When: December 2nd , 6:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network
Where: Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas
Who: North Texas (7-5) at UTSA (10-2)
What: The 2022 Conference USA championship game
In the late afternoon of October 22, 2022, in the visitor’s locker room of the thirty-year old stadium in downtown San Antonio, a group of 70-or so players vowed to each other that they would return to that spot come December. December is just a few short days away, and that promise will be fulfilled. North Texas earned the 2nd-place spot in the league and with it the right to be the challenger in the CUSA title game.
Let us be honest with each other here: North Texas is the underdog for a few very good reasons. UTSA swept the league, going 8-0 including wins at UAB and vs North Texas on that October day. The Mean Green had a nice early start but stumbled in Birmingham, and struggled to put away plucky but poor Rice University this past week. With the acknowledgement that the post-Thanksgiving game is tough for everyone — UTSA went down 24-0 to UTEP, for example — we can also note that UTSA is playing better than North Texas in recent weeks.
Ask someone from the Mean Green program and the will no doubt tell you “We are trying to get healthy.” Isaiah Johnson hurt his ankle celebrating the go-ahead score vs UTSA. Oscar Adaway III hurt his leg and more getting targeted by WKU in Bowling Green. Ayo Adeyi went down the next week vs FIU. The powerful, 4-headed running attack is now down to about 1.45 guys. Ikaika Ragsdale and a hobbled Johnson form the duo.
That is the game, however. That is football. It is a test of strength and physicality but also of endurance. It is about team, not a player. You foster the “next man up” mentality not because you want to be cruel and uncaring about a teammate, but because you need more than one guy to be prepared to contribute and perform.
The first game was about punching hard with your best shot, and then adjusting. North Texas came out on a hot streak relying on the run game and the deep passing attack. UTSA sold out to stop the run, but let Austin Aune hit them over the top for 300+ yards. NT repeatedly found Var’Keyes Gumms for big gains, including on the final drive with under 3-minutes. NT had the lead, and had UTSA pinned at a 4th-and-2 with 45-seconds remaining.
Defensively, Phil Bennett wanted to keep everything in front of him, to slow down Frank Harris’ passing game. NT conceded the numbers in the box to the run game, and wanted limit big plays and make Harris throw underneath. That worked for the most part, and NT was helped by UTSA missing a field goal and making mistakes. Late in the game, however, UTSA found success running the ball with Brendan Brady. On the final drive Oscar Cardenas made a ridiculous one-handed catch over KD Davis and then Harris tossed a fade route over Ridge Texada to win the game with just :15 seconds left.
UTSA has a reputation of 1) playing close games and 2) driving, getting big plays from their playmakers, and winning. They’ve lost a WR (De’Corian “JT” Clark, the guy who made the game-winning catch) but they have gained — so to speak — as Kevorian Barnes has been good for them in recent games. He provides more speed, and UTSA likes to get him going on outside zone runs.
Both of these teams have changes since their last meeting. The big themes are there, but injuries and scouting and a short week mean that we can’t expect a like-for-like replay of the first outing.
North Texas struggled to run the ball in October. There were opportunities, but credit UTSA for executing their game plan with aggression. Seth Litrell mentioned in the post-game and the press-conference that he thought they sold out, and NT had to make the pay in the pass game. They did, but meat was left on the bone. Drops, bounced passes, misfires, miscommunications and yet NT still took the lead with under 2-minutes to go after Aune hit Gumms along the sideline on a wheel route.
Still, UTSA showed an effective game plan and everyone in the league after them copied it. The good news? NT took advantage of WKU, and FIU for doing something similar. They even got UAB a couple of times for it, all while running better than they did vs UTSA. Injuries to the offensive line and running back spot have meant NT hasn’t been as potent toting the rock as they would have liked, but the team has been able to run — vs WKU it opened up late, vs UAB it was integral in the 2nd quarter explosion. The pass game struggled vs Rice, but we can chalk that up to the rain and cold if you like. Against UAB, Damon Ward Jr showed out with incredible hands-only catches but was very quiet vs Rice. NT scored the 21-straight in the 2nd vs UAB, but was quiet the rest of the game. They also managed only 21 vs a woeful Rice last week. That kind of output is not going to cut it. North Texas maybe cannot count on 40, but 30+ points will be required. More important: good drives. Moving the ball helps the defense by playing a little field position. We’ll discuss this later, but NT wants to make UTSA drive 11-plays to score.
