North Texas and Alec Morris had their best passing day against Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. This has prompted more than a few What Ifs about Morris and the squad.
For the record, this blog believes Littrell played his cards right at the time. Morris struggled early, throwing three INTs in two games against poorer competition than Army. The entire team had a relatively steep learning curve and maximizing the future while getting good value in the present meant that Mason Fine was the right choice. Early on he looked more comfortable running the offense.
Minimum 11 attempts, rating for the first two games:
Morris: 114.13, 28.11
Fine: 129.24, 91.24
Through the Army game, Mason Fine had 4TDs, only 2INTs, a 300 yard game, and (forgive me) a winning record.
Fine began struggling against UTSA, and according to Seth Littrell, that is when Morris was making strides in practice and the staff was thinking about getting him reps. Without getting too deep into this discussion, suffice it to say that the entire offense was making significant improvements throughout the season. Those awful fade passes against Bethune Cookman were completed against Southern Miss and UTEP. Rico Bussey recovered from his hamstring issue and showed what everyone was excited about.
The bowl practices also helped. Let us take a look at some nice things NT did. As with the last post, we could probably look at all the plays and spend the offseason breaking it all down. Right now let us look at some representative plays.
We will focus on the pass game and look at the run game in another post.
NT starting the game with the look that helped Jeff Wilson run for 160 yards back in October. This was quality and helped Morris get an easy completion to start the game. I think what the staff saw in the Army defense was (1) they give a lot of cushion and (2) they can be beat 1v1 by NT’s WR.
Incidentally NT came out in this 20 personnel look often (or the 21 variation) and mixed up the run and play-action pass from it. Good stuff.
Morris was accurate on this pass, and others like it. We had seen glimpses of this in recent weeks. He looked good against WKU in relief, as his height and arm strength allowed him to fire over the middle. In the game tying drive, NT completed a pass like this to Tyler Wilson.
One of the philosophies of the Air Raid is in ball control. While the Briles’ Veer and Shoot is designed to hit big pass plays off play action and tempo, the Air Raid is designed to get the ball to play makers in space with short passes.
NT ran this play about five or six times and had some success1 every time. This play does not pressure the Army defense vertically but it does horizontally, which is the point. If Army is going to give up 5-6 yards, why not take it? When the defense gets frustrated with a thousand short passes and brings pressure, that’s when you hit them with a big play. In the interim, you are hoping a short pass to a great player turns into a long run after catch. It is kind of like getting a knockout punch with a jab.
One thing to notice on the play design is the inside releases of the interior WRs. This is intended to draw the linebackers (or safeties) to them and open a lane for the outside throw. If the outs are not open, the interior WRs are settling in the open space in between the zones. Thadd Thompson grabbed a few passes like this throughout the year.
We do not have a good video of Tyler Wilson making a short grab in the second quarter (1:20 mark) and turning it into big yardage, but that is the kind of play that is very intriguing for next year. Thaddeus Thompson did a great job of making those catches for Fine and Morris, but only Goree (of the WRs, Jeff did score on short stuff) took one to the house. Buyers, Tyler Wilson, and Rico Bussey got some yardage but I cannot think of regular big gains off short stuff.
Jeff Wilson got all his receiving yards on screen passes. Against Marshall and UTSA, Harrell called swing and flare routes to get him in space, with the occasional screen mixed in. NT only faked the flare vs Army. I am not sure on what look triggers a screen pass but all were relatively successful. On two plays in the final drive the DE made a hell of a play. Early in the game Elex Woodworth missed a block that could have sprung Jeff for big yards. Sam Rice and the WRs led the way on the Wilson TD from 22 yards out.
These are invaluable for slowing the rush and for getting the ball in the hands of the most dangerous playmaker on the field.
If you have watched closely, you have seen this route before but it usually does not go for big yards. Well, it may have before. If you have broadcast video of Tee Goree’s TD against La Tech, I think it was on this same play.
First we see the blitz coming. I suspect that means the reads go like this:
Some coaches like to read deep-to-short, but usually have a check for a pressure throw. Yes a hot route. Whatever the case here, Morris finds Bussey, who is the snag. Morris finds him in stride and he bursts up the field for a big gain.
Army started pressing the corners and showing a single-high safety look. For various reasons this season NT has been poor taking advantage of 1v1 on the outsides. Against SMU, Morris could not connect with Goree (or anyone) on these with regularity.
Against USM and UTEP this changed. The above screen shot was resulted in a flag on the DB for pass interference. He held Turner Smiley’s arm and that stopped a sure TD. The ball was on target, and Smiley had beat his man. When NT had single coverage on the outside, they really liked what they had. This is why Army played so much soft zone. Morris took advantage (see above).
This score happened at the end of the Jeff Wilson Double Puke drive. Army played soft zones twice, and NT as moving the ball fairly easily. Given the down and distance and the time left, it was a bit strange that they decided to cover man-to-man. The near corner sits at the sticks, giving up the cushion to Rutherford.
NT is running a shallow-slant combination with a backside fade (Bussey). I am not sure of Morris’ read in this situation, but he makes the right one. The shallow cross is bracketed, while the slant is covered.
The crossing routes would have required a ridiculously accurate pass. The Z-route on the right would have been short of the sticks. Rico Bussey is 1v1 with a corner he can out jump. Great play from both guys.
Mesh was/is a staple of Mike Leach’s version of the Air Raid, and has been featured throughout this season to varying degrees of success. Here are the three times (that I caught it).
Morris made a play here, but he could have probably hit Buyers and let him do the playmaking. This is fine. An important play on an important drive.
This mesh has a ‘post’ tag, which means that instead of the normal corner route from the non-meshing receiver, he runs a post. This tag is called when the safety is ‘down’, meaning when the WR has a good chance of beating the safeties over the top/middle. Often, there will be a wheel route when there is a post tag instead of the usual flat route. I wonder if this was designed to hit the wheel and not the post. As it happened it was a great play, and great execution by all involved — especially Morris and Wilson.
The final time you see Mesh was when Morris hit the Mesher on the FG drive.
In fact, you see all the above on the final drive — play-action, screens, short outs/curls, deep passes (attempts, no completions), and Mesh. I will leave you with the video.
- Success includes not getting sacked, or throwing a pick. ↩