Can you believe it has been six years since North Texas has faced Western Kentucky? It might have been sooner but for the pandemic, of course. Still, the last time NT played Western was in 2016, when NT was getting settled under the Littrell regime and WKU was trying to find a Brohm replacement.
In the interim, WKU was bad, then got good again. Under current head coach Tyson Helton, they have rediscovered the offensive identity they briefly lost under Sanford, and have used transfer QBs to help restore the explosiveness. Last year it was Texas product Blake Zappe, and this year it is Austin Reed. They won the old CUSA East division last season and lost to UTSA in San Antonio. Bailey Zappe was good, but the Tops had no defense to stop the Runners’ run game.
This season they have shown their offense (73-0 vs FIU) and defense (20-18 over UAB) and played UTSA just as close as North Texas did. MGN moved Western up the little power ranking in the conference from third to second and the preseason condition holds: North Texas needs to split against the league’s top teams to be in the running for the league title game.
Last week, NT dropped a heartbreaker in San Antonio but this Western team is just as good and even better (healthier) than UTSA. The QB (Reed) can deal the ball to a trio of talented wide outs but the offense is more dynamic, and the play-calling is clever. The Tops have a good run defense, and had a strong game plan vs UTSA as well. That is to say, they will be ready to stop the NT run game and also come up with some clever strategies in this one.
Both of these squads are 3-1 in league play and both only lost on the final drives vs UTSA in the Dome. Both want a rematch that can only happen with a win this weekend1.
North Texas came out of an impressive performance vs UTSA. NT came in as 10-point dogs, but led for most of the game and had the lead all the way until :15. There is obvious room for improvement and this game in Bowling Green is the perfect time to show said improvement against a team just as good and just as determined to stop the run.
This week, everyone said the right things. WKU was appropriately deferential to the quality of opponent. Seth Littrell and team acknowledged the opponent and warned themselves of letting UTSA beat them twice.
The North Texas run game was poor in pure productive terms vs UTSA. The Runners sold out to stop the run, and they succeeded. There were missed opportunities, but the game dictated that NT had to hit the Runners over the top and did — for the most part. For more on the run game, check this out:
North Texas came away with 325 yards passing from the QB, and that sure seems like a great day doesn’t it? Austin Aune did not play a great game, but he found his guys when it mattered, leading three game-leading drives in the contest. The criticism of him came because he missed Shorter to start the game in what would have been a sure touchdown, missed his TEs with poor passes, skipped a couple off the ground, and nearly threw two picks (just the one, instead). A couple things are true: If Aune played better, NT would have won going away. If Aune played better consistently, UTSA would not have guarded NT the way they did.
Against Memphis and UNLV, NT was showed stacked boxes and teams are daring the squad to make throws. It has happened — which is partly why Shorter has a ridiculous TD-to-catch ratio — but also has enough game-changing mistakes that opponents will continue to use this strategy. Aune has thrown an interception in five straight games and has three pick-sixes. With that on his resume, it is fair to expect teams to make him show differently.
WKU has a good defensive line that can get into the backfield and make things happen. They rotate through their line, and everyone can make a play. Shipp was good vs UAB last week, Hernandez has been good all year. They have a lot of talent throughout the defense and so expect some tough drives and frustrating series.
They can be beat in part because they like to take chances. The Tops believe in getting turnovers (who doesn’t?) and they like to strip the ball, and go for interceptions. That is in part why they were able to come back against UAB. They were run on by McBride, but were able to get sacks and fumbles vs the pass game. Derrick Smith is good, and will fly around.
NT had trouble moving the chains but was able to hit some big explosive plays. We’ve written in this space before that the problem with this is that it can create an imbalance on offense — obviously you love big plays. If those big plays don’t score TDs — you can get stuck on offense even though your stats look great. NT struggled to move the ball outside of some big catches.
Here is what I expect: the run game got a little once-over this week. There was plenty to clean up, even if the overall run game was solid. Blocks were a little slow and some things were missed. The pass game likely got a little analysis. Aune has got to be able to hit guys in stride, and on-time and on-target if NT is going to have a chance to win the league. There are many here that have already declared that an impossibility, and I do not hold it against you. By this point in the season, and in his career, the guy is who he is.
The play-calling has been tweaked to highlight his strengths and minimize his weaknesses, but he will be asked to do some things he is not good at if the opposition is any kind of useful. Against UTSA he pulled out a couple of great throws that moved the chains: 3rd and 15 late in the fourth he hit Rod Burns on an out. Great stuff!
If we are to keep the QB on the pitch count we want (about 20 passes) the run game has to be dominant, and if they are getting bad run looks or the defense is selling out? Well then Aune has to hit those one-on-one throws with great accuracy.
Game plan: Run the damn ball! Be clever — the way they had been vs UTSA! — but execution needs to be better. Aune needs to keep finding his guys on one-v-one routes. Continue the good game planning/play-calling where we are adjusting to the adjustments. UTSA was jumping short routes and NT was hitting them with wheel routes.
