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2021: North Texas Mean Green vs 22 UTSA

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. I watched the Cowboys lose, and ate a little too much that made it the most normal Thanksgiving ever, I suppose. I watched the men’s hoops squad lose vs #4 Kansas and also snuck a peek at the Egg Bowl. I think I have lingering affection for Mike Leach from my days wishing teams would throw the ball more, and lingering sports hate for Lane Kiffin from his days as FAU coach and so I was disappointed by that outcome. Once again the grilled (smoked on the Weber) turkey was the best turkey we had and I cannot recommend it enough. We had a great time with family and it was nice to see the shape of normal again. I hope something similar was happening with you.

We are in, as you might have seen on the twitter, is #UTSAHateWeek. I’ll let you in on a little secret: it is fun because we can make it as real as we want. All of these “traditional” rivalries have their origins in the kinds of things private and elite school kids (read: dudes) did back in the day as pranks while having gobs of time to execute said pranks. I certainly did not spend my undergrad days worrying about a football program that did not exist. As a friend to many old school UTSA-ers, I can tell you they were more mostly rooting for UT, or A&M or something. All that is to say that forcing it to look like the Egg Bowl (started in 1927), or the Iron Bowl (1893). It would be ridiculous for it to be like that. It would also be ridiculous to “let it happen on its own” because that is what un-fun people do, and it would be the most boring option. Embrace it for what it is.

At the other end are the guys trying really hard and doing their best impression of the local shock-jock, or worse, the Online Guy With Takes they love. It can be tedious, but remember they are always ruining something.

Anyway, I really do have sports hate for UTSA for lots of reasons, some silly, and some petty and I stoke that little sports hate flame every time we play. It is good for the soul. Sports hate can be cleansing.

The Stakes

North Texas head coach Seth Littrell is playing for his job1. Well, he won’t be leaving town after losing or anything, but whatever goodwill he might have left with the fan base is probably going to dry up or need a hell of an offseason to rebuild. He has done well by coaching up his team to get into position to earn Bowl Eligibility, and that is fine and commendable. There is some fodder for a memoir, or a coaching clinic speech at the very least in this grabbing something from nothing and I will admit I am happy to be in a position to be enjoying a meaningful game rather than just playing out the string.

The opponent is a good one and for me, that is a great situation. I know some fans prefer to go undefeated against cupcakes and while that will earn you a little notice (UTSA) it will not really do much for you long term. Competitors like to compete, and that also means playing the best possible competition. We have a ranked opponent in Apogee (a first) and when Apogee was being sold to the students (I voted yes!) this is the kind of game we imagined would be played in Denton.

I remember flying back early from the family Thanksgiving in Las Vegas to see NT vs Kansas St at Fouts and this an even better opportunity than that one. A ranked team at home — and a rival on top of that — is the kind of thing that should sell itself. 

Entire State of Kansas at Fouts

For a couple of reasons (that include my own December schedule being filled with practical matters) I am not super excited about the bowl season. The appeal of bowling for me was always the novelty, and the opportunity to travel a bit and enjoy friends and family somewhere kind of cool. For others, it is the chance to build a little brand recognition and pit the squad against a good oppponent. I cannot really imagine a better scenario for NT than beating UTSA in Apogee. They have all the cache of a ranked opponent without the talent gap or month-long preparation and chance for attrition that comes with Bowl Season. 

A win … puts North Texas in the bowl conversation, and while the Mean Green aren’t the sexiest candidate they will have the biggest win on their resume of any other 6-6 G5 program, probably. It will also get Seth Littrell a little shine right before recruiting season ends, and it is the chance to convince a fence-sitting prospect that NT can be where big wins happen. It would put a blemish on UTSA’s season, although it would not end their chase of a championship. Seth Littrell would shake a little bit of the Can’t Win A Big One reputation that he has (at least with me) and re-establishes North Texas as a competent program for a bit. For the players, it would be a little vindication and proof the season “isn’t a bust” and not to mention it would be great to end a team’s undefeated season. NT would take a one-game lead in the head-to-head (5-to-4).