The offensive game plan is more of the same: run the ball, use the RPO game to get big shots downfield, and move the chains. Jyaire Shorter can get by anyone in this league, and did so against UTSA’s Nicktroy Fortune a few times last game. Littrell will need Shorter to be catching everything, and avoid those untimely drops that can plague him. He has the talent and physical gifts to play at the next level if he can make those detail-plays.
Aune will be asked to make throws again, and this time they won’t be as wide open –well at least not the same ones. UTSA will no doubt have studied the mistakes they made in coverage — letting NT get wheel-routes and double-moves — and have a plan. The tight ends ran wild, but so did Roderic Burns. Dude was scorching UTSA last game. It would be great to get Ja’Mori Maclin the ball running loose, and Jordan Smart has speed and has been getting time.
UTSA’s front is big and physical. They won too many battles up front for anyone’s liking. They can go two-and-three deep and still be effective. Aune got some happy feet sometimes, and walked into sacks or pressure when he could have got rid of the ball. Credit to UTSA for being aggressive and making him move, but Aune can improve in that area.
Mike Bloesch used tempo to negate some of the benefits of substitution, however. Aune found Shorter early as UTSA was staring at the sideline for a play and later NT forced a UTSA timeout as they were running a defensive lineman on late.
Beyond that, NT can help themselves by staying penalty-free. Ever-present Manase Mose was called for a hands-to-the-face call deep in the NT territory that forced NT to back up after getting a first down. NT moved the ball well, but stayed in the same area. Littrell has the Mean Green playing cleanly, as they are one of the least-penalized teams in the nation. As ever, it is the timing that matters (not that there is a good time to commit a penalty).
For example, starting the second half, NT held on the kickoff return and again pinned themselves inside their own 20. Aune threw an interception that set up UTSA’s first touchdown.
For all of the explosive aggregated stats (yards, total yards, etc), NT has not been realized their full potential. When you hear criticism and pessimism from the fans, that is because they remember the first half vs UTSA, the second half vs UAB, and basically most of the Rice game.
NT will need to be the best version of themselves in this one, and for more than just one half or one quarter. They can do it. Aune has been very good at times this season, and should have all the nerves out of his system. NT played in and lost a big game vs UTSA already. This is a do-over, with essentially nothing to lose. The team is an underdog, and the pressure is on UTSA to perform again. Go and sling it. Go and try to score.
The good news is NT has had a penchant for scoring when they need to. Against UTSA, NT answered with a go-ahead score three straight times. Against Rice, they scored when the Owls took a 17-14 lead. There is a burning coal of fire in there.
Game Plan: Run the ball well, early. Be crisp in the passing execution, and take advantage of 1v1s against their corners. NT did a great job of game-planning vs UTSA last time but didn’t execute to perfection. Now is the time.
Best case scenario: Shorter gets loose for two or three TDs where he beats the guy by five yards again. Ikaika Ragsdale runs for 110, and Johnson gets some bully-ball yards. We see a big game from Aune — 300+, 3 TDs, no picks.
Worst case scenario: NT faces a lot of 4th and 1s because of almost good executions. We saw this vs UAB late. NT also has drops, high passes, missed assignments, as they did vs Rice. Basically, execution is poor and NT struggles to score.
On the first drive of the October game, Ridge Texada picked off Frank Harris. He baited him a bit, and flew back into the opening and picked off what should have been an open look. On the next drive , Mazin Richards sacked Harris (Harris scrambled for a first later in the series). Also, Kevin Wood snuck in late for a delayed blitz threw the A-gap and got Harris scrambling. Tom Trieb beat UTSA’s LT Baty for pressure, and NT’s Enoch Jackson sacked Harris on 4th down later.
