North Texas at California Preview

BERKELEY, Ca. — The Mean Green had a bad week down the road on the Hilltop. SMU came out hot and dominated the first quarter. There has been much self-reflection by everyone. Read this gem from the head man:


There were definitely some positives that we’ve got to continue to build on. But there was also some negatives.

Seth Litrell

Mason Fine was harassed into one of his poorest games since his first year as a freshman starter. He threw into coverage, he was sacked, pressured, missed a read, and his pass-catchers let him down by either not getting open or simply dropping the ball.

All that said, Tre Siggers was a revelation and he brought a level of aggression that briefly ignited something like a comeback. NT was within 11 points in the second half and in the modern era that is practically tied.

The NT defense has about two or three stops in them per game and they used that up in the second quarter when NT was getting that 14 on the board. That is a mighty cynical thing to say but then you watch this:

Overaggression

That encapsulates the issue here. NT made these types of mistakes when they last had a bunch of new and young players on the defensive unit in 2017. NT needed everything it could get from the offense to pull out wins back then and that is what we expect to need this year.

Getting beat in one-on-one situations is part of the game. I can live with opponents grabbing these kinds of passes:

Jameel Moore getting beat by a superior pass

I cannot live with some of the pass-interference calls. Sure, the refs were a little forgiving to the home team (SMU) but by the 4th time you get called for an interference it is time to reevaluate your own play and not complain about the calls.

Fighting against some home-cooking is part of the Adversity that comes with playing on the road. That is in proper noun case because in football it is an entire concept.

In every football play there are 22-men executing an action that was planned by something like 15 other experienced coaches, analysts, and associated hangers-on. That is to say there are many things that can go wrong and many influences on an outcome.

Broadly speaking, SMU looked more prepared for the first quarter than did North Texas but what does that mean? Were they playing “harder”? Did Sonny Dykes out-scheme the Mean Green? It is all more subtle than that. Overall NT did a good job and were not blown off the field. They got SMU into third-down situations but were beat in crucial situations that would have forced a punt and put the offense in a difference situation.

NT’s offense did not capitalize on their own do-or-die moments. 4th and 2, third-and-long, etc. Sometimes the game comes down to those moments and it all can seem so simple. All that prep. All that planing and execution and it all comes down to whether this one guy can beat that other guy.

That is one of the great and wonderful things about the game.

So, yes. If the referee does not call pass interference (obvious) NT gets the ball back early. If Tyreke Davis does not leave his assignment, NT maybe forces a FG. If, if, if.

The only thing NT can do is learn from the experience so this next game against a good opponent does not have the same type of mistakes.

Seth Littrell said they had a great week practicing, that everyone was excited and motivated. That is good stuff to hear.

Let us discuss this week’s game.

California Golden Bears

Cal is one of the Pac-12’s famous teams. You may know them for the big Cal-Stanford game and the occasional offensive star. Aaron Rogers played for Jeff Tedford in the early 2000s there. Marshawn Lynch and a handful of NFLers went through the program. Sonny Dykes — current SMU head man — coached Jeff Goff and lorded over a powerful offense that did not have a complimentary defense.

Jeff Wilcox is the current head coach and he is quite the opposite. He has this Bear defense solid and great against the pass but lacking in quality offensive firepower. This game will be strength-against-weakness on both sides of the ball and will be won on whose strength is stronger.

The game will be played at historic California Memorial Stadium, capacity 63,000. It memorializes WWI Californians. It was renovated in 2010 to close it up — it was separating because of a fault line.

The team just finished up a big win over No 14/12 Washington. While foreboding, Cal has beaten a ranked team each of the last 4 seasons while also disappointing. They are the team that can jump up and bite you but otherwise harmless in the Pac-12, apparently.

The offense is lacking, but they have managed more explosives this season. There is reason to think that the offense is getting a little even with its defense but the defense is still the best unit.

Attacking Cal

Justin Wilcox is a DC-turned-HC and it is no surprise he has this unit solid. Evan Weaver, LB; Luc Bequette, DE; Camryn Bynum, CB; Ashtyn Davis, S; are all all-conference returnees.

