Missed Opportunity: NT 13 MTSU 30

North Texas lost at home to one of the conference’s best teams. I voted MTSU number one in my weekly ballot. They are efficient, explosive, and can play a little defense. Coming into the game I had hope that our little football team could muster up the magic to pull off an upset. The conditions were ripe for such a thing. The young offense finally had a little confidence after the win against Rice — a week after getting owned by Florida’s ferocious defense. The defense had shown signs of being the dominant third of the team, while NT enjoyed home-field advantage on Family Weekend. A relatively good turnout was guaranteed.

Everything looked good for a while there. The defense was CUSA-level ferocious — holding MTSU’s potent squad to only 6 points for the majority of the first half. The offense started hot, fighting against themselves — penalties! — to get in the end zone on the first drive of the game. Head Coach Seth Littrell was looking for early fire from his offense after four weeks of slow starts. Everything was coming up NT for a while there.

Only the offense did not score another touchdown until the game was all but over, and only a miracle sequence could save them. Middle Tennessee ground their way to 23 points by the early 4th quarter  — not enough for guaranteed wins in this conference but managed to be comfortably ahead.

In his post game conference, Seth Littrell blamed the coaching staff for not preparing his charges well enough. Is that self-reflection, coach speak, or digs at his staff? Maybe a combination of all three. Littrell does not strike me as a guy who would publicly call out his staff like Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly. Still, the frustration was palpable in the post-game remarks.

North Texas had a shot to pull off an upset, and really get some attention. Marshall comes into Denton next week, but on Texas-OU weekend, when North Texas has the misfortune of competing with the biggest game in the state within the Metroplex.

The failures noted, can we expect more? If it were Alec Morris quarterbacking, maybe. No matter how impressive Mason Fine is — and Littrell mentioned he thinks he is special — he is a freshman QB running an offense without bespoke parts. Thaddeus Thompson has been a revelation, and the other targets make plays. But the offensive line — always a question mark coming into this season — is struggling to provide a pocket for our Oklahoma Kid. He maybe pulls the ball quicker than ideal, but given the result — sacks and holding calls — he an hardly be held at fault.

Elex Woolworth has been good but mistake-prone. We can see why he was second on the depth chart to being the season. The staff has always considered him undersized but capable. He has performed admirably in both the run and pass games, but has a knack for racking up untimely penalties. The entire line has allowed way too many sacks and has been inconsistent opening running lanes. The latter is largely due to the former. The defenses have been able to get to Mason Fine with any combination of rushes, from four to seven. While Fine is nimble, he is not Lamar Jackson. He cannot gash the defense with 45 yard TDs. He can extend plays and find open guys. He did that a couple of times. Unfortunately, too often the ball is falling incomplete.

NT threw 54 times but only completed 33. So that 303 yards looks less impressive when you consider it came on 5.6 yards per attempt, a figure that is only slightly above the team’s season average of 5.5. That number ranks us 3rd from bottom in CUSA, only ahead of Rice and Charlotte, the two most awful teams in the league.

The yards per attempt, QB rating, completion percentage, and yards per game are all worse than Todd Dodge’s 2008 team. This is all largely because the team cannot pass block consistently. At 4.2 sacks allowed per game, the team is 125/128 in the nation. Mason Fine is completing just over 54% of his passes for the same reason. He is hurried, rushed, and desperate. Outside of that, the rest of the hiccups are the things that come from being unfamiliar with each other.

Look Forward

I expect things to improve as they have each game. In the last two games Fine has completed 58% or greater of his passes. Even though Jeff Wilson was stuffed for only 24 yards here, he remains one of the better backs in the conference. Against the less disciplined teams in this league, he can — and will — get his yards.

After any game — the win last week and the loss this week — it is easy to get caught up in the moment and draw a trend line from there to late November. The 2-3 record is respectable considering all the things we knew about the team in the beginning of the season. Losing any game is always tough, just like winning them is euphoric. North Texas still is only expected to win four. This after only winning one last season. That is a hell of turnaround.

Next week a very beatable Marshall comes to town. Last season NT gave them a game for the middle two quarters. The defense was solid there, and if the offense could have done more the game might have been closer. It ended 30-13. That’s right, it was very similar to this year’s MTSU game.

Marshall has not played like we expect them too, giving up chunks of yardage through the air often. That would be encouraging but both MTSU and Rice looked similar and NT managed good-to-fair passing games against.

Ed Note: This week there will be no thorough recap, as I was in Vegas for a wedding. (There was no Elvis there, no). I watched the game, but missed large pieces of it and I am too exhausted to rewatch that thing.