A loss … would not be surprising, and would further set the Littrell reputation as a guy who has lost the touch from his first couple of seasons. He has a reputation of losing big games, or games against good competition, or games against good coaches (all bowl games, championship game, FAU game that first Kiffin year, the UAB game in ’18, Cal game) and this would add to that number. Is losing to a good UTSA team an unfair criticism? Sure, but that’s the job and he is or was the highest paid coach in the league and competing well against these teams is the major requirement. UTSA would get some bragging rights, as they would re-take the lead in the head-to-head (5-4) and be on a two-game win streak.

The Game

North Texas faces a good team coming off an emotional win at home, and one also looking forward to a Friday game to prepare for a championship bout. That is a recipe for distraction — obvious enough that head coach Jeff Traylor tried to cut off that discussion of it during the post-game press conference by saying “North Texas can ruin our season but we can ruin theirs”. He also admitted he asked his boss if they could fly back from Denton rather than take the bus, as they usually do.

Smells to me like they are thinking about the title game and that is mighty understandable. To be fair, Seth Littrell sounds more reserved and least comfortable at his press conference. We do know that Littrell does get the most hyped during the game and is likely to make some decisions without the cool head required. The point is that we cannot divine an outcome from a press conference on a Tuesday.

As far as mental preparation goes, UTSA has played in one huge game and came away winners. They have been nearly burned for playing down to their opponent (USM, in which they needed to gut out a win late) and have a tendency to play to their competition generally. North Texas has built confidence by beating up on bad teams, but has not played in a big game since about the SMU one in September. This is the second ‘rivalry’ game of the season for the Mean Green.

NT Offense vs UTSA Defense

North Texas is the best running team in the league by yards per game, and second in rush per attempt against conference foes. Those numbers were boosted by playing some awful teams, including the very bad FIU defense last week. The offensive line will create some things for Deandre Torrey, Ikiaka Ragsdale, and Ayo Adeyi. Between those three there is some thunder and lightning, but Torrey is the obvious game-breaker of the depth chart. QB Austin Aune has been asked to stay within his abilities, running and passing only when it is plainly beneficial, and it has worked out for everyone. He came up clutch against the Miners when it mattered and that is winning football. 

UTSA will not let NT run free, nor will they leave Roderick Burns open in the secondary. They do not have the greatest pass defense — witness UAB throw to Shropshire without much effort — but they have talent primarily on their defensive line. The LB corps including Hicks, will get into the backfield and ruin Aune’s day. If the game plan is to throw 60 times, then we will see NT lose handily. 

As it is, asking the run game to carry the load is also a very huge request. USM had some success with their wildcat look as Frank Gore Jr stepped in to play quarterback. We have seen Torrey do some of that, with mild success, but I dont know that Aune is so terrible that we would need to go all-in on that. AA is good enough, and NT can pull off some good offense if everyone can execute. We are hoping for some boldness and clever game planning from the staff, nonetheless. No scenario ends with a win comes if NT is not running the ball for at least 3.5 yards per tote, but mixing in a little dazzle to get an otherwise unearned touchdown is what is necessary. 

Throw a double pass. Do a flea-flicker. Fake FG. Two QBs on the field. Something to mix it up and bring a little dynamism. Lining straight up and overpowering a good defense is asking a lot. NT got throttled by UAB early in the year, and that is about the level of quality we can expect. 

UAB sliced up the UTSA defense in the first half, but were locked up in the second. Traylor said they were slanting too hard, and corrected that later. NT will need to have similar coaching corrections implemented and cannot expect to just have all the answers early. The good news is this: UAB is third in the conference running the ball and ran for about 5+ yard per carry. NT is first in running, and … well they can feel good about it. (More numbers on this in the next section)

Summarize it, buddy, I have turkey sandwiches to eat:

North Texas will look to run and control the game against a good UTSA defense, but they will need some clever plays to score more than they would normally expect considering the quality of talent on the other side. NT’s pass game — Aune, WR Roderick Burns, et al — will need to make plays a little outside their wheelhouse to get NT in upset territory.

