Meh: North Texas 24 LaTech 45

The problem with playing nearly well enough to compete against a good team is that when they do not hurt themselves and display their superiority, you can get frustrated and demoralized.

North Texas played well in the first half of this game offensively. The defense was torched by big plays and an efficient offense. That is not good but it was expected. At some point when you say a team was bad you are really saying they were poor relative to their standard.

If you have been following closely, you know that NT’s defense, while capable and maybe even stout against the right opponent, did not match up well with this Louisiana Tech team. The Mean Green defense has struggled with mobile QBs that move and find open players. Remember last week when Dalton Sturm avoided tacklers and found UTSA players for a crucial first down or two? Well Higgins was looking (and finding) guys for TDs or 40-yard gains.

North Texas has not faced a team with a burner like LaTech’s Carlos Henderson. He made the speedy NT defense look slow. Nate Brooks has not gotten beat so badly all season, and he was torched on the first LT score. On the screen pass TD, Henderson caught it and burst up the field for six. He’s good.

Coming into this game Trent Taylor caught 93 for 1274 and 9 TDs, good for 13.7 yard per catch. Carlos Henderson has cuaght 51 for 1035 11 scores and 20.3 yards per catch.

Tonight Taylor was held to 5 for 44. Henderson was not held to anything. He took what he wanted, including a big run on a reverse for 24 yards. The last time we had this much trouble in the pass game was against the talented duo at SMU.

Tonight North Texas had a hard time wrapping up the QB, defending a scrambling QB, and getting off the field on 3rd down. While these things are all areas in which to improve, this is week 9 and that is how NT has played all season. By this point, expecting them to play differently is expecting a chair to not be a chair anymore. This defense is what it is — attacking, prone to allowing big plays, bad on third down, and decent enough in coverage except against truly talented/speedy WRs.

That said, the penalties (that were deserved) did them no favors. Chad Davis subbed in for the injured Eric Jenkins, broke up a pass, and earned an unsportsmanlike penalty for taunting him to his face. Let us set aside the discussion on over celebrating by defensive backs and simply note that doing anything in an opponent’s face is going to earn a penalty.

Still, on some level even these penalties were to be expected. As far back as the Rice game, NT displayed their penchant for helping the opponent by committing untimely penalties.

We can point to the run game being gashed, but part of that was those big throws early opening that up. It also did not help that the starting corner was hurt, and that McClain was ejected. La Tech was moving the ball well anyway, but the leading tackler was gone. NT is a bend but-don’t-break defense that got broken.

Against this Bulldog team, the best hope was controlling the clock, scoring, and getting some turnovers. For the fist half, NT was able to score with them nearly every time. Graham Harrell called a good game that was built on the threat of getting Jeff Wilson the ball on the swing pass in space. He finished with 127 total yards on 20 touches and a score. The problem was the bag of tricks only went so deep.

Ideally as Louisiana Tech adjusts to the swing passes (they did) and the immediate counters (the screen passes away from the swing) you hit them over the top. Unfortunately that stuff requires good pass protection that still was not there. Mason Fine was dealing early, hitting short throws on the money and letting our best players make plays in space. When the space available required a deep throw, that is where NT struggled.

It is no fun to watch Mason Fine take sacks, but like with the defense, at this point expecting much different is a mistake on our part.

Let us unnecessarily deep dive now:

Offense

Mason Fine struggled last week. He did not see the field well, and forced throws into coverage. He was slightly off, which contributed to some incomplete passes and one of the interceptions. This week, he was dealing.

He began by completing his first 11 passes, hitting his guys on the money, and moving the chains. After half time when La Tech made adjustments to sit on the shorter throws, Mason Fine struggled.

North Texas lacks a consistent deep threat, in part because the line cannot protect long enough to allow a longer play to develop, and also the lack of a true burner like Henderson. While Robinson, Wilson, and even Goree have some speed (Goree displayed some of that on his catch-and-run) they do not scare defenses enough to change the way they defend.

While the argument can be made that Goree should be farther along in his development, he played well tonight. Lately, he has been finding the open zones and making catches. Those possession catches and the catch-and-run he had are the types of plays this offense is designed to display. We saw more than a glimpse of what this offense will be in the games and years to come. The ball found players in open spaces and those players made plays.

