I cannot make you feel better about that beat down. That was a worse showing than last week, when NT’s offense at least showed some life and the defense looked like it could occasionally stop the Bulldog offense.
This afternoon the offense looked as bad as it has all season, and the defense did very little to impress. Whereas we heard some folks calling the performance abysmal last week, this was the week to start labelling the squad poor.
WKU were about 30 point favorites and were it not for about 15 drops between their WRs and DBs, this could have been sixty. I am not exaggerating by very much.
North Texas was already without Eric Jenkins and then Jeff Wilson joined that list. There is some part of me that wants to highlight the fact that the most productive (scoring) offensive and defensive players were out and that could and should account for the performance given this afternoon but that was not everything.
Western Kentucky was always going to be tough to defend, and for part of the first half NT was simply beat. The offense did not even do the things that managed to move the ball last week. Mason Fine began the game slowly, was loose with the football, nearly threw INTs, and finally was hurt and left the game.
The snaps were low and inconsistent, the run game was ineffective, and the pass game was out of sync. NT had no hope by halftime.
Again, compared to last week, the difference was the offensive performance. The crispness we saw against La Tech in the first half was gone. Credit the WKU defense, which made it tough and got pressure on Mason Fine, but look again at the offense that regressed enough to not even challenge for first downs.
Overall I do not want to question the heart or desire or toughness. At some point chasing after another WR who is too fast for you is hopeless, no matter how much desire you have. You cannot will speed into existence. Nate Brooks, KiShawn McClain, and James Gray were all beat or nearly beat. WKU helped out the defense on occasion by dropping wide open passes — multiple times.
The rush defense was sound early, managing to stuff the WKU run game for losses but that was gone by the second quarter as WKU started gashing NT with misdirection. The radio crew mentioned how similar WKU and La Tech were, a thing we noted on the blog and the podcast.
To this point the defense had not been challenged to this extent. Middle Tennessee had the most complete offense seen thus far and NT availed itself well but MTSU has shown they check out mentally on occasion. That and the fact that after NT showed they were not going to roll over like 2015, teams were preparing differently.
That said, NT did not play well. They did not help themselves at all.
As usual, let us unnecessarily go through the phases of the game.
We know Jeff Wilson is the most productive offensive player, but between Ivery, Tucker, Wyche, and a pass game now in Week 10 this squad should have approached 17 points at least. Were it not for the Wilson-like 71-yard run by Andrew Tucker, this would have been twice that the offense was shut out.
That is not getting a week better. We all know this and should allow for a bad week here and there. NT’s off-weeks mean they nearly get shut out, while the best weeks are the ones where only one phase of the offense (run game) plays well. This has been well-established.
The injuries helped us learn some things, or at least gave us some data that can help us infer and project the future a bit. Alec Morris looked better than he did against SMU but only barely. He is calm running the offense, threw decisively, and even managed to move the ball fairly well at times. He still cannot throw deep with any consistency or quality.
Morris was not helped by the OL, which is not a surprise. Again, this kind of thing will not be fixed even by a miracle bowl game practice session. Any QB is going to face a pass rush and get hit and sacked often for the next two games. Morris did a good job of standing tall and firing in passes. He still has the natural height advantage over Fine which allowed him to see things a little better. His time on the bench and the relatively low-pressure situation probably contributed to that also.
At least two passes to Thadd Thompson were familiarity issues. I may be being generous. His deep tosses were concerning. Some NT fans call it a speed problem and I will not overly dispute it here. It will always be easy to throw to wide-open guys but the good QBs can throw passes that give the receivers a chance. Morris does not do that on passes 15+ yards. There are too many jump balls where the WRs are playing defense instead of having a chance to catch the ball. This is a problem. Like the OL thing, it is a problem that is unsolvable this season. More work, more guys, more time.
In other news, that run game was mediocre without Jeff Wilson, but in the way it looks when Jeff Wilson is not able to run off huge gains. Ivery and Tucker managed a total of two big runs, but everything was stuffed otherwise. This problem is tied to the other one — no pass game makes it easy to stop the run game. No run game makes it hard to pass.
