There have been nine previous meetings in this young rivalry, and the Mean Green lead it 5-4. Both programs have had gut punching losses, and each has at least won a division title. Long-time readers of this site have read MGN arguing for the series being a rivalry game, to hyping it, to now simply acknowledging it as a thing.
Last year in the preview, I mentioned that this series needs room to become its own thing, and that it would happen on its own. It takes time and stories. For North Texas fans, the catalyst was in 2013, when a scrappy little UTSA squad pulled off an ugly upset. The members of those squads still do a little twittering back and forth every year for this game. For UTSA fans, the win last year left an ugly taste in their mouths. If their best teams in their 12 years is beat two years in a row by an under-performing NT? That will really stir up some feelings. When these guys graduate and move on to the next thing, when this game comes up, so will those old feelings. It builds on itself, until it can become a thing like the Third Saturday In October.
Beyond that, this week simply is important. This game is between two 3-0 conference teams for the inside lane in the race for the regular-season title. CUSA has no divisions any longer with the departure of USM, Marshall, and ODU. A win? Well and the chances of winning and hosting the league title game go up. Lose, and there is a very good opportunity for a rematch. It is a big game, but not for everything. I am certainly very hyped for the matchup, but I also know there is a lot of football to play, and well, I may be in the minority.
Interestingly, I have seen the local beat writer going with the angle that this series has had a lot of big, important games. There have only been nine. Let us walk through it and think through that out loud:
2013 – Ugh. Big game. They won. NT had a chance to win the title and was undefeated at Apogee going in. 0-1, Big game count: 1
2014 – NT loses after a dreadful season. Both teams were bad. 0-2, Big game count: 1
2015 – NT wins their only game of the season because UTSA was also bad. Important? Sure, I guess. 1-2. Big game count: 1.5
2016 – UTSA had a good squad, but NT was breaking in Mason Fine (and Littrell). 1-3. Big game count: 1.5
2017 – October meeting. NT got up big, fell behind, had a miracle come-back. Needed this, as NT had it’s first good team since 2013. 2-3. Big game count: 2.5
2018 – NT wrapped up a slightly disappointing season and UTSA played NT closer than expected, in a game NT was favored heavily in. Nothing was on the line. 3-3. Big game count: 2.5
2019 – NT win in biggest of the series. UTSA was dreadful and fired their coach. 4-3. Big game count: 2.5
2020 – NT loses in a rout, allowing ridiculous yardage to their running back, like all running backs that season. 4-4. Big game count: 2.5
2021 – NT defeated #22 UTSA at home, ending their undefeated season. Seth Littrell had won 4-straight after a terrible start. This was a big game for him, and them. 5-4. Big game count: 3.5
2022 – Two 3-0 teams battling for supremacy. Big game count: 4.5
I dunno, man. A little under a 50% hit rate for two teams that were in the same division for ten years.
“It’s an important game for a lot of different reasons … I don’t really think about that stuff.Seth Littrell, Tuesday press conference
Talked ball with them for many, many hours. They’re good football coaches. It always helps when you’re handing it off to four really good running backs too.Jeff Traylor, Monday Press conference
Being a head football coach in the modern era is a tough gig. Sure, it beats digging ditches, but that is not what I mean. As the head coach, you are suddenly a talking head, a salesman, and a glad-hander. Whereas once you came up because you loved the game, and competition, and maybe even the relationships and seeing players get better, you are now asked to get up every week and answer banal questions that can be used against you. It is a tough gig.
Seth Littrell, for his part, has never seemed like he loved the sales aspect of the job. His weekly press conferences seem dutiful, and a bit terse 1 In the lead up to this very big game, he said the team would be “excited” like they had a dentist appointment scheduled. “Yeah they will have that”.
This is entertainment, folks. It is okay to sell it a little.
UTSA, Being Known As The Roadrunners, A Foot-Ball Team From San Antonio
The defending conference champions are still good. Last year they went through the conference with but one blemish. That of course, was at the hands of the Mean Green in Denton. The game was cold and rainy and sandwiched between a couple of big time matchups with UAB and WKU (title game). Do they have believable excuses? Sure they do. Do I care? Of course not.
We noted on the podcast some quirks and parallels: NT are 10-point dogs, and were 10-point dogs before last year’s game as well. NT ended that game as 45-23 winners, rushing for 340 yards. The last two weeks vs FAU and Tech? 45-25, 47-27, and 300 and 475 yards respectively. Another thing to note? All three were in Denton.
