Welcome back to this little site, folks. No doubt you have filled your week with family, and soccer as I have. Maybe you finished up some work before you left, and today was the start of your vacation week? Whatever your situation, I hope it is a good one. Good luck and good health, fellow Mean Green.
This week the department has been working to fill the seats for Senior Day against Rice. The final game of the regular season — home or away — is always a tough sell for the football program. Thanksgiving Week means most students are back home, and people who are in and around Denton are doing family things. Maybe that includes going to a North Texas football game?
I once flew back from Nevada to make the North Texas vs Kansas State game. A few times I have made it out to Houston or Denton for the finale. This season your favorite MGN writer is sitting on the couch. There is a link up above this post (as of this writing) that will get you $10 off some seats. Check it out.
The Mean Green are in a play-off game, essentially. Win on Saturday, and NT gets to travel to San Antonio the next Friday for the CUSA title game in San Antonio. Last year UTSA hosted a raucous crowd that helped them jump up on WKU in the middle quarters. North Texas has already experienced that environment and walked off the field itching for a rematch.
This weekend is the opportunity to earn that very thing.
Rice comes into this week needing a win to earn bowl-eligibility. Rice’s Mike Bloomgren era has seen some upsets, and some impressive games and a lot of losing. His predecessor David Bailiff had four winning seasons in 11, a .416 record, and four bowl appearances, going 3-1 in those. Oh and the 2013 league title. Bloomgren has a .302 record, and zero winning seasons. This would be the first in his time.
The Owls are coming off a pasting in Houston 41-7, which was preceded by a pasting given by WKU 45-10 in Bowling Green. A couple of weeks ago watching a Charlotte team that fired its coach just torch the Owl secondary with ease gave hints to all who were watching closely that they cannot stop the pass. WKU, and UTSA are two of the league’s best passing attacks and dominating proceedings accordingly. That bodes well for NT’s Austin Aune.
North Texas is coming off a bye, and before that a poor showing in Birmingham against a good UAB. NT exploded for 21 points in the second quarter but was quiet before and after that. A little time to readjust and heal — especially the running back spots — is good.
The Rice Owls have been very poor stopping the pass. The secondary looks confused, outmatched, and unorganized. They will get an interception here and there. The UTSA run game was crazy explosive thanks to Frank Harris and the Barnes kid. North Texas will be looking to Ikaika Ragsdale and Isaiah Johnson in this one again. The duo were okay vs UAB, but NT wasn’t the same kind of running team that we saw prior to the injuries.
Mike Bloesch has moved the offense toward taking advantage of the weapons in the NT pass game. NT came out throwing, and aggressive vs UAB and it didn’t work as well as it had in previous weeks. UAB’s defense is the league’s best statistically, and they were able to bottle up the options for Aune. As usual, there was meat on the bones, but if you have been following the program all season you know that is nothing unusual. Austin Aune is not going to become prime Aaron Rodgers, or even prime Mason Fine, and so we can look for the variances within his own game. He did not play his best football vs UAB, but he wasn’t helped much by all of his targets.
NT put up 21 vs UAB, and that is about enough for a winning margin if the NT defense can hold Rice — more on that later. The Owl defense will no doubt buck up after getting sliced open the last two weeks, but there can only be so much improvement on a week-to-week basis. Put simply, the Owl secondary cannot guard the NT wide out group man-for-man. Now, can the NT wideouts make them pay? It depends. Jyaire Shorter is a physical specimen, but he gets the dropsies too often for my liking. He dropped a couple of big ones this season, but stays putting up record numbers by getting ridiculously open on go-routes.
Damon Ward Jr has been incredible, making sticky-hand catches that are gif-worthy. Roderic Burns has found space every week. Maclin, Smart, and Horton have also been dangerous and threatening. Add to that the tight end spot with Gumms, and Roberts and I think NT has enough weapons to move the ball up and down the field. A question is if NT can make the Rice Owls bite on play-action enough so the regular RPO offense stays viable. If not, Rice can sit back and dare Aune to throw into coverage — or throw guys open, while staying strong against the run.
Rice has been inconsistent, and mistakes in run-fits and tackling have allowed big plays from the opposition. NT has a chance to hit some big ones and get points. Remember that NT has one of the best offensive productions in the nation, and has been incredible against good CUSA defenses. Even though NT struggled late vs the UAB defense, there was an explosive quarter, and there were also chances in the second. Another yard here and there, and NT is moving the chains and getting in scoring range. Inches everywhere, etc.
