (37)
209.0 (61) Pass Def 166.0 (21)
99.0 (14) Rush Def 168.33 (78)

Advanced, and Odds

Vegas:

NT -7 OU: 64

S&P+:

NT overall 44, offense 62, defense 43, st 6
LT overall 80, offense, 37, defense 105, st, 119

Massey:

NT 74, LT 82. Predicts 35-31 NT win with 62% probability

FEI:

NT 59, LT 42

Sagarin:

NT: 50, LT: 84. Predicts NT by 11.

SRS:

NT overall 14, off 23, def 29
LT overall 73, off 61, def 82

North Texas is getting a little more efficient. A few more big passing plays and North Texas will get back up to the 40s where the team finished last year. The defense has been incredible. As more film is watched, we should see some different approaches to attacking the NT defense.

Tech is still an unknown. The offense looks good because of the big days, but there were two hit-and-miss games in the three played.

Leaders

Passing
– NT Mason Fine 105 of 162 for 1328 10 TDs and 1 INT
– LT J’Mar Smith 70 of 116 for 919 yards 7 TDs and 4 INT

Rushing
– NT Loren Easly 52 attempts 276 yards 3 scores
– NT DeAndre Torrey 30 attempts 114 yards 4 scores
– LT Jaqwis Dancy 27 attempts 242 yards 4 TDs
– LT Israle Tucker 34 attempts 120 yards 1 score

Receiving
– NT Rico Bussey, Jr. 24 grabs 303 yards 5 scores
– NT Jalen Guyton 18 grabs 282 yards 3 scores
– NT Jaelon Darden 17 grabs 243 yards 1 score
– LT Adrian Hardy 19 grabs 365 yards 3 scores
– LT Rhashid Bonnette 14 catches 171 yards 1 score
– LT Teddy Veal 11 grabs 165 yards

Predictions

North Texas is playing really well right now and even the worst version of NT we saw thus far — a mash-up of the middle of the second quarter of the Arkansas and Liberty games — still looked dangerous and quality on both sides of the ball.

Tech fans are rightly saying that the Mean Green have not played anyone. But North Texas has destroyed everyone they have played and that is a fair enough measure to tell us that this team is very good. As always, however, it does not matter what you did last week, you can be beaten this week.

Tech is good enough to beat North Texas for a number of reasons. There are still enough questions about the Bulldogs that we may find out that they have another level to them, one that is far superior to Littrell’s guys.

Right now, I’ll believe my eyes and say NT wins this one.

Prediction:

NT 38
LT 24


  1. Tech has a league-leading 11 players drafted since 2013. WKU has 10. NT has 0.