North Texas 27 Rice 17: Back to .500

There was a concerning moment after the first quarter ended where it looked like North Texas had not improved since October 16, the last time they played (and beat MTSU). Rice had dominated the first quarter, keeping the powerful NT offense to only 22 yards.

The Mean Green defense looked lost on pass plays, and overpowered on run plays: Exactly what we feared. Everything suddenly changed after that. Nose Tackle Dion Novil played at the level at which he was hyped before the season. He dominated the interior, blowing up runs and pressuring the QB. He was helped by the Murphy Twins: Gabriel and Grayson. They flew into the backfield over and again to help NT to 7 sacks on the day. The team had only managed 9 on the season to this point.

The suddenly stout defense meant North Texas’s offensive struggles did not hurt so much. Jason Bean was pedestrian throwing the ball — just 9/20 for 120 yards and 1 score. He ran for 94 yards but 66 of that came on the long scoring play. It was enough. Bean’s 2nd quarter TD put NT within three. The TD by Darden (his 30th of his career and 11th on the season) put NT up before the half.

The third quarter was muted, seeing only a FG to start the half and then nothing after. NT added another to start the fourth before clinching things with a final score from DeAndre Torrey, his only score to cap his 102-yard performance.

NT still out gained the opposition, but only managed 389 yards of offense. Rice kept the ball for 36 minutes and pressured the NT offense early. That is part of it. Call the rest some rust. NT has not played a game in a month, and that dulls the edge. Bean was a little off throwing the ball on the deep stuff early, for example.

Rice is good, and if they continue their pace of adding talent and developing the line and defense, they could be on the UAB path of dominating games with defense and the run. NT was a little too much today, but next season with no Darden or Torrey (for example) what does that mean?

The point is that this is a quality win over an improving opponent. We can criticize the slow start. It is part of a pattern.

After 1Q NT was …
…up 14 vs HBU
…down 21 to SMU
…down 14 to USM
…down 7 to CLT
…down 14 to MTSU
…down 10 to Rice

UTSA is a middle-pack team in CUSA West also, and would certainly love a double-digit lead to start the game next week (if it is played). Let us put this win in the “Ugly But Functional” category. I will take a handful of those every season.

This offense has tremendous potential and the defense seems to have found something. UTSA, La Tech, and UTEP are not world-beating offenses and so we can reasonably expect similar performances going forward (if they are played).

It was great to see the team back on the field. The pandemic is still raging and the Thanksgiving holiday doesn’t bode well for the future. People are traveling to-and-from high-infection places and we will see the consequences of that in the near future.

Defense

Let’s give the front line the MVP award for this one. Dion Novil was a monster inside, exactly as we needed/need him to be. He was helped by the Murphy twins and while it looked dire early — everyone getting pushed back — it was a tremendous performance overall. There is work to do in the secondary, but we saw some nice open field tackles in clutch situations.

No one expects the Steel Curtain anytime soon, but getting rid of the label of Worst Defense In The Nation is job one. They made tremendous strides to that end today.

The team also benefited from some fortunate fumbles while Rice had the momentum. NT was in position to jump on those because they put themselves in the right position. We will not apologize for being fortunate.

Offense

The score is fine — 27 points is a winnable number– but we know this team can produce better. The first quarter was basically a non-starter, with only 22 yards and too many three-and-outs. The run calls were understandable given the Rice defensive set up but the execution wasn’t there until the second quarter.

There were two drives to start the second half where NT only got three points (both times). Improvement here would look like more points in the first half — getting three when they are ‘bad’ and not just punts, and scores when they get deep into opposition territory.

If Rice didn’t grind the clock so hard there were likely more points to be had. NT looked pretty unstoppable late.

Special Teams

There was a roughing penalty on the punter that extended a Rice drive. The two successful field goals were great, but Rice all-but-officially-scored on a punt return. It was called back only after a questionable call on the return unit.

Let’s credit the team for retrieving the Rice muffed punt, as they were in the right spot and got to Rice’s Austin Trammell right when he was catching the ball. That’s quality execution that puts the pressure on the opposition to make mistakes. That’s making your own luck.

Still, I would like to see a more consistent performance out of this group.

Seth Littrell

This was a test for Littrell. NT had the time to prepare and correct mistakes. Rice was a beatable opponent but also seemed poised to win without surprise. NT has shown improvement from week one to now — that is a good sign of coaching.

Some of the talent that was brought in in recent seasons is shining through. Jaelon Darden was a three-star recruit and is NT — and arguably the nation’s best performing — receiver. That is impressive and a feather in the cap if there ever was one. Recruiting is a never-ending, thankless job, though. So we are just acknowledging a job-in-progress.

The early struggles offensively can be laid at the feet of the coach. That is something that is continuing and should be corrected. There are numerous potential solutions. Getting something easy to establish the rhythm for the QBs is one. Putting playmakers in advantageous positions early is another. When NT started moving the pocket for Bean to get some use of his legs he ran for 66 yards. It took a quarter for that to happen, however.

Let us credit the personnel changes however. For all the criticism we had of the QB rotation, he seems to be getting the most out of his starter. Moving erstwhile linebacker twins Gabriel and Grayson Murphy to end has produced the two best pass-rush games of the season. Replacing some safeties’ game time with more reps for the younger guys has also steadied the secondary just a tad.

What It Means

NT is 3-3 and 2-2. I don’t know what a bowl season will look like — I certainly will not be traveling anywhere for it and I imagine a good portion of the rest of the nation is thinking similarly. NT has three to play and can finish above .500 if they take two of those. As of this writing La Tech and UTSA are 3-2 in the league. NT can overtake them by beating them both in the next couple of weeks.

Winning the modified division title would be something, but getting through this season with no casualties is the most important thing.