For the last time as conference mates in Conference USA, the Mean Green and Bulldogs will meet on Saturday. Going by vibes and feelings (and perhaps influenced by the hoops rivalry) you maybe wouldn’t think that Tech has won seven of the last nine — all in league play. The current four-game Tech win streak started with the blocked kick by Amik Robertson in Denton in front of a sold-out crowd. It feels just like the other day. That NT team had a great offense, a very good defense, and still managed to have some heartbreaking losses.
That day was pivotal, and people around the program often reference it for either the crowd, or the Joe Greene statue, or the loss. The next two losses saw some complete beatdowns handed to Seth Littrell’s squads before last year’s somewhat respectable seven-point margin.
North Texas is favored by a shade under that same number for this week’s matchup. Instead of Skip Holtz — let go for basically being consistently good but not great — it will be first time head coach Sonny Cumbie. The one-time Texas Tech QB has spent time in the coaching ranks — mostly in Lubbock — running the offenses. He came to Ruston and inherited a thin roster after Holtz was let go. He’s mostly filled in the gaps with transfers from hither and thither. His Tech team still has talent — especially on offense — and this team will score some long touchdowns.
North Texas is coming off a bye week, and they no doubt have had plenty of time to digest the film and find new and improved ways of targeting the Tech vulnerabilities. This is a winnable game, meaning that Tech will provide more room for error than will UTSA, UAB, and WKU down the road. If the NT program wants to be taken seriously and compete at the highest levels the expectations need to be raised appropriately. This is winning time. Tech is the kind of team a well-coached, well-prepared team with talent would beat.
Louisiana Tech is on a different timeline. Cumbie is setting up his program, and while he no doubt wants to win early and often, the seat is much cooler in Ruston, and excuses — if he wants them — are plentiful and ready to be accepted. His QB throws too many interceptions, and there are questions around the roster, but enough talent and a quality scheme to make up for all of it. The league is not as tough as the Tech non-conference schedule and so they should be ready to compete for a league title that is within the margin for error.
Every defensive scheme is multiple in the modern football era, owing to the proliferation of the spread and up-tempo offenses. Tech is no different. One of their linebackers is 6’1″ 210 lbs. That reads like a safety to me. Such is life.
DEs: 5 Deshon Hall (6’3″ 246), 56 Mykol Clark (6’4″ 266)
DTs: 94 Keivie Rose(6’3″ 246), 95 Rasheed Lyles (6’1″ 289)
DT 94 stood out on the tape (the stream, really). South Alabama ran away from him and mixed it up by running a stretch zone at him to take advantage of his ability to get into the backfield. They used his momentum to help block him and cut inside of him. Kershawn Fisher (20, 6’2″ 234) showed some good movement in the pass rush but overall there was nothing overtly special about this defensive line. The Jags moved them pretty well running a similar run game to what NT has in store and that bodes well. NT loves to run, and should be able to get good looks here.
LBs: 10 Khiry Morrison (6’1″ 218), 52 Tyler Grubbs (6’1″ 223), 9 Hugh Davis (6’0″ 225)
S: 4 Beejay Williamsson (6’1″ 193), 7 Jaiden Cole (6’1″ 200)
CB: 22 Willie Roberts (5’11” 190), 11 Cedric Woods (5’11” 184)
Tyler Grubbs is their star linebacker who worked his way up from fourth-string to starter. He flies around and gets tackles. He will miss a few (happens) like vs USA when he whiffed a tackle in the backfield and let USA get a big gain. I think NT likes their chances. NT likes to bring the tackles around in a power move (called Dart by some) where the backside guard will pull and insert in the A or B gaps. Tech did not handle this well vs USA. UTEP does not have as great of a rush attack but was better than average against Tech (for comparison, NT held the Miners to a full yard per carry fewer than did Tech).
Against FAU, North Texas got Kaylon Horton the ball on a jet sweep (with fake reverse motion) and the tailback leading. It is essentially a stretch/sweep play and NT got to the edge and make some things happen.
Tech has good players with experience but they will miss tackles and even their best (52) have been nullified on well-blocked runs. If the NT squad keep up the good stuff from the last few weeks, we should see a ton of yards rushing. Both safeties have missed tackles that led to big gains in the last couple of weeks. There is meat on the bone.
The secondary is much better against the pass, and like most Tech teams we have seen over the years, there is talent. Roberts is a ball-hawk, and Woods and Williamson will go for interceptions. They read the game well vs UTEP and jumped routes. Austin Aune will have to be careful. I expect NT will like the matchups going vertical in this one. Shorter has been ridiculously good, and Tech struggled in one-on-one coverage. They drew flags vs USA, and are vulnerable over the top.
NT has been great up front, with Cole Brown et. al moving well when they pull. Tight ends Jake Roberts, Var’Keyes Gumms, have been awesome helping out when NT goes with two TE sets (often). Both are threats in the pass game, but are invaluable blocking up for the run.
Game plan: Run the ball. Limit the out routes and the triangle reads, as that is where Aune gets in trouble. Throw the deep ball (where he succeeds) and the easy curl stuff. Keep it simple and save the clever for the jet sweeps, wild eagles, and the like.
Sonny Cumbie was a Mike Leach QB, and has been at Tech and TCU running the versions of Air Raid that have evolved since. He likes to throw the ball, but will run it, and also has some formation stuff that is fun and interesting. Seth Littrell started Air Raid and went toward the Briles-y Veer-and-Shoot style.
