North Texas takes on Iowa in Iowa City this afternoon.
After a week where NT helped elevate Courtland Sutton into Hype Mode, the excitement is waning in the Nation. There were real and true good things in the loss. To better gather the crowd and offer some gritos of encouragement on this 16th, let us look back on last week. The first half was really when the game was contested, as SMU turned a 10-point deficit into a 14-point lead. For me, NT came out with a nice offensive game plan, but failed to execute when SMU was scoring. For the defense, there was a solid gameplay underneath the gashing, but 3rd downs were killer.
This is all roughly chronological.
After a nifty little ready play— nifty because handing the ball to Wilson is such an obvious first-down call that SMU over-persued allowing Fine space — North Texas broke out a new formation.
For all of its maverick reputation, the Air Raid core offense is pretty boring formationally. It had origins in a two-back set – ‘Blue’ in the parlance but beyond that there is ‘Ace’, the 2×2 look, and Early and Left (Trips to the right and left).
North Texas has shown some Pistol and and H-back look that is only a variation of its Blue and Green sets. Seeing a Bunch look was unusual for this team. While this offense is designed to attack all areas of the field, NT has been weakest attacking vertically through the seams and horizontally on the edges. Aside from Jeff on swings and screens, NT has been woeful getting the ball to the outside receivers on anything quick.
I had expected NT to get the ball out to WRs like Sonny Dykes’ Cal teams (scroll down for gifs in this link) but that has been a struggle. After a couple of attempts early last year, the screen series has been primarily RB-based.
I expect these new looks were something like an adjustment. The benfit of keeping a small playbook is that there is much more time devoted to mastering the plays. If those plays are never mastered? Well, it is maybe adviseable to add a few others.
Here is NT running this to Smiley (apologies for the quality).
What is important to understand here is that this is not a new concept, just new routes. Y-Stick is a staple of our offense and this is yet another triangle read only with different starting points.
That’s good self-scouting & play design.
I wonder if Coordinator Graham Harrell picked up a few tidbits from his NFL time. The idea here, as always, is to get the ball to our playmakers quickly. Mason Fine delivers a good ball, allowing Turner Smiley to catch-and-run. The YAC yards are what make the play highlight-worthy, but it was the flawless execution everywhere else that made that possible. The corner route is crisp, stretching the deffense and the flat route is ran well also.
Speak of the devil and he shall appear. Or, speak of an issue executing tunnel screens and Jaelon Darden gets loose on a tunnel screen. This is a clever design, as the standard Tunnel Screen (Randy or Larry in the parlance) usually involves an X or Z receiver (farthest guys outside). Here, NT disguised this one by flaring the RB in a very common look. NT has looked for that pass to the RB very often the last two seasons. Here is video of Mason Fine attempting to throw it Jeff last year in San Antonio.
Put a feather in Harrell’s cap. That’s good self-scouting and good play design. The first three plays of the series used our own tendencies against SMU. First, fake to Jeff. Second, new bunch look. Third, screen off a look we show often. Good stuff. NT jumped out early thanks to these things. I liked the variations of the offense, it was aggressive, smart and well-executed.
Defensively, NT got good pressure early and forced some bad throws and scrambles. This is the Reffet defense ideal. We have corners that can stay on the CUSA WRs and they become dangerous if the QB is running for his life and tossing up ducks.
Here is a video example. What is concerning is that Hicks had Proche open, but missed him. He found his rhythm later and made NT pay.
The second possession has NT in the same bunch look, executing an option toss, another read from a Trips Left (Late) bunch look designed to have the defense declare themselves. Finally, a poor throw off another bunched look, and a third-down all-curl from a tight Ace (4-wide, 2×2) that was complete but well short of the sticks. There was nice variety but this drive stalled because of execution. NT was up 10-0.
Again, NT had SMU smothered thanks to some great first 2-down efforts. This is a great play to get to the edge and make the tackle. Hambone out here making plays. Unfortunately right before three of Sutton’s scores NT had made a TFL or a similar good play. So frustrating.
It is 3rd-and-8 and SMU’s Courtland Sutton makes a play. NT brought pressure, Quinn/Sutton ran a dig/curl combination with Quinn as the inside guy doing a curl-out and dragging the interior defender with him. NT safety Khairi Muhammad is left on an island with Sutton and does a decent enough job staying with him but cannot make the tackle.
This sure looks like busted coverage. I cannot imagine NT wanted to double Quinn and let Sutton run free. The corner was at the sticks already. My guess is that the route combination had the defenders thinking it was a kind of smash route — basically that Sutton was breaking on a corner route and that Nate Brooks was bailing. This would (somewhat) explain why Ejiya attacked Quinn so aggressively.
But … the same action happened on the other side. This is the frustrating part of this whole defensive performance. NT was vulnerable deep so sitting in quarters coverage — four deep DBs — makes sense, but that leaves gobs of space for SMU to gain. This should have been a first down, but was a TD. That is the awful part, but a first down at that point is also unacceptable.
NT breaks out the Wild Eagle again. On third-and-three NT finds Kelvin Smith. This play was called back on a chop block by Murray and Jeff Wilson. That essentially forces a punt. Fine is sacked for a yard looking for something as he’s flushed from the pocket.
Still I liked the look of it. Here is the video.
NT’s defense put up a good defensive series after. Kaihri Muhammad did an admirable job defending Sutton in single coverage along the sideline and KiShawn McClain made the play of the drive here. SMU runs a litle mesh/TE drag across the formation. NT does not get confused and stays in man coverage. Everyone stayed stride-for-stride and McClain made a hell of a play.
NT goes All-Curl. This is a staple of this offense that we saw in the HOD Bowl. NT follows this up with a jet sweep that was stuffed, and then a poor throw to Jeff Wilson that took his momentum away. He made the most of it though. Then a drop.
Then a bad snap but a good throw and catch. Good protection. This is more of the offense we want to see. The drop is forgivable but I wanted to highlight it in a series of drives that stalled of the type of thing that happened. SMU did nothing especially amazing to kill any of the drives here, but NT did not always execute as well as they did in their first two.
On this next one we have — from left to right — a curl, dig, corner, and curl. While there was silly criticism about ‘no deep routes’ this is an example of where a deep route would hurt more than help. SMU was playing really soft coverage and intead of doing something silly, like throwing into the coverage they are defendeing against, NT takes what is given. In this case, that is all the yards in the soft belly of the zone just behind the backers, and just in front of the safeties. In the hands of a shifty receiver like Darden, that is gold.
NT’s line does a fantastic job of giving Fine time and space. When the pocket is that clean and the zones that soft, it is pitch-and-catch all day.
Jaelon Darden is a player. I do not mind getting him the ball on things like this all day if it is open. There is no reason to force the ball downfield when the zones are this soft. The key is keeping the defense honest. When NT is failing on 3rd-and-2, and 4th-and-1 the defenses have little incentive to come up and play man-to-man. They are betting they can make enough 3rd-and-mediums and that NT will shoot themselves in the foot enough to be a net win for them.
Iowa presents a much different problem. They might challenge NT’s receiving corps and that means Guyton, Smiley, and Darden will really need to win their battles or else this thing is going to be stuck. Historically, the Air Raid teams that can get shutdown are often because their players are not as good as the defenders. Football is a simple game, after all.
Still, the game plan was solid, and the execution was much improved over last season. There are issues with the front five and NT can look conservative at times but there was nothing overly so early. NT cannot just drop back and launch 60-yard bombs with impunity, as they do not have the personnel to do so. They take their shots, and look for the defense to creep up and take advantage. It is solid, smart football and the kind of thing the team has shown improvement in recently.