North Texas at Arkansas Preview

This is a big game.

These money games are usually perfunctory for Mean Green fans. While there may be some hope at the start, the goals usually are to remain healthy and come out looking impressive to friends. The coaches usually say the right things, but privately dislike the depressing odds.

Every once in a long while, things align and there is more than a infinitesimal chance for North Texas, even if that chance is mostly because the view is through green-tinted lenses.

Once upon a time I wrote the following:

How does David beat Goliath? That is the annual question in college football’s early months. For the most part it takes some ingenuity on the part of the underdog, a dose of lethargy from the powerhouse side, and a healthy portion of luck.

The question here is, of course, if Arkansas is Goliath or merely just a slightly bigger dog. I am not a Razorback historian, but I know that Arkansas has always felt a little spurned by the Longhorns and have a more than a little fatalism in their sporting bones. We NT fans are familiar with the feeling.

The predictions among the sundry internet outlets have their doubts in them: “North Texas is going to wipe the floor with us.”

Again, we know the feeling.

NT has long operated from a counter position: taking advantage when teams underestimate — Georgia 2013, Texas 2002, for example — but rarely operates from a power position. North Texas is not the favorite, and if you believe the little spiders that talk to me, Seth Littrell thinks NT do not have the greatest shot in this one1 either. Still, I cannot recall a better gambling line than +7 going into an ESS-EE-SEE stay-jum, folks.

For us?!

For little ol’ NT?!

I do declare!

This is a big game.

Most opportunities do not come packaged as expected. I am not sure what I expected the Break Through moment of Mean Green Football to be. If I am honest, I think maybe I thought it could have been that day back in 2014, when UT was breaking in a new coach and North Texas was bringing back a good defense and an experienced offensive line.

Arkansas is not on the top of any heap, and this point in time will be remembered as a nadir for most Hog fans and so toppling the Razorbacks in Fayetteville would not David slaying Goliath, but it still would be an epic tale.

The Opponent: University of Arkansas

History

Arkansas is a famous name in college football because of some of the famous players they’ve had. Jerry Jones went there. Most of the fame comes from association with the University of Texas when in the old Southwest Conference. The same could be said for all of the Big 12 except for Oklahoma (maybe) so that is not much of a knock. The “ESS-EEE-SEE” chant had its origins when SWC foes were mocking Arkansas for leaving the league and then Arkansas mocking Texas with the same chant upon beating them after joining.

Good times.

The current coach is Chad Morris, who left “rival” SMU for this better job. He replaced Bret Bielema whose five-year tenure saw him disappoint. The Hogs have failed to reach 10 or more wins since Bobby Petrino was riding his bike with another woman in 2011. They finished fifth in the AP that season. Petrino was the only coach to have multiple 10-win seasons since Ken Hatfield in 1989 (he had three in six years at the helm).

Hatfield was the last coach to win the Razorbacks a league title.

Last Week

Arkansas gave up an 18-point lead in Fort Collins, Colorado to the Rams. They had that lead in the third quarter with a dominant run game. The Rams sliced up the Hog secondary, making QB JK Carta-Samuels look like Aaron Rogers on the way to his 32/47 289 2 TD (1 INT) performance. Lost in the great story was that a big help was WR Preston Williams, a former 5-star recruit who transfered from Tennessee. He looked too big and strong for the Arkansas secondary and had 12 grabs for 154 yards and both receiving TDs.

He had 188 on 9 grabs and two more scores against Hawai‘i in the opener. He’s good. We can probably say that Arkansas can be forgiven for being unable to cover him. He made some ridiculous grabs, and did just about whatever he wanted. It is perhaps a little poetic justice that Chad Morris was beaten by a guy who was doing what Courtland Sutton was doing to North Texas just last year.

All told, Chad Morris is being vilified for not sticking to the run game. In his weekly press conference, he mentioned the regret he had for not going for it on 4th and short in the final frame, sparking the Ram run.

Outlook

Chad Morris knows this team and we know Chad Morris. His Arkansas offense looks a bit like the early versions of his SMU offense. In short, he likes to run the ball up the middle, max-protect, and hit the big stuff down the field. Against CSU he had trouble as his QBs could not find anything deep and the offensive line that has struggled since Bielma’s last days continued to struggle.

The run game was powerful against CSU at 299 yards on 5.64 yards per carry, but struggled against Eastern Illinois — 80 yards on 2.16 per play.