NT Defense vs UTSA Offense

Meanwhile, the defense is looking at the prospect of having a little pride restored. Last season in San Antonio, North Texas let Sincere McCormick run for career yardage. NT has been remarkably better on that side of the ball this year, and that’s a good reason why the squad is in position for a bowl berth. UTSA still has a good run game, but the real threat in recent weeks has been the pass game. Zachari Franklin, Josh Cepheus, and De’Corian Clark are game-breakers. You might have seen the highlight-reel catches from Franklin this season. They also can get loose with some short yardage stuff. NT cannot simply go man-to-man and then think it will all be good. Frank Harris will throw an intercept-able ball but you have to catch it and not almost catch it. For the most part he is a gamer in the shape of Malik Willis of Liberty. He is not as talented, but he has the mentality and ability to make plays that a mere average CUSA QB cannot. That is the threat for NT. We have seen this UTSA squad tear up bad defenses — in Bowling Green, they went up and scored a ton of points against WKU’s awful defense. North Texas doesn’t have that Bailey Zappe firepower —- much to my regret — and so we cannot hope to simply outscore that squad. 

Basically, they can and will score in bunches, but they also get into some lulls where they do not execute as well as they can. There is an opportunity in those moments. A win involves taking a poorly thrown ball to the house like Southern Miss did vs Franklin, or picking up a fumble at their 2-yard line like UAB did not, and taking full advantage of the mistakes that could be there. 

The good news is this: Against UAB, and Marshall, two powerful rushing offenses, NT allowed sub-4 yard per carry totals. Now, if you look closer you remember that NT got sliced up by the pass in those games and so it makes sense. Still, let us focus on the positives. UTSA is the best rushing offense by yards gained per carry in the league (5.01 on ~37 a game) and NT is second (4.91 on ~47 per game). North Texas’ defense is second vs the run in the league 2 behind UAB. UAB shut UTSA’s run game down, by the way.

Summarize it, buddy, I have to fight at Walmart for a toy I could have ordered online

North Texas likely will give up a frustrating missed gap long touchdown because that is On Brand for this squad, but will otherwise play well enough. They will also get to Frank Harris once or twice but will also get toasted like they did vs Liberty. The key is getting enough stops, getting enough turnovers, getting enough opportunity to win. WKU’s defense got a stop — practically the only one — vs this UTSA offense to give themselves a chance. That is what we are asking of Phil Bennett’s North Texas defense.

Prediction Time

Brain: North Texas opened as a 13-point dog, and that moved to 10 as the week progressed. UTSA is looking forward to next week’s CUSA championship game, and for all intents and purposes, NT is in a play-for-your-season game. That said, the talent disparity is too great, and UTSA will win this one by 14.

Heart: Folks it isn’t about what you did last week, or what you will do next week. It is about right now. It is about this moment. You will be old and a ‘used to was’ or a ‘former this’ or ‘former that’ and you will remember these moments. You will not regret losing, and you definitely won’t regret winning, but you will regret not giving it every ounce of your being to the effort. It starts with preparation. It continues with practice. It ends with the performance on game day. Did we give ourselves the absolute best chance at victory? Do you want to be an old man and know you cheated yourself out of a chance? Making history doesn’t happen on Saturday. It happens right now, in this moment, in this breath and the choice we make to be a part of something great, or just another thing. We have an opportunity to make our mark. Some parts of winning and losing we cannot control. But we can control our effort and our intensity and compete for every inch of the field so hard that the opposition feels it next week.

North Texas 29 UTSA 28

I believe.

Links to get you hyped

  1. Louisiana Tech just parted ways with Skip Holtz, if that matters to you.

  2. All of these number are in conference play, by the way

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