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2022: North Texas at UAB Preview

If a standard has been set in this conference, it has been set by UAB. The two-time league champ, three-time west division winner has produced a quality team in each season in which they sponsored football. You may argue that Western, which boasts the same 2-1 record coming into this season in the title game deserves a mention, but consider they had some awful years in between. UAB has never been bad, except for this year in which they are mostly un-good, but awful.

This year’s team has four league losses and yet is favored in the home game against our favorite little football squad. UAB boasts the league’s second best offense (behind NT’s) in yards-per-play, the league’s best running game, and the conference’s best back (McBride). It isn’t unreasonable for some people to call them better on paper. You and I don’t need to get angry about that, but it is definitely some bulletin board material for the staff.

UAB has won five-of-six games, with the only NT win coming in that 2017 season in which Fine led the Mean Green to the league title game. I will happily take a 3-point win on the way to Austin Aune repeating the feat.

Speaking of Austin Aune, did you know he is only four scores away from being the single-season NT leader in touchdown passes? Also, did you know this is by at least yards-per-game the best offense in NT history? Let me quote myself

The offense put up 623 yards of offense, the third time this season that Seth Littrell’s guys have gone over 600+. Coming into this season, there had only been seven such games in North Texas history. This group has added three.

Team Game Highs — 2022 bolded

  • 768 vs Middle 2020
  • 721 vs Houston Baptist 2020
  • 671 vs La Tech 2022
  • 668 vs Lamar 2017
  • 635 vs Navy 2007
  • 623 vs FIU 2022
  • 613 vs SMU 2007
  • 607 vs Incarnate Word 2018
  • 607 vs Texas Southern 2022
  • 603 vs FIU 2021
A quick note about the above: of the ten listed, eight have been under Seth Littrell. This team is playing some of the best football we have seen — statistically — at North Texas on both sides of the ball.

If you are excited about North Texas, you have every reason to be. Also consider that even though Vegas put a +7 on NT, the Mean Green are 6-0 against the spread in the last six games, including a couple where they were +10. Not bad.

Defending UAB

The Blazers have the best rushing attack in the league. They have the best back in the league. DeWayne McBride is a great runner, reads blocks well, explodes into space, sheds arm tackles and has open field moves. He is averaging 160.9 per game, and leads the nation in 20+ yard runs (16). He is a handful.

He’s good, but UAB as a team still manages to lose. That is because they are poor in one-score games. Every loss has been like that this season, including the last two.

QB Dylan Hopkins has been hurt, and Jacob Zeno has stepped in the last two weeks. While Zeno has shown some things, Hopkins is very good — he finished last year as the 8th most efficient passer in the nation and is right behind Aune in yards-per-play (with a better completion percentage).

UAB two-deep

UAB likes to run behind their experienced offensive line, and throw deep to Trea Shropshire. They have some of the best zone-running I’ve seen, and combined with McBride’s ability to read the blocks and explode through, they are dangerous. If Hopkins is back and fully fit, expect UAB to be much more of a handful than they have shown the last two weeks.

It starts up front for North Texas. This is the biggest test of the defense’s ability to stop the run all season. UNLV sliced up NT, but did so via the QB run game and then later through some zone running. UTSA ran for 200+, but that was because NT was selling out to stop their pass game. UAB wants to run, and will run. The key will be getting stops in the pass game (don’t let Shropshire get deep) and keeping McBride’s runs short enough that they can’t just grind away the game.

The good news is NT sees this kind of offensive mindset in practice. North Texas also likes to run the ball and throw deep to counter.

Last week UAB was mediocre vs UTSA, until later when Zeno led two fourth-quarter drives to tie it up. UAB also scored once in OT, before imploding on the final possession and losing. With Zeno, it sometimes looks like the best course of action is to run with McBride four-straight times. With Hopkins, expect UAB to be slightly more balanced in threat.

Game plan: Sell out to stop the run on early downs. Don’t get bit by play-action deep or UAB will eat well.

Best case scenario: McBride gets his yards — 160 or so — but NT holds them to field goals and mistakes.
Worst case scenario: McBride goes off — 200+ — and Shropshire is hitting big gains, while Hopkins is moving the chains.