Arkansas on Defense

Option number one for this North Texas offense is, of course, the pass game. Mason Fine is averaging 400+ yards a game and he will be the main threat to the Razorbacks. The million-dollar question: Can he play well against this team?

Arkansas was lit up by Carta-Samuels, and some of that was Williams, yes, but there were open guys all day.

The above was from the CSU game. NT has run something similar against both SMU and UIW this season. Last year, they did the same. This is a pretty common concept, and NT is one of the best teams at running it. Colorado State has been good passing the ball the last two seasons and we can expect NT to show a lot of the same pass concepts.

Above, the same concept — the quick game — from NT vs SMU 2017. I feel good about this part of the NT pass game against Arkansas. I feel even more excited about the following:

That’s CSU WR Brenden Fulton, walk-on, slipping away from a Arkansas NB D’Vone McClure, the recent recipient of a scholarship and former walk-on for big yards. That is where Jaelon Darden and Mike Lawrence make a living.

There is SEC talent on the Razorback squad, and that means that if Mason Fine holds the ball too long looking for the perfect play he could run into trouble.

Here is Carta-Samuels doing just that:

Fine has not been super accurate despite the big numbers on the stat sheet. Those numbers could have been more impressive if some of his throws hit his guys in stride. He has a tendency to force some things and threw a pass into the chest of a Pony safety. That was dropped, but the one he tossed into the waiting arms of a linebacker playing zone coverage was not.

The Arkansas secondary has been suspect this year, continuing a trend from the Bielema era, where passing downs were not friendly to the defense. This is a familiar problem to we NT followers.

The defensive line is good, and North Texas will use the quick game to counter the threat. As we saw above, that looks like a good matchup but NT should be aware of Arkansas baiting those stick routes. Beyond that, the deep threats duo of Guyton and Bussey should stretch the defense a bit.

NT does not have a Preston Williams but it does have a nice group of WRs that can make plays all over and do one or two of those things that Williams did to beat up the Hogs. Busssey can win jump balls, Guyton can run deep, and both Lawrence and Darden will get open.

I expect Kelvin Smith to make some plays this game as well.

Questions will be asked of the NT line. Both SMU and Incarnate Word bottled up the run game, and Arkansas slowed the CSU rush attack. Fine does not have the height that Carta-Samuels does, nor does he have a guy that can bail him out on bad throws either. That may mean some of those momentum-changing plays that CSU made are not there.

NT is hoping to efficiently move the ball the way it has against nearly everyone. This is the first game since Troy in New Orleans where the offense will be physically challenged.

DE McTelvin Agim is a JR, 6’3″, 279 lbs and has 4 QB hurries this young season. He’s a threat outside. DT Armon Watts is a SR, 6’5″ 298 lbs and has 2 sacks thanks to Agim’s pressure. The rest of the line and two-deep is filled with three- and four-star talent.

Carta-Samuels played well in spite of being battered around. The Razorbacks broke up nine passes, and hurried him four times. They sacked and intercepted him once each.

It will be tough but NT has faced similar in the past.

Arkansas on Offense

Chad Morris has yet to impose his system on this group of guys. The previous staff liked going slow and Morris is known for his up-tempo style. That change has produced two shaky performances. If Devwah Whaley can get some blocking, he can break some tackles. He has good speed but is not a burner like UIW RB Ra’Quanne Dickens.

Out wide is JR La’Michael Pettway, 6’2″ 219 lbs. He has them most size and is the leading reciever. WR Jordan Jones, 6’1″ 180 SO is actually second, but he caught 5 of his 6 pass receptions against Eastern Illinois. He managed only a two yards against Colorado St.

The idea here is the same as we’ve seen the last three years on the Hilltop. This presents NT with something like an advantage, as the scheme is the same but the players running it are less able to execute it. Morris may know NT, but he cannot run the plays himself.

The line is young along the left side, with 3-starr RSFR Shane Clenin, 6’6″ 302 lbs starting at tackle and 3-star SO Ty Clary, 6’4 288 lbs at guard. Seniors man the rest of the group that has been shaky.

Look at this breakdown on a relatively simple stunt:

This is the same play, but with a better view of the action:

Even with some nice offensive numbers against CSU, there were some poor breakdowns by the offense. Here is just a bad play on 2nd and 6 in the red zone:

NT’s defense has been fantastic thus far. Even considering the competition, they have exceeded expectations. UIW was able to break two big runs, but both were just very great individual talent plays. Arkansas has that ability, see this run from the highlight package, but those are forgivable.