A thing about Rice is that they will give you those inches. They will give you margin for error.
Game plan: Run the ball, hit Rice over the top a couple of times and take advantage of the weak secondary.
Best case scenario: NT is able to hit big plays early — first down especially — and not need Aune to make big time throws in unfavorable down-and-distance situations.
Worst case scenario: NT looks rusty, and passes are in the dirt, or high. Drives are stalling and Rice is hanging around.
There is no indication of who will be the Rice starting QB this week. TJ McMahon was injured and has been out a couple of weeks. AJ Padgett got time vs UTSA, and we don’t know who will be the signal-caller. McMahon is obviously the more experienced QB, but he threw 14 interceptions this season. Padgett has a big arm, but he has few snaps with the starters. If he is getting major snaps, expect some special stuff that takes advantage of his abilities (arm) but stuff that is pretty straightforward. As of the press-conference, Bloomgren said he will be giving Padgett a ton of reps.
We saw something similar with UAB last week. UAB had started Zeno for a few weeks but got their regular starter back. He wasn’t spectacular, but was good. The run game had a ridiculous day later in the game that sealed it all for the Blazers.
NT will be looking to fix those mistakes. Guys should be a little fresher, healthier, and a couple of dudes should be back from injury.
North Texas will continue to try to keep things in front of them, much like they did vs FIU. Making Rice move the ball and execute down the field with a QB coming back from injury, or a QB with only about 20 or so passes on his resume is the plan. That’s difficult to do, and NT will make them do that about five or six times if they want to win.
Rice will try to power run, with Cam Montgomery getting most of the carries this season. Jump Otoviano has been getting the most touches and production the last six weeks, however. Teams that want to run are always dangerous, as it can be a battle of willpower after a point. NT did not perform well vs UAB late, but had a two-quarter stretch where they had the league’s leading rusher bottled up pretty well.
The Owls are not nearly as crisp when executing inside zone for their backs as UAB, and that should mean less rush yards allowed on the board.
Game plan: Keep the pass options in front, force Rice to execute in the pass game and work for run yards.
Best case scenario: NT is able to shut down the run game and — like vs FIU — force the pass game to throw short. That means tackling in space, something NT has been good at in recent weeks.
Worst case scenario: The run game gets loose, making it easy for the QB to execute and find his experienced wideouts.
North Texas had to throw something different at UAB. The running back room was thinned out, and NT tried to get the pass game to be the workhorse. It was overall unsuccessful, but there was a bright second quarter. It felt like NT needed to go full-bore aggressive and pulled it back just enough after a lead. When it was time to go again, NT had lost the rhythm. Of course, that is the view from the television. It is harder to know the real situation. Was it execution? Was it play-calling? It probably is a little of all of it.
NT has done well in game planning and jumping out early — especially against bad teams. We want to see a couple of things here: aggression, and hunger. Call it the killer instinct or whatever. NT’s coaching staff has to encourage the kind of mentality that is about taking full advantage of a weakened opponent.
Consider the situation:
A weakened Rice team, with questions at QB, and more at cornerback, comes to Apogee on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Rice is all that stands in the way of a chance at title game.
NT needs to jump on the opportunity, but also not throw it all away and slip and fall. A veteran, experienced coach would know that he needs to encourage the killer instinct, but also keep an eye out for over-enthusiasm. Like, don’t be a cat on a slippery floor, you know?
Well, if you don’t know by this point in this post, you will never know. It is a play-in game. WKU will have already shown their cards. They play at FAU and need a win and a North Texas loss. NT just needs a victory and it is all official.
North Texas is looking for their 2nd championship game appearance (2017) and first win. It will be on the road in San Antonio, where they lost on that last drive of the game.
NT has won five of the last six against Rice. The series all-time is 7-5 in NT’s favor.
It is senior day, which means guys are getting a little celebration in the last home game of the year:
Austin Aune, Cole Brown, Tommy Bush, Daxton Byers, Daizion Carroll, Jacob Daulong, KD Davis, Sean-Thomas Faulkner, Zahodri Jackson, Dayton LeBlanc, Landon Maston, Ethan Mooney, Manase Mose, Bernardo Rodriguez and Quinn Whitlock