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2021: North Texas at Missouri Tigers

“I just want to see our guys go out and compete and play hard for four quarters. The wins and losses take care of themselves. It’s a great opportunity for us to go compete.”

That was head coach Seth Littrell at his weekly press conference, delivering a stirring pre-game quote.

“Saturday was not what we expected and was a step back for us. I am disappointed with how Saturday was played but I’m not discouraged. … It’s not a linear growth process.”

That was Eliah Drinkwitz, at his weekly press conference, after firing his defensive line coach and noting that “there is no depth chart” and it is like fall camp all over again, with injuries and poor play making it necessary.

Were the Mean Green not mired in a two-year backslide that has put Seth Littrell on at least one hot-seat list and drained enthusiasm from the Mean Green Nation, this would be a great time to add to the list of SEC wins. North Texas whooped Arkansas, remember? These Tigers are coming off an embarrassing loss where they gave up 62 points to Tennessee. Their defense ranks second-to-last in yards allowed per rush, and in the bottom 40 in yards allowed per pass. There are injuries galore. It is a perfect storm of opportunities to beat a down Power 5 squad and yet there is little enthusiasm or feeling of an upset. The opening line was NT a 20-point dog.

Missouri

The Tigers are coached by Eliah Drinkwitz, who made his name at App State for a season after following Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin around for a while. He has not won a ton in his two seasons as head man in Colombia, Mo. He’s spent his career on the offensive side of the ball and thus it may not be too surprising that Missouri is awful on defense under his watch.

They lost a starting cornerback this week, and an otherwise awful defense is losing another piece. Against the Volunteers, there was a lot of bad tackling, getting pushed off the ball, getting lost, and the normal circus of errors that comes with allowing 60+ points. It was awful. Drinkwitz fired his defensive line coach after the game. That bad.

Offensively, they can move the ball well. The loss vs Tennessee and the 24 points scored there was the poorest showing all season. Sophomore QB Connor Bazelak was very bad (2 int, no scores) in this last one, just not seeing the field. He has otherwise been solid, throwing for 300+ per game on average.

The run game was bottled up the last two games vs BC (good) and Tennessee (not really that amazing).

Littrell generically described them as talented. “An SEC opponent so you know what you are getting”. Okay. There is talent on the squad, and they looked really good against Central Michigan, the only other G5 program they’ve faced.

Attacking Missouri

Ideally, we’d be licking our chops and ready to run for 300+ in this one. It is strength-vs-weakness here, in the Mean Green run game vs the Tiger run defense. Of course, NT is not really strong, per se, in the run game. NT is about middle of the pack, putting up 4.52 yard per touch. If you are the kind of person who groans audibly when the first play is a dive into the line1 you would do well to consider that running vs Missouri is simply good football.

Eventually, Jace Ruder or Austin Aune will have to make some plays — ahem, throw it in bounds, Jace — and that has been absolutely an awful scenario for NT this season. North Texas is last in yards-per-attempt (5.0), rating (93.0), and completion pct (49.5) in this terrible conference.

Seriously, we could spend lots of time going through the quantification of how bad this team is passing the ball. The fact remains that we can see it with our eyes. Jace Ruder does not look comfortable making decisions. Austin Aune, either. It is partly their fault and the injuries to the wideouts, and running back depth. It is a team game after all. Throw in some weird game planning from the staff. Everyone has a part in making this a terrible pass offense and so we welcome your reasoning as well.

We have played four games thus far, and we can realize that it is not getting much better from here on out. This will be a bad passing offense the rest of the way barring a miracle.

The game plan will be something like: run the ball with Torrey and find some shots downfield to whichever wideout is able to dress. Jyaire Shorter is still iffy. Deonte Simpson the same. The rest of the roster has shown why they were deep down the chart and /or injured (Bush). Thus far, there is no obvious guy that is going to take any pass and go score outside of maybe Simpson, but he was bottled up fairly well. A lot of that has to do with the QBs not finding anyone that is open, or putting the ball anywhere near catchable if they are.

The run game is Deandre Torrey and it stops there. The backups are showing some signs but Ragsdale and Johnson are mostly taking what is in front of them. Torrey has been (in my estimation) something like 80% thus far, and he has the speed (normally) to carry this offense a bit. I don’t know that it would have changed any outcomes, but he has that ability. I can see a world where him breaking some big gainers opens up things for the pass game and we go from 49% -> 53% and that makes a difference somehow.

Good teams gameplan well, however, and they will take away Torrey as the first order of business on Wednesday. The Tigers are maybe not the best coached team (at least defensively) and are hurting all over. I can see some running lanes, but consider their pride was hurt as they were absolutely gashed last week.