Attacking UAB

Austin Aune is playing well, the offense is clicking, but injuries are mounting. North Texas is down two lineman, and was down three running backs. The indications are that Isaiah Johnson will be back, he and Ikaika Ragsdale will do the heavy lifting. UAB’s defense has held all nine opponents to sub-500 yards, and all but two to sub-400 yards. It will be difficult to get yards against them.

NT will be looking to run obviously, but also find the big plays to the tight ends (Jake Roberts and Var’Keys Gumms) and WRs (Jyaire Shorter, Maclin, Ward, Burns). Aune had a career day vs FIU but this will be a stark contrast. The windows will be smaller, the runs will be shorter, and the room for error will not be as great.

In many respects, this is UTSA all over again. WKU is actually statistically a better defense (but so is Rice, and they were sliced up by CLT). So in terms of physicality, this will be like UTSA. In terms of statistics, it will be like WKU.

The good news is that North Texas had opportunities against everyone they have played. Seth Littrell said after Memphis, “we know we can compete with them” and that is maybe what he meant. The opportunities have been there, but in this last five or six games, NT has taken more advantage of them.

The Blazers held UTSA for long stretches, until the fourth quarter when Frank Harris made plays (imagine that).

Expect UAB to do more of the same stuff everyone has done vs NT: stack the box, and dare Aune to throw. One reason Austin Aune has been able to throw for 300+ in recent weeks, is that the defenses are putting single-coverage on NT’s explosive wideouts. UAB will do the same, until NT shows they can beat it. After that, there will be some zone blitzes to mess with RPOs, but it all starts with the base run game.

NT mixed things up vs FIU, but did not need a real dynamic run game to beat that squad. Later, they ran freshman backs and had good yards but that was not really the kind of environment this will be. Protective Stadium might be empty, but UAB will still be be tough.

NT will run their normal suite of inside zone runs, with some gap runs to get some variety. The RPO game will be where the big plays come from, and obviously there will be some special stuff designed to get Kaylon Horton or Jordan Smart the ball in space. Even against UTSA, North Texas found ways to get the ball in the end zone. That was the best defensive performance by an opponent in league play. If UAB plays at that level, we should still see some NT scores.

Game plan: Run the ball. Get Aune in rhythm early, but don’t force anything downfield too soon. Aune will need to be accurate on the road, outdoors again.

Best case scenario: We see some WKU-like performances, where the offense gets scores, but is not overly impressive in the first half, but pulls away when UAB is chasing the game and pressing/gives up
Worst case scenario: NT can’t shake the beat-a-bad-team malaise and gets punched in the mouth the way they did vs UTSA early, except they can’t get the defensive stops and have to throw way more than they want.

Coaching

Is this a big game? Sure, but not for substance. UAB is a former division mate, a future conference mate, and current holder of three-straight against NT. The motivation to beat that squad and at least get some bragging rights is on the table. UAB has underperformed but still is a very good team. Seth Littrell deserves full credit for his league record since Marshall in 2021 (10-1) and this is about staying disciplined on the opponent in front of you.

If North Texas plays like they did vs UTSA/WKU, this should be a win, or a competitive loss. NT has to play to that standard every week now. That is on the coaching staff to keep the level high. Beyond that, making sure the team is ahead of the competition like they have been, is the plan. NT has found ways to get the ball to playmakers without staying static or becoming predictable. They found different paths to getting the ball to playmakers and moving the ball down the field. Roberts, Gumms, Shorter, Ward, Burns — someone new shows up every week and is running wide open in space. That is good execution of a good game plan.

Meaning

NT can just-about clinch up the title game berth. They need Rice to drop a game. This will go a long way toward fully putting the Littrell hot seat talk on ice, and earns a little more goodwill in beating a good program on the road.

NT has a bye after this, and so can rest up and prepare for Rice. A win going into the 2nd bye does a lot of good for everyone. It will certainly make it easier to sell tickets to the home finale. UAB owns a 5-1 record vs NT, and is on a three-game in streak.

Austin Aune has a chance to climb up some records, including some conference records with continued great play.

MGN Prediction

NT is playing really good ball right now and UAB is snake-bitten. They had a game where they said they treated it like a “championship” game. They were aggressive, and managed a comeback to tie — but didn’t go for two and lost in OT. I do not see them mustering the same kind of effort for NT if they get down again — that “oh no” feeling can creep in and help NT in that respect. Then again, this team is full of guys who have won a lot and have a lot of pride.

NT 37 UAB 33

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