Improvement: North Texas 13 Marshall 30

The last time these two programs met it was a playoff game as Div-1AA opponents and Marshall won 7-0. This one didn’t have nearly the same stakes, but an argument could be made that the defenses here were similar if adjusted for ~30year inflation.

That’s all a long, unfunny attempt at saying both teams played some solid defense in this era of offense. For Marshall, that wasn’t unsurprising as they came in as the CUSA leader in scoring defense at 17.4. We came in as the conference’s worst at 50.2. The defensive line showed some signs of life that we hadn’t seen since they chased Matt Davis at SMU in the first three quarters. We saw sacks, and near-interceptions, and defensive backs making plays on the ball. We saw gang-tackling, and pass deflections at the line, we saw tackles for losses and most pleasingly, we saw 3-and-outs.

We came in as the conference’s worst scoring defense at 50.2.

I had hoped that Marshall’s relative lack of explosiveness would make for a game that DaMarcus Smith could thrive in. Sure, I expected the very good Marshall defense to make things difficult (they did) but unlike in the WKU game in which QB Brandon Doughty led his team on lightening scoring drives, Marshall would be a bit more methodical. This was my hope. Instead of methodical, Marshall marched on a couple of scoring drives and made it 17-0 early. DaMarcus Smith looked over-excited and the offense went 3-and-out twice in the first three drives. The other was only four plays.

Still after the early scores by Marshall the defense made some stops. Marshall was stopped on first down for -7 yards. Then punted after three plays. Their next drive Malik Dilonga sacked Chase Litton for an 8-yard loss. Whoa! What was this? Defense?! This was nice considering that in beginning of the game, Marshall had lots of running room and lots of time to pass. From the late second quarter on the defense held MU to four punts, two field goals and only one touchdown.

That’s solid football defending. Let’s not forgot that the Herd got an extra first down and subsequent score after a penalty on the punt attempt. And later had to fake a punt to drive for a field goal. Yes that means they had to resort to trickery to score points against our worst-in-conference defense. That is because Chris Cosh’s crew were making plays. Fred Scott, Malik Dilonga, Austin Orr, Nate Brooks, and Anthony Wallace all made some notable plays during the stretch.

From cfbstats.com

Rank Name G TD FG Points Points/G
1 Marshall 7 16 4 122 17.4
2 Western Kentucky 7 22 5 168 24.0
3 Florida International 7 21 7 169 24.1
4 Southern Mississippi 7 21 11 181 25.9
5 Middle Tennessee 7 25 8 201 28.7
6 Louisiana Tech 7 24 11 202 28.9
7 Florida Atlantic 6 24 7 191 31.8
8 Old Dominion 6 24 8 192 32.0
9 Charlotte 6 24 9 194 32.3
10 UTSA 7 30 12 246 35.1
11 Rice 6 31 4 227 37.8
12 UTEP 6 33 9 258 43.0
13 North Texas 6 41 5 301 50.2

So let’s quickly go through some observations before you continue on with your weekend.

Offense

Mike Canales has some good ideas. I have criticized his QB recruiting, and we think he’s play calls have been limited by having to go through Dan McCarney’s conservative filter. Today, he wasn’t at his best. He believes in DaMarcus Smith’s talent like most of us. However, in his enthusiasm to showcase the QB, he is forgetting the most effective player we have on the team is Jeffery Wilson. He averaged 8.1 yards per carry and until the 3rd quarter he had only 16 carries. He finished with 17. I said after the WKU game that this offense should build around the following:

  1. Jeffery Wilson gives
  2. DaMarcus Smith keepers
  3. PA passes deep/otherwise.

Canales got away from the above selections too early too often. When he did the drive would stall. I have no complaints about throwing the ball deep or even throwing without play-actioning first. Lord knows that being predictable can be an offense’s kryptonite. Smith is still struggling when in a pass-first offense requiring lots of decisions right now. He famously has missed a ton of practice and Marshall has a good defense. So why go pass-first?

Three times we went empty-set and Marshall owned us. They sacked Smith, got that interception, and generally wreaked havoc. Instead of being aggressive, and putting pressure their defense by spreading them out (which is the idea of going 5-wide), we let them pressure our QB by overwhelming the offensive line. If the responsibility is on Smith to change the protection or pick the right place for the ball to go pre-snap, well that illustrates why I am frustrated already. Putting our ill-prepared QB in a situation like that is the exact opposite of putting him in a position to succeed.

The play-action passes were successful. The quick game was successful, and oh-my-goodness the run game was ├╝ber-successful. Instead of challenging the Herd to stop Wilson, we help them beat us.

While I know the final TD drive was second-string vs second-string, it illustrated my point. They ran the ball for 80% of the drive and scored on a play-action pass. Next week, while we hope we get a more accurate, more decisive DaMarcus Smith leading this offense, let’s hope that we also get a Canales that is making the defense beat us and not helping UTSA’s cause.

Other things to complain about: getting Carlos Harris more involved, receiver’s catching ability (so many drops ugh), and Smith’s footwear (so many slips).

Defense

This unit has had lots of deserved criticism. In this game, after the second quarter it showed signs of being the unit we all hoped we’d see. Instead of the one being blasted off the ball, this one had guys getting into the backfield and getting to the quarterback. I’d like to see some more speed to change those almost-sacks to actual ones, but the pressure was transformative on the secondary. Nate Brooks and company were able to make plays on the ball, get pass deflections, and stay in coverage with the pressure we got.

Marshall had their way with us, improvement or no.

Still, there were too many gashing runs. The Marshall halfbacks hit us with huge runs early. In the first quarter Hyleck Foster was averaging 10 a carry. He finished with 105 on 17. Keshawn McClain fished as our leading tackler again and that’s a statistic we need to break. Whereas Marshall’s Foster has speed and found lots of running room, next week’s opponent has a shifty feature back that can break tackles in the open field. That means instead of 10 yard gashing runs, we’ll see Portland State-esque 70 yard runs if the defense is unable to shore that up.

That said, let us not forget that Marshall had 4.95 ypc which is higher than their season average of 4.62, and totaled 213 rush yards.

Marshall had their way with us, improvement or no.

Other things to complain about: defensive conditioning, defensive backs’ hands (dropped picks).

Overall

This was one of those games that we could have won, if we had the kind of season we hoped we’d have. Marshall is great at home, but this is a rebuilding reloading year, so they were vulnerable. They have a frosh QB, some injuries here and there, and haven’t been nearly the explosive team as in years past. We did over the spread for the second straight week, though. That’s yet another sign of improvement (I suppose) though it feels like we are grasping at straws considering the program is yet again without a win, and with a coaching search hanging over its collective head.

I was hoping for more improvement from DaMarcus Smith, and better play calling from Canales, but I tried to remember that Marshall really does have a good defense. I was not expecting such a good showing from the defense, but I was pleasantly surprised. I had hoped for something good considering the Marshall situation, but as Greg said on the podcast, Portland State wasn’t exactly expected to light things up. So it could have been worse. The situation seems to be improving and there are two winnable games in the final stretch. So we got that going for us.

Remember to leave things you think I can improve in the comments, the “forum”, the twitter machine and wherever else.