Best case scenario: NT is able to run the way they had, and WKU allows 200+ like they did vs UAB. That means the pressure is off of the pass game and NT is able to to their thing.
Worst case: NT presses the run, turns the ball over in the pass game — sack/fumble or int — and have to press to throw the ball from 4-wide sets.
Western has a fun offense that is reminiscent of La Tech. Hopefully you have made time to watch them the last couple of seasons — that way you could see some good offensive football. It is fun, and entertaining stuff. They like tempo, and will stack their wideouts like NT does (or Tennessee, if you had only first saw that vs Alabama). They like to pull their lineman in the run game not only for effective runs, but also to better sell their play-action passes — RPOs and pure play-pass. Austin Reed is accurate and a winner. He won a title in D-II. He’s good!
They’ve also mixed in some QB keepers to keep defenses honest. There is a lot to like (and be concerned about) on that squad.
Corley and Davis are ridiculous, and seemingly win every one-v-one matchup I have watched. Western will choose to throw their way anytime they think they can get a one-v-one matchup deep, but will mix that up with quick screens and slants to keep the defense guessing. They are dangerous on all of that and threats to score from anywhere.
Gaddie and Texada have been great in recent weeks. Texada in particular was outstanding — last play notwithstanding. He graded out highest on PFF, so your (and my) eye-test is valid. He was good and will have to be very good going forward.
Game plan: Austin Reed can scoot a little, but he will pick this team apart if he can look at the coverage with time. Fortunately NT has gotten very good pass rush from 44 Mazin Richards in recent weeks. NT will rush three-and-four and look to get to him and disrupt his timing and bring selective pressure when it warrants. The quick tosses to the WRs were ate up by 25 Sean Thomas Faulkner and Texada last week and that will need to continue. UTSA was able to run from 11-personnel (one back, one TE, three wideouts) and we can expect WKU saw that and will ask questions. NT can be bend-but-don’t break (like vs Tech and FAU). Do not expect to hold them to 3-points at half like vs UTSA.
Best case: NT gets to Western, they turn the ball over (they have six interceptions and didn’t throw a TD pass vs UAB in that awful game) and NT can get the ball back to the offense. The run game is held to reasonable yardage, with no game-breakers, and NT is able to force FGs.
Worst: NT is gashed by the WRs, and is sliced up by Robicheaux in the run game. He’s good.
It is easy to get everyone feeling focused after a loss. People are upset and angry and want some get-back. The secret is not letting everyone throw the good out with the bad. All three phases had a lot of good on display last week, but had some plays that could have cost the game by themselves. Great coaching is helping everyone identify the good and bad and keeping the focus on improvement within the process.
MGN has liked the game plan in the last few weeks. The run game has been good, and when it has not, NT has countered the opposition’s plan with some clever stuff. UTSA took away the base runs, the counter runs, the sweeps, and the play-pass for short yardage. NT was able to scheme up some wheel routes and TE-over stuff that got the offense in position to get scores. When there were two gut-check, must-score drives in the fourth quarter down 4-points away? NT got touchdowns. That is huge. While we have been rightly critical of terrible play, we can praise quality stuff when we see it.
That said, NT also had some opportunities to extend the lead and faltered. The drive with 6:30 left? A couple of poor passes doomed that drive. Even two first downs would have changed the game considerably. Points would have been ideal. Again, good when it was desperation time, but poor in other areas.
For all the questioning of the decision-making on the final drive –or the character for celebrating when they won (MGN thinks it was a reasonable reaction) — the fact is that reasonable people can disagree about how to defend on a single drive. Also, a miracle beats you in that situation. UTSA pulled out a miracle catch. How do you make sure that doesn’t happen? Well, you score a TD when up 3 and now seven-points doesn’t beat you.
NT’s final two drives: punt, go-ahead TD.
UTSA’s final two drives: go-ahead TD, winning TD.
Western is as-good of a team as UTSA. They played them to the wire, and UTSA needed a fourth-down conversion to seal the game. NT needs to bring the same focus and preparation and enthusiasm as they did last week for the champs. These were the defending runner-ups. This is a play-off game. Got to coach like it.
NT is 4-4 vs Western, with each winning four straight. Western has won the last four. This is PLAYOFF GAME. Win and North Texas would be 4-1 in league play, behind UTSA’s 4-0. Western would be 3-2 in the two-loss section with UAB, FAU, and others. Continuing down that scenario: if NT were to then lose to a UAB in Birmingham, NT would just need UTSA to beat UAB. NT would have the head-to-head vs WKU, FAU, UTEP. Obviously winning out would be better.
North Texas is a 10-point dog on the road, but is 4-0 vs the spread the last four weeks. (WKU is 3-0 ATS).
NT is not great on the road but Western is not a monster at home. Both have some struggles (both are bad on thirds down offense) but WKU is very good at getting turnovers. NT has struggled in this area.
MGN Prediction: NT 31 WKU 40
To be clear, there are a few scenarios but really winning this one means you don’t have to root for anyone else↩