When I said earlier this season that this offense is overly reliant on the big play, some people asked how that could be a bad thing. Well, an offense’s purpose is obviously to score, but controlling field position and (to a lesser extent in this offense’s case) controlling time are important to winning games. It is great that the offense is capable of these 70-yarders, but if they are not frequent enough we get quarters like the first.
There were openings in the pass game that were exploited when Morris came in that were thwarted by holding calls. It would not be a 2016 NT offense without holding calls to kill productive drives.
North Texas’ best group is the defensive group. While good against one-dimensional, or similarly talented teams, they were gutted by two straight offenses with talent and a high ability to execute.
If you have been following the team, you know this is not anything to be ashamed of. The group has exceeded expectations, and are still good enough to compete in games against most of the conference. The two team left on the schedule are not nearly as good as the ones just faced and a return to the squad we saw dominate Army, and play competitively is likely.
Given everything, the way the schedule shaped up this was the best time to play these squads. If they were earlier in the schedule, the confidence and belief in themselves and in the fan base would have been harder to muster.
Nate Brooks got roasted I hear. I did not see it because ESPN3 is awful, but that was the case. We suspected NT would give up the occasional big pass play, but in these last two weeks they have gone for TDs. North Texas likes to challenge the offense by playing man-to-man and bringing numbers in the run game and pass game. That is fine, but it gets destroyed when their guys are better than ours.
Football is a simple game.
The concerning thing I saw was that halfway through the game the defense was being accused of either quitting or being tired. I do not buy either. It just looks like that when the other squad is that much better at blocking you, out running you, out executing you.
Happens. They competed when they were able to. The blitzes reached Mike White a tad too late and hit him hard, but he completed passes. When the DL was able to get in the backfield, the entire squad was pursuing the ball. Those are effort plays.
There is only so much that can be done to stop a better team. Seth Littrell likes to talk about how he wants his teams to believe the can compete against any and everyone. That is mostly true, but only if the other team does not play to their potential.
You know it. I know it. NT has been ready to give effort every game but not so prepared to execute every game. That is a function of talent and experience. With so many new and young guys in the rotation, these kinds of mistakes are inevitable.
I am not trying to absolve the poor performance but just trying to understand it.
Defensively the squad tried to play their game but the corners got beat. When they tried to take away that game, Mike White and later Tyler Ferguson had tons of time to throw.
“Bringing pressure” or “play better” are not real solutions. WKU is good and puts lots of pressure on you to match up in space against their quality players. NT could not do that. It is that simple.
There were no obvious breaks in assignments, which is something you look for. If everyone was in the right spots (mostly, there are always mistakes) and they get beat, that is the game.
Offensively, there was another slow start, followed by an injury, and then ineptitude. Again, I cannot imagine the staff is ignoring the line’s mistakes, but they are limited in options. And like last week, when there are penalties, that can mean players are getting beat. You hold because the guy got around you and it is a last-ditch effort.
Southern Miss has dropped two in a row and four of their last five. They were supposed to be one of the conferences’ top 4 squads in performance. That has not come true, but they still have talent. Ito Smith is quality, and still can put up yards and points. They beat themselves mostly, and are certainly capable of blowing our football team out of the water.
But they can be beat.
Mason Fine hurt his AC joint and so I am betting Alec Morris takes the starting job again. The trade off between the two is what we saw today: slightly more field vision in place of running ability. Morris is at least capable of running this offense and putting up similar passing numbers to what we have seen Fine do. The dynamism Fine brings is a counter to the defense stacking the run, however, and that will be lost.
Is it enough? I do not know. A week of practice with the first team and enough uncertainty on film might give NT’s offense enough of a boost to pull off something quality.
The last time NT beat Southern Miss they had a young quarterback. This next game? They have a young quarterback
Senior Day, bowl eligibility on the line, and a vulnerable team. I think there is more than a good shot to win this.