Next year, finding exactly who those playmakers will be is something of a concern, but assuming Seth Littrell follows through on his promise to recruit players that fit the system over guys with Hudl talent we should see more progress in this area. It was exciting, even if some of the progress was due to Louisiana Tech’s defense being a little bad.

Still, the offense finish the game with a non-Florida season worst in yards per play. To my eyes, this was a function of the third quarter disparity. NT came out and threw a pick, and only managed a FG drive, while LT had two TD drives that covered a total of 8-minutes. By the time NT had the ball back, they were in full desperation mode and it was over.

Defense

While Mike Ekeler’s unit has been the strength of the team, it is by no means a perfect group. At best, this group ranked somewhere in the mid-50s in areas like 2nd down defense, or run success rate. Louisiana ranked in the top 10 in these areas offensively.

Nationally speaking, this was a case of a very good offense going up against a relatively bad defense. Barring a bit of luck like UTSA had earlier in the day (Stockstill went out in the first Qtr), there was little hope.

Coaching rhetoric aside — can play with anyone, no excuses, etc — this was always going to be a huge ask. They would need to play perfectly and even then there were question marks. It will be the same way next week against Western Kentucky.

While North Texas played exceptionally well against Army and much was made about the discipline of defending the triple option, the hardest offense to defend is not necessarily a well-executed one. It is a well-executed offense with system-breaking talent.

Basketball fans might remember that Michael Jordan famously broke the Triangle offense. Kobe, Shaq, LeBron, Steph Curry have broken the rules through sheer talent.

No Louisiana Tech guys are at that level, but I am exaggerating the comparison to point out that Louisiana had talent that could and did break our defensive scheme. Henderson ran by Brooks, who is fast and played decent technique. Higgins scrambled, kept his eyes up and fired a great pass for 50 yards. On the reverse Henderson outran our defense.

La Tech does a good job putting their talent into good-to-great position.

Let me point out here that Florida was probably more talented but did not make good use of it. Their offense needs work.

Coaching

On twitter I mentioned a few times that Graham Harrell did a great job of play calling. He seemingly learned from last week’s film that teams will load up on the inside zone and drew up some plays that got the ball in Jeff Wilson’s capable hands early and often. The swing passes from last week were back, and they were executed crisply. Mason Fine got the ball to Wilson and Ivery on the run, allowing them to make plays.

When those plays were figured out, he used some of the same motions and formations to screen the other way, or counter the defense’s plans for it. It was quality stuff.

NT came into this game averaging 25.9 points per game and scored 24. They scored on 4 of 11 drives (excluding the 14 second possession before the half) and only turned the ball over once. The run game tonight came in the form of the swing passes and screen game; the missing pieces are the deep and medium range stuff. Again, those are not likely to improve in the 2016 season. Another season of OL improvement, and recruitment will (hopefully) help Mason Fine find more time. Another season of Fine growing in the system and seeing the field better will help extend plays and then drives.

Mike Ekeler and Tony Reffert are going to have an easy coaching job this week, as they drill home things about mental discipline. Chad Davis’ penalty was not a game-losing play but free plays to an explosive offense are stupid things to hand out. McClain’s targeting penalty looked iffy to me — it looked like Higgins began his dive right as McClain attempted the hit. Still, a more controlled approach probably keeps our defensive leader out there for longer.

Mistakes like these fall into the coaching bucket for correction. The defense as a whole has been penalized repeatedly, and while that is not really going to be magically resolved soon, the staff should make this a point of emphasis.

Season Implications

North Texas did not play particularly well, but they were not embarrassing. The huge crowd saw a entertaining first half, and that is fine.

I have already seen some narrative-setting about this being an ‘abysmal’ performance and disagree. But then again I watch this team all the time. For the casual fan, a blowout is another blowout and that does not help the program in the marketing effort.

Unfortunately, barring a WKU complete meltdown (perhaps helped by injuries) next week will be more of the same but without the home field boost. If NT avails itself this way next week I will be satisfied. It is not great but basically North Texas is playing to expectations — a median performance — and that is all we can ask for.

Notes

How about ESPN3? How about that music playing continuously through the broadcast early, never ever stopping and making us all crazy? Good stuff. Eric Capper tweeted that they spent a lot of money to make the broadcast good. They probably overspent on the music. Heh.