The game plan is simple: run the ball, limit their explosive plays. Football is always simple, of course, but achieving that simplicity is endlessly difficult.
UTSA comes in a different version of themselves, but essentially the same program. They have a good offense, and it is run by Frank Harris. Seth Littrell praised his ability to make plays, get the ball out, and make the right play. He has gotten better in his career, with fewer mistakes and more big plays. He has always been clutch, and unafraid of the moment. I was on the field for the UAB game late last year where he was given another shot to lead a game-winning drive. He did so, throwing bullets and finding his guys when he needed. The throws are unorthodox, and so is his heart.
North Texas will need to limit him, and in so doing limit his play-making wideouts. That can be achieved with some of the same ideas NT tried vs FAU. They mixed coverages and pressures, and brought timely blitzes with success.
The UTSA run game is less powerful than last year, and that has to do with the offensive line being injured. There are a lot of players hurting or in various states of recovery. Here is the quick summary:
Losses: to Houston and Texas. Wins over Army, TxSo, Middle, WKU, and FIU. They split back-to-back overtime games to the Cougs and Army, and gave up a lot of yards in both. They played Texas tough before Bijan Robinson just ran by everyone. They can be clever, and aggressive and have talent on both sides of the ball to overcome mistakes.
Jeff Traylor has recruited well and they already had a lot of talent when he arrived. This season the tackling is suspect but they have playmakers and have come up with stops in important moments.
Most preview posts will tell you how well the numbers say that UTSA passes the ball. They don’t tell you that in conference play they are much more pedestrian. The run game is not clicking, and UTSA relies a ton on straight drop-back passes 2. Basically, they ask him to go make plays and he has.
Harris is good, and his wideouts and TE are play-makers. He finds ways to get them the ball, and they reward him for it.
Western Kentucky did a great job of stopping the run early but was gashed later. Harris ran for 61, and they got some big runs from Trelon Smith going outside. Brady is the inside guy, and Smith will do the outside zone stuff. WKU did well stopping the quick screens — UTSA likes to motion out their big TE into a trips set up, and quick screen it to him, or to a guy he blocks for — and then spied him on third downs. They did make mistakes, though.
In the above screenshot, we see WKU spying Harris, and dropping seven. This ended up with a long chase, and an incomplete pass thanks to a diving DB play. That was a lot of work for that result. North Texas might mix this in with KD Davis or Kevin Wood, as both can run. This is asking a lot.
In the below screenshot, we see WKU dropping eight. North Texas did this vs Tech and got a couple of sacks and pressure with Rod Young from the nose tackle spot. In this one, WKU allowed a first down because the zone was not well defended. Letting a talented QB sit and find his targets is very risky but if done right, it can force runs into defenders with eyes on him.
UTSA will try to run, and will test the stoutness of North Texas’ defense. It was just a month ago that NT got savaged by UNLV in Vegas. LA Tech isn’t a big running team, and FAU is hit-or-miss. Teams have got nice running games vs this NT defense. The key will be in keeping UTSA out of 3rd and shorts. How? Well, if there are yards to be given up, they need to be one-off long gains intermixed with a lot of 2-and-3 yarders.
Like we said on the podcast, the goal isn’t to stop them from getting yards — its stopping them from getting points. Tech put up 500 yards but was 3-points under their average. UTSA is scoring ~36 a game. Holding them to 33-points will be a feat.
Both of these teams have lost the turnover margin game more often than not. UTSA is -4 overall, and NT is -6. Turnovers can be had, but … might be given back.
WRs 1 De’Corian Clark (6’3″ 210) 2 Josh Cephus (6’3″ 185), 4 Zachary Franklin (6’1″ 185)
TE 9 Oscar Cardenas (6’4″ 285)
RB: 5 Brendan Brady (5’11” 215)
Line: 75 LT Tatafu, 58 LG Haynes, 55 C Maka, 61 RG Davis, 68 RT Martinez*
*Might be out
Game plan: Stop the run on early downs, stay disciplined and trust the keys and preparation when UTSA uses motions and screens. Make plays when they are there (tackle the dude) because there won’t be many.
Best case scenario: NT continues to get pressure with Mazin Richards / Enoch Jackson / Rod Brown / Cam Robertson and can sit back in coverage and make plays.
Worst case: NT misses opportunities, allows some big runs that keep the chains short and allow Harris to get first downs with his legs.