If there is a model for the ideal defense it would be those first couple of possessions. UTSA wants to run, and keep Harris’s shirt clean (figuratively speaking) but he is also the best runner. NT was beat a couple of times by his legs, but if NT can get to him, they can win.
KD Davis would spy, and picked his spots to blitz with success. When NT only rushed three and sat back in coverage, Harris was able to find his guys more easily. I write “easily” because he makes it look that way, but NT made him work and show off his talent. A concern for the Mean Green is the way UAB was able to power their way in from 15-yards in. I expect UTSA will do a lot similar. NT does not matchup well on jump balls in the red zone, and will have to trust their defense’s ability to keep UTSA out of there.
Bennett likes a lot of quarters coverage with “safe” pressures that keep gap integrity. Linebackers will bring pressure, but late and soundly. The matchup zones behind the pressure try to keep things in front of them and lock down throwing options. They’ve largely been successful. NT is ranked fourth in the league (vs conference) in yards allowed per play.
The real question is if NT can stay sound vs the run game. UAB and Rice were able to run well, the Blazers better than the Owls but still. UTSA was able to take advantage of NT’s pass-first focus and run for 200+ last time out. There are some weaknesses against some inside zone runs here and there, but for the most part North Texas is putting for the effort, but are getting beat. If this game comes down to stopping the UTSA run game from 10-yards and in, I don’t like NT’s chances. If NT allows 200 yard rushing but keeps Harris below 50, and he only throws for 200+ I think NT has a shot.
Last time out NT held him to sub-250 passing (and just 6.1 yards per toss), and intercepted him once. Last week UTEP got to him a few times, but he was able to find his talented wideouts vs some freshman corners. Ultimately, it comes down to whether NT can matchup in the pass game again. Ridge Texada was great, and DeShawn Gaddie was solid vs UTSA’s Franklin (6 grabs for just 21 yards). NT had put UTSA in a spot where they needed a 4th and 2 conversion at midfield to not lose the game. They then needed a one-handed TE grab to set up their next score.
NT was very great early, but got opened up vs the run in the second half but played well. A concern is that Mazin Richards limped off the field vs Rice and didn’t put any weight on his leg. He was great and has been great all season. Sifa Leota is his backup and has been good in spots. NT needs pressure on the QB, but also speed. Trieb has been good, but doesn’t have the wheels to chase down Harris in the open field. If Richards is not able to go, we will see NT rely more on KD Davis to bring effective pressure.
Gaddie didn’t play vs Rice, but rumors are that he should be good to go. The rest of the secondary showed up well last time, and in recent weeks. Logan Wilson earned a player of the week honor for his efforts vs WKU and has been good in coverage and around the line. Keelan Crosby did some good things vs UTSA in the last one.
Here is the thing: UTSA will make mistakes if you give them enough room to do so. Harris is a gamer, but the offensive line is still a little shaky and they rely on his wheels and play-making ability to get out of tight spots. UTEP had them beat, but really just had hard time scoring after the initial burst. NT is more explosive than UTEP and also has played in the dome recently so should be better prepared for the noise and loudness. It will be loud.
A couple of points of emphasis should be:
For the secondary — stay with your man. Harris likes to run and find his guys while moving. Find work and keep working until the whistle blows.
For the linebackers/pass rush — stay on your feet. He can run, and is sneaky fast. Diving just opens up the field. Also, he holds the ball out and will get loose with it. Get a hold of him and swipe at it.
NT got beat by his scrambling last time out but overall did a great job in the secondary. The pass rush was good, and got a couple of sacks but probably missed an opportunity here and there for a turnover. Also there was some diving that he escaped from and made plays after.
Game plan: Pay attention to details. It is easy to get caught in the moment and try to go make big plays, but that is also the daylight needed for UTSA to get loose for big yards. Staying disciplined will make UTSA execute. They have difficulty putting long drives together.