Poor tackling is hard to correct, as we saw with last year’s Mean Green defense. It takes an offseason. Does North Texas have the power and execution in its run game to knock Missou back on their collective butts and win this game on the ground? I am not confident. I can see it happening, however.

Best case scenario: North Texas hands the ball to Torrey (who is recovered a bit after the bye) and gets something like 178 yards and 3 scores and a couple of play-action things to score a bit.

Worst case: NT finds that they do not have a Tennessee-like run game and Missouri gains some confidence by tackling Torrey, Ragsdale early and often and forcing Ruder/Aune to carry the offense. Something we have not seen done well.

Defending Missouri

Connor Bazelak (great name) is something like a mid-level SEC QB. He is not competing for a Heisman — not against Bama’s Bryce Young — but he has talent. He also struggled mightily against Tennessee, not seeing the pressure, and staring down his receivers. Drinkwitz is an offensive guy and his Missouri teams have had some success in this area, in a program known for it (relatively speaking).

Bazelak will throw some bad interceptions. He has thrown four of his five interceptions inside his own half, and five of his ten touchdowns have come when up or down big. That is not surprising, all things considered. They obvious solution is to try to get at him, and make him make pressured decisions. He has the talent to go through his reads when he is comfortable (again, nothing insightful here) but with a little pressure on him, he will press and stare down his WRs.

The NT defense has been impressive of late, holding Louisiana Tech to basically nothing (yards nor points) for about 2.5 quarters in the last game. The mitigating factor was that Austin Kendall was out, and he has been incredible for Tech. The aggression, and competitive nature of the defense — down 24 and still playing aggressively! Offense not working well, and still competing aggressively! — was refreshing to see.

The short and sweet version is that I do not know that this defense can shut down Missouri for 2.5 quarters like it did Tech. I do not expect that to happen. In an ideal scenario, we are saying something like “I think the defense can get enough stops to give the offense a chance to get a lead, etc”. Right now with one (offensive) arm tied behind our collective back, this is about the defense just making a name for themselves after a poor 2020.

It is certainly something to play for. Drinkwitz was quoted saying his team needed to have some “personal pride” in the way they play and compete. The defense, (rightfully) criticized last year is making good with the time and chance they have in this one. They are competing. Novil, who had a poor 2020 when he was expected to carry the unit, has balled out this season. There is a hunger and aggression and attention to detail. They get beat. They make mistakes. That happens when teams play with aggression and we can live with that.

The game plan is about getting to Bazelak on passing downs, and shutting down the middle-of-the-pack Missouri run game. There’s gold when Bazelak is dropping back on 3rd-and-8 and he has to make a tight throw with pressure in his face. Maybe NT can help itself by scoring on defense. That is one way to improve the offense.

Best case: North Texas’ defense picks off a shaken Bazelak as he tries to shake off a bad game vs Tennessee. He starts to press and make mistakes. NT returns one for a score, and forces bad throws and early punts in the others.

Worst case: A sheer talent overload combined with a hungry, embarrassed Missouri that wants to prove they can deliver a beat down. We saw something like this vs UAB.

Big Concern

The quarterback position. Seth Littrell may be on the hot seat but a great talent could save his gig. I do not know that we have a great talent — at least no one playing to that talent level if we do have it. The combination Bean/Aune was the best quarterback in the league last year. The Ruder/Aune combination is the worst in the league in this season.

Hoping the two weeks have helped everyone is pie-in-the-sky thinking. I do not know that anyone can improve that much over a bye, but I am also willing to hope and dream.

To the tune of Maybe, from the Annie musical:

Maybe far away,
Or maybe real nearby,
He may be doing some passing,
Or maybe watching film on the bye,
Maybe in a field,
Maybe in a camp,
He's hitting his third read,
He's finding H on a wheel,
...
So maybe now this prayer's
The last one of it's kind,
Wont' you please QB for North Texas
Mayyyybe

It is okay to feel beat down. I get it. This is two seasons’ worth of bad individual QB play and it is not fun. The Georgia Southern head coach, before he was canned, said something to the effect of “This is an entertainment business, and I know we have to entertain our fans”.

Yes. I, a crazy person who writes a blog for a G5 school that has about a tenth of the fanbase of a U of Texas, will find ways to be entertained by another terrible season. You, a crazy person, who reads the same, will also. I do not expect the casual fan to join in on this. It is not fun!

Prediction

North Texas 17 Missouri 34

Art by MGN, based on photo by Austin Anderson on Unsplash


  1. Yes, we realize if we are calling an RPO it is just reading the defense