Axed: NT 24 UTEP 52

I thought this could happen.

Well, I did not think Aaron Jones would explode through the middle of the NT defense for 301 yards and 4 TDs on only 24 carries. I did think UTEP would play better than last week’s show against Rice considering the circumstances.

Sean Kugler’s men had pride to play for and the talent to put purpose to practice and punched the North Texas defense in the mouth. The knockout blow came in the third quarter when Aaron Jones burst around left end for 58 more yards and his third TD of the game.

By then, NT’s limited offense had a near-impossible task ahead of them: score in bunches and quickly. While I was reeling from the awful defensive show, I did notice that up to that point Graham Harrell’s boys put up average North Texas offensive output. In the preview, I thought that was going to be enough. I did not count on UTEP’s offense doing a WKU/La Tech impression.

That is college football and CUSA football and sports for ya’.

North Texas’ defense had no answer for a fully operational Aaron Jones, who put on a show that more than reminded me of Lance Dunbar’s final game in Green.

Lance Dunbar’s final game v MTSU: 40 carries 313 yards 4 TDs
Aaron Jones’ final game v UNT: 24 carries 301 yards and 4 TDs

Following the UTEP win over UTSA, I thought the schedule softened up enough to open the possibility that they might put themselves back into contention. Instead, they looked listless and lost. Tonight, UTEP looked like the team we feared in preseason. Oh, and North Texas’ defense looked like the one that allowed 6 TDs to La Tech’s Kenneth Dixon last season.

That combination meant North Texas was embarrassed 52-24 on the road in one of the biggest games in a couple of seasons. While it is easy to get caught in the moment and let the anger and disappointment take over and make ridiculous judgements, we should remember the context.

This is an undermanned, young team with lots of new parts in important positions. The defense improved greatly and turned a weakness into a strength. The offense improved on last season’s performance by about 7 points per game. There is a lot to be excited and hopeful for in the future and if everything breaks right, there still is a chance this team — yes this team goes bowling. I was not expecting a bowl game conversation untili about 2018, so forgive me for not breaking my television after this game.

There is a case to be made that North Texas three blowout losses in the conference — WKU, La Tech, and UTEP — came down to a lack of depth and a talent disparity. The Hilltoppers, Bulldogs, and Miners all boast at least one NFL-level talent on offense. I do not consider their each scoring at least 45 against us a coincidence.

The 2016 NT Defense played well for much of the season, but struggled when injuries accumulated — or even dings — and when players struggled. Where other teams can push the starters with talented underclassmen, NT is thin across the board.

Because the CUSA.tv broadcast was completely awful, filled with overzoomed in camera views and lingering pauses on players out of the action, we will limit the detailed recap to general thoughts and reactions.

Offense

The biggest question about Willy Ivery coming into the year was if he could step in and be the feature back when/if Jeff Wilson lost time to injury. In these last two games he averaged 100+ yards and tonight caught 58 yards worth of passes. He is the real deal. Next season, both Wilson and Ivery should be back and that puts any concerns about the position at ease. Wyche should be better, and the new guys will fill in the roster and add depth. I like it.

Alec Morris did not have a great game, but he did enough. In a “normal” game, his performance could have been a winning one. He missed way too many deep passes, and looked a bit lost at timeswhen he had to scramble, but he managed what he could despite UTEP knowing he would have to pass more.

Me in the preview:

We are looking for NT to play to average — not potential — after all. So 24 points and five scoring trips is what we can expect to see. If we get more we’ll be excited and less would disappoint us. Here at the twelfth game of the year, the team is the team. This team, however injured and suspended, can produce that against this UTEP defense.

They produced exactly 24 points and could have had a few more if they were not in Deficit Mode. The two scoring drives before the half were more glimpses into the future of this offense, with more talent fits and a year of recruiting.

Defense

Toast.

Aaron Jones scored on runs of 83, 48, and 58. Tight End Hayden Plinke scored on 72-yard pass.

If the defense had given up any one or two of those, we would be really disappointed. Aaron Jones and the UTEP offensive line were great, and I think NT had a hard time getting their run fits. We all expected the Jones long run or two he gets every game, but not three. We certainly did not expect the passing TDs either.

The defense was outplayed and there is not much more analyzing to do. Tackling was poor, and the only good thing to say is that the defense did not give up big plays every play. Was it heart, or desire? I do not know. Let us give UTEP a lot of credit for playing their absolute best game of the season after a frustrating stretch of games.

Special Teams

Keen punted often and we will forget those and instead remember the one he mishandled and the subsequent TD he allowed. Bad time to do that in an awful day for everyone.

Coaching

Littrell obviously is not happy with this. He and the staff have done a good job of getting the most out of the roster. Given the suspensions and some of the issues with post-play activities, the next step in molding this team will be in getting his guys in Denton.

If NT is truly getting into a bowl via the backdoor, the practice time will go a long way to improving the program for next season and helping to sell the program to recruits in the interim.

Chad Morris, Tom Herman, and Charlie Strong are all moving on and the chain reaction in recruiting will mean North Texas will have new opportunities for quality players.

Next up: Wait to see if NT gets into a bowl via the side entrance.