Cal plays in the three-or-four line front that nearly all defenses adopt now. Bequette is joined by Toaloa, Zeandae Johnson and a handful of others in the tree-deep. All are the same 6’2-4″ 290-ish range. Expect a wave of quality defensive lineman getting into the backfield making things rough for Mason Fine.

The linebackers are Weaver, Kuony Deng (6′-6″ 220) and Cameron Goode . They have good size and can fly around the field. The most heralded group are the secondary. Bynum, and Elijah Hicks are some of the league’s best. They are joined by Jaylinn Hawkins. There is quality and even senior backups behind the starters.

North Texas has faced some very talented defenses in the Littrell era and have not really overly-impressed. Against Iowa, and Florida there were some real question-marks. While Mason Fine is still quality, the line and the receivers have not matched up well with bigger and stronger talent in front of them.

This is one of the reasons why OC Bodie Reeder was so well-received. NT may have needed a shot in the arm for Fine’s final season — Littrell said “there were going to be some changes anyway” before Harrell left for USC.

Rico Bussey was shut out vs SMU and Littrell mentioned he expected the “other playmakers” to step up and play. That is something we noted last week and on the podcast. There were opportunities for others and only Siggers overly impressed.

Best case scenario: North Texas gets some big plays from Siggers, and NT gets a couple of big plays to help the cause. Short fields provided by the defense and a special teams score make it easy and take the pressure off.

Worst case scenario: Mason Fine is sacked a ton, throws a pick or two, and the run game is the only bright spot as Cal lets Siggers run for a scoreless 100 yards.

Defending Cal

Sophomore QB Chase Garbers leads the Cal attack.

NT will start Tualau Sa’afi at DE along with Hamilton and Dion Novil up front. There are no changes anywhere else so expect more of the same from this unit. There was good in the game vs SMU but one or two crucial mistakes let the Pony attack score. Sonny Dykes is one of the game’s best offensive minds and so is his OC Lashee.

Cal does not have the same type of offensive brain-trust leading the charge but there is talent and good football coaching. Cal’s line is big and Pac-12 quality, but they have youth (73 Cindric, 72 Mettauer) and that may be a weak spot.

The wideouts are Duncan and Crawford, and Remigio. RB Christopher Brown (230 lbs) is big and talented.

Cal has something like five or six TEs on the roster and like to go in big formations to run the ball and grind it out. NT’s defense is not big, but has speed. Getting to Garbers quicker than they did against SMU’s Buechele is the key.

SMU’s Proche and Roberson are quality WRs and they were put in great positions by their quarterback. NT is hoping that Garbers cannot make those same type of throws in this one. Cal knows they will be getting one-on-one coverage and has likely been looking forward to the opportunity.

It is a bold defense that can get some psychological gains if it works — against Arkansas last season the Hogs were clearly flustered that they could not win those outside battles and it rattled the entire fanbase.

Cal’s fans know the offense is struggling and any weakness shown early can get everyone on edge and turn the home crowd into source of nerves instead of enthusiasm.

Expect Cal to lean on the run game early, mixing it in with an occasional max-protect shot against Nick Harvey.

Best case scenario: North Texas is able to rattle Garbers and keep the run game from being effective, creating short fields. A turnover keeps the pressure off the offense.

Worst case scenario: Something like the Iowa game a few years ago where the run game tears threw the defense. The defensive backs are beaten regularly or give up big interference calls keeping the Cal drive alive.

Special Teams

North Texas needs big returns. Deion Hair -Griffin has been a no-show on offense but has shone bright on special teams. DeAndre Torrey can take it to the house and so can Jaelon Darden. This unit needs to get big returns and perhaps a score to help the cause.

Biagi’s group has impressed and a key blocked kick would be wonderful right about now. No huge mistakes would be baseline.

Overall

North Texas was always going to be the underdog here. Cal is a good team coached by a good staff but is by no means a monster that cannot be slain. Their offense is something akin to the Arkansas offense last season — talented, but with questions and some weaknesses in execution.

Against Arkansas and others, the defense made the key plays — interceptions! — and the offense did not have to do much beyond be solid. Here, the offense will likely have to do something beyond the ordinary and that could make all the difference.

MGN ebook Preview Prediction: 24-21 NT
MGN Prediction today: 27-17 Cal