The run game has to be on. Here is a reminder video:
NT has been absolutely tremendous running the ball the last couple of games. Overall NT is seventh in the nation in yards per attempt at 5.77. They are runnnniiinnng. The line has been great, and the backs have been aggressive, and well that is how you get a program record of 475 after getting 300 the game prior.
Here is a key thing: Middle, Western (and FIU to an extent) ran well against UTSA. Throw out the Texas and Houston games if you want. Texas Southern also ran for 250 vs this Runner squad. UTSA was better against the run last season. That’s the team that NT ran for 340 and six scores against. They made them look silly. UAB and NT both wanted to run and did. A person close to the team said that UTSA’s team simply wasn’t challenged. When they were? They came up wanting.
Western, at their core, believes in their pass game more than the run. They ran well vs UTSA but when it was winning time, they asked Reed to make the play. NT will ask their line to do the job 60% of the time and with good reason. Can and will UTSA do the things they have to do to compete? Memphis brought up safeties and dared Aune to throw. UNLV did something similar. NT sliced up those squads with the throws but it meant Aune threw up to 50 times. That’s not ideal.
We won’t even mention (any further) the interceptions. The short story is this: NT needs to run the ball at least as well as they did vs FAU and get an early lead. Against both FAU and Tech, NT got up early and that allowed the run game to do its thing.
Speaking of getting up — NT has been super clever in recent weeks. Kaylon Horton has been electric. Since Memphis, he has seven touches for 132 yards and 3 scores. That’s fantastic. NT has mixed him in the run game, and that brings an extra dynamism to an already potent run game. Horton motioning across the formation means UTSA has to account for him, and that allows the inside zones and gap runs inside to have an extra step.
The above picture shows the motion of the WR (this isn’t Horton but the same stuff applies). The circled player is the guy that is optioned or ‘read’. Below, we see the beginnings of the play that will result in Roberts catching this pass. The optioned player is left with no one, Aune rolls out and finds Roberts wide open.
Run Game Items
How and why is NT doing so well running the ball? Well, it all starts with great blocking up front. Run blocking is a lot of effort and strength and all that, but it is also smarts, and execution. The defense has big strong dudes there as well, and they also like to mess up your assignments. They know what an isolation run is. They know what happens on an inside zone. They are trying to mess that up and North Texas’ run game is out-working them.
Here is a sampling. In this video, North Texas sees that there are only six in the box 3. Tech was without their star middle linebacker and it showed. This play is designed for the Tight end (Y or H-back, whatever) to isolate on a linebacker. The center will double-team with the right guard and then work his way up to the next backer. The right tackle will base block. The left guard will base block and the left tackle will do the same. The idea is to get the block in the running lane on the backer (isolate him, thus the name) and let the running back find daylight. What we see is the backer sort of skip his way forward. Also, the end stunts and finds himself in the run lane. What happens? Well the North Texas tight end pushes him back a few yards. The first guy to touch the NT runner is at the sticks (the safety) and he isn’t super excited about the prospect of it.
North Texas executed this well, and was helped by Tech mostly being disinterested in stopping the run.
Unfortunately the broadcasts have been awful, showing graphics instead of cutting back to the action. Instead of lots of beautiful cut ups of great runs, we have to use some old stuff, and grainy screenshots. It’s like its 2005 all over again. Below we see the start of a power play. NT will pull the tackle to the right side. The TE is also doing some leading, but … there is no one there because the push is ridiculous. There is literally no one to block for these dudes because everyone is being destroyed (and also bad run fits).
Here is one from last year’s destruction of UTSA. NT will again pull the tackle (“dart”). This is a gap run, and the plan is to block down on all of those defensive lineman clustered there, and bring the tackle into the open space between the ‘wing’ /tight end/H/Y (lots of names for that guy on the end of the line.
What happens: Everyone does their job, Manase Mose wins vs Jaylon Haynes, the play side guard and tackle (right side) get their double-team and then move up to the backer. The pulling tackle actually has no one to block here, either as UTSA got gummed up. The runner picks daylight, runs through some tackles about five yards deep, and gets into the end zone.
So a funny thing is the above shots are from a later play that wasn’t actually blocked or executed as well 4. From nearly the same spot, Johnson ran through for a score earlier in the game. See this video below. You see that the TE chips his man, and elevates to the next guy, while the LT comes over and catches the end man. Johnson runs off the pulling tackle, cuts up and scores. That’s how its drawn up.