QB Parker McNeil (6’6″ 224) is a transfer from Texas Tech, with a good arm, happy feet, and a willingness to try things. That has got him in trouble and he has thrown a ton of interceptions. I mention the feet, because he is worse when he feels pressure and forgets to set himself. He tries to Rodgers the ball and it doesn’t come off well. There will be opportunities for NT to grab turnovers.
NT’s Ridge Texada balled out last week, but his play was more spectacular because of his mistakes. That diving one-handed save in the end zone in the second quarter? That was because he was in the wrong spot and played the flat when he had the deep third.
That’s a lot of raw talent to make up for that mistake, and NT will be very good with him back there when he knows where to be.
Otherwise, he is in bad spots and that can burn the squad. First series of the game:
Someone should be marking up that dude. There was finger pointing and I cannot say for absolute certain that it was Texada at fault here and not Quinn Whitlock but given the totality of the game, I think I know. He made plays, though, and was outstanding in flying up on smoke screens and now routes where the WR catches a quick ball on the line of scrimmage. Texada nearly had four picks instead of the two. NT will give up some stuff because of him, but it is worth it for now.
Meanwhile, Tech has 6 Smoke Harris (5’7″ 188), a burner and 12th year senior (seemingly). He has caught a pass in 25 straight games, and is very, very good. Another guy to watch is TE 5 Griffin Hebert (6’3″ 229), who has speed enough to burn you, but size enough to bully you in both the run and pass games. They like to move him around.
Wideout (X) 3 Tre Harris (6’2″ 204) is a burner, and also very good, as is 88 Kyle Maxwell (6’3″ 204). The quick takeaway is that this team has a lot of talent at wideout and a QB that can get them the ball. When they are clicking — like in the first quarter vs UTEP — this team is explosive and methodical at the same time. In recent weeks they like to motion Smoke Harris for some swing passes. He moves from the slot to the backfield, lining up as a tailback, and then catches the ball on the run.
They’ll also do that same motion, and while the defense is focussed on that threat, hit a slanting wideout inside. It is good offense, and something to be careful of. NT has trouble getting in and out of a lot of coverages, and the added confusion the Tech offense will bring is a concern.
The answer, of course, is bringing pressure. The tackles for Tech (68 Dakota White, 76 Biron Rossell) will get beat. NT likes to bring pressure and 42 Sifa Leota has been great. He sometimes gets there, but last week blew up the blocking back a couple of times. NT has been great bringing delayed pressure and also sometimes just bringing it with no disguise. Mazin Richards (44). Logan Wilson nearly had an interception because of the pressure on Perry last week. McNeil cannot run as well as Perry, and so I expect more screens and motion/fakes to keep the defense slow and off of his chest. I think Bennett will dial up the pressure and get some touches on him.
NT has also had success dropping eight into coverage, and the from three has gotten to the QB. Slowly, but surely NT is rounding into the form we expect of a PB-coached defense. KD Davis is flying around eating up runners. The corners are getting aggressive, and the front seven are getting pressure on the QB. The only concern in recent weeks is the corners tackling in space. Texada has been great, but …
Game plan: Bring pressure and do not let McNeil get comfortable looking for Smoke Harris. Trust Texada even though he will make mistakes. Make the tackles in space — don’t need to blow the runner up! Just bring him down.
Seth Littrell coached up a great game last time out. His offense was creative, aggressive, and executed well. The defense was aggressive, and resilient. There were mistakes but they were quickly learned from and forgotten. Louisiana Tech has a good enough squad to hang 40 on you, and look good doing so. NT’s offense is best when it is balanced and humble. That is to say, not falling in love with any one aspect, or thinking one player/aspect can win the game for everyone. Aune will need to throw, but we don’t want him throwing 59 times. The run game will need to run, but we can’t expect them to hit home runs all game. Neither the offense or defense can carry the game. NT will need scores, and it will need defensive stops and turnovers. Finding a way to see the whole game is the coach’s job, and we will need that from him.
Bennett has been aggressive defensively, and I like it. He has mixed pressure and full zone defense and the balance has kept he offense guessing. Texada starting is not ideal, but you can see why they like him.. Richards and Leota are finding a rhythm and you can see why the staff chose these dudes in the first place. Coaching through mistakes and still trusting these guys is huge.
Bloesch has found a way to keep the run game threatening but also have Aune still unlock Shorter, Ja’Mori Maclin, and Rod Burns. I would like to see more Tommy Bush and Damon Ward, JR get loose but so far, so good. It is a good problem to have a lot of game-breakers. The last home game saw the best called game so far this season, not simply in execution, but in creativity. Sweeps to Horton and Jordan Smart are natural progressions within the offense, and the wild eagle stuff a good changeup that “stole” a series from Tech. Mixing in a running QB — Stone Earle — was inspired. It was effective and kept FAU off balance without requiring complicated reads. I mean, Earle was running a designed QB power here:
Keeping the offense simple for your guys, and complicated for their guys, is the holy grail.
North Texas is looking for its eight straight conference win since 10/30/21. That means it is nearly a year’s time since NT has lost a league game. NT is looking to close the gap with Tech in the series and pick up win number eight. Tech has won seven of eight in Denton. NT can move into 3-0 and keep first place atop the league standings with a win. Tech can move to 2-0 in the same.
NT is a favorite by -6.5 in this one. I liked a lot of what I saw vs FAU, and there was a clear line of progression from the UNLV->Memphis->FAU games. I can see the bye week helping to keep that momentum but also hurting it a bit. Let’s hope it is the former. Tech is still trying to get healthy, and is thin in a lot of spots. I like NT in this one.
MGN Prediction: NT 41 LA Tech 29