Best case scenario: North Texas is able to get to Harris like they did previously, and like UTEP did, but with better coverage throughout the game. Harris makes plays but also has some frustration-throws, and turns it over.
Worst case scenario: NT pass rush can’t get to Harris and he is able to stand tall and deal the ball with ease. The run game is able to keep the down-and-distance short, and Harris is able to use his legs for first downs.
Jared Sackett is a good kicker but missed early vs NT, and also missed last week vs UTEP. In the dome. There is no wind in the dome. Bernardo Rodriguez did a one-handed catch last week but I never want to see that again. NT punt unit got one blocked vs UTSA last time out, and did not execute the kick return in the final seconds very well.
UTSA will also occasionally try a little onside kick — they did it vs UTEP and Texas. They will catch you sleeping.
For all the criticism Seth Littrell gets (some deserved), his teams are rarely penalized this year. I mentioned that the timelines of infractions is important, and they are, but one reason you can put up three 600+ yard games is because you don’t hurt yourself with penalties.
It likely doesn’t mean anything but Ayo Adeyi is on listed on the three-deep. It would be great to have the most explosive back on the field.
This is for the league title. North Texas has not won a football title in this league, but has 25 others in program history. This would be the first in football since 2004, the Sun Belt days. This is the second title game appearance for NT, having competed with FAU for it in 2017. NT was blown out a second time — they had lost badly earlier in Boca Raton that season. Speaking of rematches, in 2016 NT went to Army and won then faced Army in the Cotton Bowl Stadium (for the HOD bowl) and lost. That’s a split, two losses, and now … hoping for a split.
A UNT win would also move the program to 8-15 all time in the month of December. NT would move to 3-47 against ranked opponents. The last time they won was last season vs UTSA. NT is 1-0 all-time vs a ranked UTSA ;).
This will be the 11th meeting between the two programs, which are tied at 5 wins apiece. NT is 1-4 in the Alamodome but NT has won 4 of the last 6.
A touchdown puts Austin Aune as the single-season TD leader in NT history with 32. He’s currently tied with Mason Fine, legend.
Prediction and Final Thoughts
In the October preview we mentioned that NT had to be clear in their blocking assignments, and that while UTSA likes to rotate their defense, they would be susceptible to rhythm changes. That remains true, but a lot of tricks and stuff don’t necessarily work anymore. The entire body of work is on film already. These two staffs have prepared for a game and reviewed it. It will inevitably come down to the details and desire. Football is a tough game — on both mind and body. At the end of a long season it is easy to pack it in. It is much harder to go the extra mile and dig deeper for more when it hurts to do so.
Earning a spot in the championship game is special. This NT team is a solid squad, with good players, who have shown some of the gutsy, tough-minded work ethic that is required to be a winning program. It has not been perfect, sure. We aren’t asking for perfect, however.
UTSA on the other hand, has won ugly all season. They have shown over the last two seasons that they can win ugly games. Last year they dug deep vs UAB, then again vs WKU. They pulled out a win this year vs NT. They came back from 24 down vs UTEP.
But NT is not UTEP.
The point spread, the recent form (NT LWWLW | UTSA WWWWW), and resume (1-0, vs 0-1) all scream at us that UTSA is going to either blow the doors off NT, or find a way to dig deep again and pull off a comeback win. I was thinking about that the other night and how much it would sting to be on the field watching UTSA celebrate a title while NT walks dejectedly into the locker room. Last season we saw that as the Runners did so vs WKU.
But then I realized that was not as fun as thinking about how good it would feel to watch NT celebrate on the Alamodome field, while rowdy fans yell obscenities (they yell obscenities) and 35K UTSA fans feel gutted.
Folks I have the same feeling I did last year when NT was hosting UTSA and everything screamed that they would romp in Denton.
Head: UTSA 38 NT 20
Heart: North Texas 41 UTSA 38