This was last year, of course, but you can see similar things in the FAU and Tech games. NT ran a ton of inside zone or split zone (where the TE comes over much like that tackle did in the clip above), and a bunch of gap runs (isolation, power/counter).
Generally speaking, we will want to see the NT line get a push. We want to see the backs run with authority, making quick decisions (and the right ones) and running through tackles. NT has been doing this, even when everything hasn’t been perfect. That’s been great.
UTSA will try a couple of things to stop it. The first, is just be sound in their scheme and use their keys. If NT starts getting yards in chunks, expect some of what Tech did: safeties walking up especially late. Depending on what, exactly is giving them trouble, you can also expect to see some scrapes and stunts designed to mess with the offensive line’s keys and assignments.
As we saw with that isolation clip above, Tech tried some things, but not with any authority. UTSA has better talent and likes to rotate their lineman. That means they should be fresher … but also could be vulnerable to rhythm changes.
DE: 17 Asyrus Simon (6’4″ 250), Nick Booker-Brown (6’1″275″)
N: 9 Brandon Brown (6’2″ 305)
LBs: 7 Dadrian Taylor (5’11” 185), 1 Trevor Harmanson (6’2″ 225), 8 Jamal Ligon (6’2″ 220), 31 Trey Moore (6’3″ 230)
NT will want to run, and if UTSA isolates their corners on Shorter and the group, we can expect to see more Aune tosses over the top. I like Shorter vs either of their corners, but I am wary of playmaking safety Wisdom.
CBs: 2 Corey Mayfield (5’11” 190), 10 Nick Fortune (6’0″ 195)
Safeties: 4 Cliff Chattman (6’5″ 195), 0 Rashad Wisdom (5’9″210)
They have a ton of seniors, but also are hurting and so they are testing their own depth. They are also well-coached and motivated.
Game plan: Be sharp in the run game. Execute the blocks and assignments well, and trust your eyes. Be clever in getting Horton the ball, and using him to keep the defense honest. Austin Aune will have to hit his guys over the top, and be crisp on the quick TE screens, and RPO stuff.
Best case scenario: NT continues the recent run dominance, bullies the UTSA defense and keeps the lead. Aune finds Shorter in the end zone twice, and NT doesn’t panic when UTSA hits them with some big plays.
Worst case scenario: The run game is stifled, either through some penalties, mis-reads, poor prep / good coaching by them. Aune is forced to throw the ball more than 20 times and turns it over twice or more.
This is not nearly as big of a game as last year’s was. UTSA wants revenge, is at home and are 10-point favorites. The areas of interest for us in watching Seth Littrell are these:
- Is NT ready to play? The Dome will be loud, and the guys can easily get overhyped or overwhelmed. Got to be hyped enough to meet the moment, but even-keeled enough to execute.
- Is NT ready for adjustments? As the program continues to run over and through people, opposing coaches are going to get extra creative in finding answers to the questions the run game poses. Can NT stay ahead of that? They have so far.
- Game management: NT can’t win the game in the first quarter. But they can kill momentum and any fan support by being overly risky on the road.
NT can go to 4-0 in conference, keeping the lead in the race for first. It will be very tentative as next up is WKU followed by UAB. It is a tough schedule. A loss means NT gets a chance to recover and compete for a spot in the title game but still has to go through the aforementioned schedule.
NT would extend the series win streak to two and lead 6-4. That would be NT’s biggest lead. It would also close out the CUSA series between these two with a win. NT is UTSA’s second-most played opponent, behind Tech.
Seth Littrell would move over .500 as a coach.
A win would give UTSA their fourth-ever loss on homecoming. Jeff Traylor is 12 of his last 13 and 14-2 in the Dome in his time.
Head: NT 32 UTSA 45
Heart: NT 44 UTSA 29
As a guy who has to deal with my own share of meetings, I imagine it can’t be easy to have to answer silly questions every Tuesday.↩
PFF has him at 75% drop back with no play-action (including RPO). Austin Aune is only at 52% straight drops. Against Tech he threw 60% from play-action↩
Everyone defines the box slightly differently but we can see there are four lineman with their hands on the ground and one linebacker with another to his left at the 30 creeping up. This screams run. ↩
It is hard to say with absolute certainty. Every team has variations to keep the defense guessing. On one version you have the Y block the backer while the tackle does a kick-out/trap block, and the next the TE kicks out and the tackle leads. I am just noting that here, the tackle had no one to actually touch, which isn’t the plan ↩