Football is a funny little game. If you only looked at the numbers, as some do, and saw that NT lost by three-plus scores and allowed 537 yards and you would be right to think that nothing was different than the six-of-eight losses since 2014. Except it was markedly different for about two-and-a-half quarters of play. North Texas’ defense was stout, aggressive, made tackles, and held SMU to only the one touchdown in the first half.
Fatigue and circumstance saw SMU bust open some big plays and the Ponies went on to get a blowout. Those big plays came about because of failed efforts for the most part — just a second or two away from sacking the QB etc, — and not blown coverage. That is a real distinction, and a real sign of improvement.
North Texas lost. They were blown out. There were some good things.
In the preview, I wrote the following:
The bare minimum here is that NT competes. SMU very well may get 500+ yards and 40 points, but there is a difference between 65 and 40. There is a difference between 700 yards and 500 yards.
North Texas competed. The squad forced SMU to fight for every yard for most of the game, and won some changes of possessions because they were in SMU’s QB face all night. Tanner Mordecai throw long, threw hurried, and that is the kind of thing that was missing last year. Phil Bennett has his charges playing fundamentally sound. They tackle well, they know their roles. They competed.
That’s a hell of a lot different than last year and it means we can look forward to some good things. Playing defense is a lot easier when you give yourself a chance and you do that by being eliminating the risk that comes with taking poor angles, using poor technique, and all that stuff.
SMU has talented players. Bentley is hard to tackle. Roberson, and Gray are amazing wide receivers. NT held them and forced tough catches all night. Looking at the rest of CUSA, I don’t know that I see that same level of talent on any particular team. UTSA has Sincere McCormick and that Franklin WR, but is it top-to-bottom as good offensively (coaches included)? Not necessarily.
Next up is UAB, who are hurting after getting embarrassed by Georgia. North Texas will need to be prepared for the inevitable reaction from them, while also making sure the the defense is as ready for the game as they were in this one. UAB will run at you, and through you and NT looked a little gassed earlier than I thought they would. That is concerning.
Also, there was some fortune. Danny Gray dropped an open touchdown that would have sealed the game up earlier than it was actually sealed. Still, NT played to win, defensively and that is all we can ask after a terrible 2020.
Jace Ruder and the Offense
The offense struggled. SMU was not super formidable defensively. There was little pressure in Ruder’s face, or holes being closed up for Torrey. No, instead NT could not find open guys early — Ruder missed a wide open Shorter on a flag route in the red zone — and bad snaps short circuited the offense throughout. Manase Mose was poor in this one. He had about four high snaps that threw off the rhythm, and a couple more snap infractions that caused penalties. NT hurt themselves early and often and yet still put up 237 yards of offense. I saw a few tweets likening it to the Cowboys game on Thursday and I cannot say that was wrong. Empty yards are a waste. NT has to score touchdowns and they failed to do that.
Here at MGN, we have complained often about NT’s inability to consistently convert short yardage in important situations. NT failed in a couple of big opportunities tonight that cost them dearly.
All that said, there were some nice things from Jace Ruder, Jason Pirtle, Torrey, Isaiah Johnson, and Roderick Freaking Burns. He had twelve grabs on nineteen targets for 141 yards. For a good portion of this game, he looked like the only North Texas likely to break one. Jyaire Shorter had a nice game (6 for 107 on 9 targets) but it was Burns that looked like the number one.
We worried about Deandre Torrey’s ability to say healthy while carrying the burden of being the feature back, the scat back, and the number one kick and punt returner. Johnson getting some nice catches and running well were nice to see, but Torrey sitting on the injury table late was a concern.
So that brings me back to Jace Ruder. His line
32 of 51 366 1 TD 2 INT is fine. To my eyes he looks like he has the tools but just needs the repetitions. I like that he gave his guys opportunities to make plays. On the one where he threw the second interception (the first was on a tipped pass at the line) he threw it to Pirtle, expecting him to make a play. Pirtle did not, and Cromartie did and that was that.
Deonte Simpson is still working his way back and Tommy Bush just went out with what looked like a bad injury. That’s two quality guys out, but the pass catchers available looked good tonight. Pirtle and Jake Roberts were very good. There is enough there to take the top off the defense, while also working the ball down the field. There is a lot of talent here to be excited about and a lot of potential if Jace Ruder finds his rhythm like he did in spots in this game.
That said, 12 points and 509 yards is not winning football. The ball needs to get into the end zone, and Mike Bloesch and Seth Littrell have to figure out how to do that. That duo have good ideas. They get lots of yards, Seth’s offense have broken records here.We have not seen those yards and points translate to wins. Outside of some clutch Mason Fine drives in the Guyton-Bussey era, that offense has been a lot of empty calories.
Tonight, we had a QB throw for three bills, two WRs go for a buck, and twelve points to show for it.
What It Means
We covered some of this above, but it means we can have some realistic hope. The main question this season was about the defense. That, through two games, has shown some early signs of being answered in a good way. NT got run over in this one late, but they competed. A competitive defense is halfway to a competitive team.
The offense has the same questions it always has, and that is something we have to worry about. Last year there were some terrible offensive halves and those were hidden by some even more awful defensive outings. The play calling has to help Ruder get in rhythm earlier. There will always be some times where Ruder and company have to make plays from nothing but that shouldn’t have to happen every drive. Be clever. Scheme up some good offense to put them in good spots so their talent can shine.
Else it will be a lot more losses.
Next Up: UAB
The Blazers got tapped up by Georgia. They still are the class of the conference, with a deep roster of CUSA talent and super seniors to bolster the squad. Bill Clark has his team ready to play against CUSA foes, and that means NT will have to be a ready.