LB EJ Ejiya has played amazingly well, along with fellow ILB Brandon Garner. Both have flown around and made plays. Most importantly, they have gotten to the QB and in the backfield. Ejiya has five tackles for loss (TFLs) while Garner is tied with fellow LB/JACK Jamie King with 2.5.

NT has six sacks, and four came against FBS squad Southern Methodist. NT had 4 QB hurries against the ponies as well.

Colorado State was able to harass both QBs into poor throws and scrambles. That defense hurried Arkansas six times, broke up five passes, got one sack, and two picks. Again, the Rams were lit up in their two previous games.

This was either a complete outlier performance or an indication of the level at which Arkansas is playing.

North Texas’ defense showed that it could be good situationally last year, but struggled mightily in getting off the field in passing downs. Those breakdowns have been either absent or just present when the bench has been playing. That said, SMU did not have Courtland Sutton-level talent to break things open for them again.

Arkansas has a few guys that may be on that level right now, but they did not show it in the last game.

This Mean Green defense has answering all the questions so far, and this will be the best challenge yet in terms of talent, but probably (ironically) at SMU-level in terms of execution.

For the first time in the Morris-Littrell matchup, Littrell has the more experienced, more confident team.

Elsewhere

Cole Hedlund is returning to Arkansas to exorcize a few demons. He is the nations’ leading scorer right now and has looked comfortable kicking the ball. He has not had a pressure kick yet, as NT has led by 20 points at the half time mark of each game so far.

DeAndre Torrey has game-breaking speed at the KR level, and if the NT defense can force a punt, he or Darden can take one back.

Overall

Razorback Stadium will be a comfort for the home team, and that crowd will be hyped up by 3pm. Whatever good feelings North Texas fans have had leading up to this will disappear quickly if Mason Fine gets sacked immediately like he did vs Florida or Troy.

Odds, and Advanced Numbers

Vegas has NT at +7, with the O/U at 70. They feel like this team will be able to move the ball at the very least.

S&P+ has Arkansas at 54, and NT at 56.

Sagarin has Arkansas at about 5 points better.

FEI has Arkansas rated 57 and NT 97th

Massey predicts NT losing 31-41, with 76% chance of losing.

FPI gives NT a 32.9% chance of winning.

SRS has NT at 57 and Arkansas at 71. It likes their offense a little bit better than ours, and our defense more than theirs. Strange times indeed.

Regular numbers

NT (FBS Rank) Category ARK (FBS Rank)
52.0 (11) Points 41.0 (34)
568 (13) Total Off 435 (62)
110.5 (110) Rushing Off 189.5 (53)
457.5 (1) Passing Off 245.5 (57)
19.5 (53) Scoring Def 27.0 (81)
276.0 (20) Total D 417.0 (92)
292.0 (55) Pass Def 333.5 (117)
74.0 (14) Rush Def 83.5 (22)

Leaders

Passing

  • NT Mason Fine 65/90 862 yards, 7 TDs / 1 INT
  • ARK Ty Storey 17/30 297 3/2
  • ARK cole Kelley 15/21 194 3/0

Rushing

  • NT DeAndre Torry 18 att 50 yards 3 TD
  • Ark Devway Whaley 36 att 193 yards 2 TDs

Receiving

  • NT Rico Bussey 17 receptions, 237 yards, 3 TDs
  • NT Jalen Guyton 12 rec. 206 yds, 3 TDs
  • ARK LaMichael Pettway 7 rec. 124 yds, 3 TDs
  • ARK Jordan Jones 6 rec. 134 yds, 1 TD

Prediction Time

Life is short, let us live aggressively.

North Texas is going to win this thing going away. My heart and my mind are pointing at all the signs, and all the history, and some voice in my head is reciting the advanced numbers that indicate that North Texas beat up on weak teams while Arkansas lost to weak teams.

The development curve for this North Texas program has been ahead of where I predicted. Littrell has never had his teams play scared of the ‘bigger’ schools. Florida, and Iowa both saw the Mean Green battle harder than they had any right to. That will be the case again this season. The difference here is that Arkansas is not as good as those teams were on any one side of the ball. Florida had a good defense, and Iowa a good run game.

North Texas is not a perfect team. The defense has yet to be truly tested, and the offensive stats are a little bit inflated while hiding some efficiency concerns. That is not really important right now. This group is improved over the 2017 team and they look hungry and capable.

NT 38 – UA 31


  1. Based on the conversations in summer.