North Texas at Liberty Preview

It may not be SEC, but Lynchburg, VA will be loud. Seth Littrell talks often of competing each week in and of itself, going “1-0” each week. Last week’s challenge against Arkansas was a good team looking to make the transition from underdog to favorite.

Now? This is about staying humble and sticking to the good habits that creating this position, while the whole world is asking for media time.

It is a subtle thing, but lots of teams can win when they have no one asking them questions outside of the school paper and the long time beat reporter. What about when national media is beating your door down or filling up your schedule?

That is quite another feat. If this program is to become nationally relevant, this is the new normal. If Seth Littrell truly has an eye on a P5 gig, these challenges are weekly stressors.

It is all part of growing up.

Liberty

Lynchburg, VA is at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a population of about 75K. The land had been owned by native peoples for centuries prior to it coming into possession of the Virginia colony in the 1700s. It takes its name from founder John Lynch, who owned a ferry business (through his father), and who at the age of 17 petitioned Virginia for a charter to establish a town.

Liberty University was founded in 1971 and is a private Christian school that is one of the world’s largest. While only 15K are on campus, there are apparently over 110K taking online courses.

It was originally a Baptist college called Lynchburg Baptist until changing its name to the present form. Famously founded by Jerry Falwell, the school has a reputation for being very conservative, which has drawn both criticism and praise.

The Coach

Turner Gill is from Fort Worth (born 1962), played at Nebraska and coached at NT in 1990. After time as an assistant he took the head job at Buffalo where he made a name for himself by winning 8 games in 2008 and taking the Bulls to a bowl (loss) . He turned that momentum into a job at Kansas that proved too much for him (and lots of folks). Since 2012 he has led Liberty U.

In his six years in Lynchburg he has compiled a 42-30 record. Most notably the Flames beat Baylor at the Bears’ nadir last season in Waco.

So far this year Liberty jumped all over Old Dominion 52-10 and then lost to Army. This is the Flames’ FBS transition year but the school has had 12 consecutive winning seasons.

Last Week

Army controlled the game and dominated possession on the way to a dominating 38-14 win. In the short time that Liberty had the ball they moved it quite well. The Flames amassed 417 yards on just 60 plays. A good portion of it came late, when Army had already put up a 24-0 lead.

Liberty pressed a bit, and the long gaps without possession threw off the rhythm. North Texas fans have seen what Army can do, having played the Black Knights three times in the recent past.

The Flames are ranked 59th in S&P+ for offense and 111th in defense. Let’s look closer.

Liberty of Offense

Liberty plays fast and likes to go up-tempo. The quarterback is named Stephen Calvert but goes by “Buckshot” which is quite possibly the best QB name. He’s 6’2″ and 180lbs and likes to sling the ball.

Buckshot Calvert threw for 3300 yards and 29 TDs last season against only 6 interceptions. He can sling the ball. The Liberty offense is a spread offense. They play fast and put players in conflict — having to defend a seam route and a run — in the way that a lot of teams do now.

Junior WR Antonio Gandy-Golden is 6’4″ 220. He’s a handful, if NT is not careful. Look for CB Kemon Hall to take this assignment.

Gandy-Golden finished 2017 with 1066 yards and 10 scores on 69 grabs. When you are focused on this big target, Liberty likes to hit you with DJ Stubbs, and that was Old Dominion’s problem. Stubbs had a career high 7 grabs and 155 yards against the Monarchs, who simply could not tackle him in space. He has speed and NT will have to make tackles in space.

Buckshot has set school records and he should be respected. This is the best passing team and offense that NT will have faced all season. Arkansas had more talent but had poor execution. SMU had talent and poor execution. Incarnate Word had young guys with a good system that were not ready.

North Texas has been great at creating pressure on the QBs, and forcing poor throws. Army was able to force turnovers against Liberty.

Here is a sack from the first quarter of their game.

Buckshot does make the odd poor throw.

The NT defensive line and the linebacking duo behind them have been phenomenal. They chased the Arkansas QBs into six interceptions. Sure, some of those were just terrible mistakes, but the line has been stingy and the defense ferocious.

While this is a challenge, it is not an overly difficult one.

Liberty on Defense

The Flames were pushed around by the Army rush attack and that is something we can empathize with. Liberty have yet to face a truly terrifying pass attack, having only gone up against self-harmers ODU and anti-passers Army.

The Mean Green should have a field day against the Flames defense. Liberty lines up juniors and seniors along the front-four, with Ralfs Rusins at a monstrous 6’5″ 315 inside at Nose. Tolen Avery is 6’3″ 295 lbs at the other DT spot.

The 4-2-5 defense is something NT has seen often, and should not present any problems schematically.

Forgive me if this comes off as flippant, but there is no one on the defense that can run with Darden or Guyton, or that can handle Rico Bussey.

The Flames will likely try one of two things to disrupt the NT pass game: Bring pressure or flood the secondary.

NT has seen both of these methods and the latter is probably the most frustrating. Incarnate Word began to drop defenders into the passing lanes and that was the one INT that Mason Fine threw.

Arkansas tried bringing pressure and going man-to-man and was killed for it. Flooding the zone is good against young quarterbacks, but Fine can and will go through his progressions to find Darden and mike Lawrence in space.

The Razorbacks tried this also, and were lit up. The rush game may be bottled up again, but that is a work in progress and not where NT makes a living at the moment.

If it is Loren Easly leading the charge, he will be a battering ram that will wear out the Flame defense.

Regular Numbers

NT (FBS Rank) Category Liberty (FBS Rank)
49.3 (11) Points 33.0 (60)
504.0 (22) Total Off 504.0 (22)
109.3 (119) Rushing Off 1740 (72)
398.7 (3) Passing Off 330.0 (14)
18.7 (36) Scoring Def 24.0 (69)
296.0 (20) Total D 405.5 (92)
204.7 (63) Pass Def 116.5 (3)
91.3 (18) Rush Def 289.0 (128)

Odds and Advanced Numbers


Vegas: North Texas -13. O/U: 69.5 S&P+ North Texas 74% win probability. NT ranked 53, Liberty ranked 98. Massey: NT 83% win probability. Projected 41-28 win. FEI: NT 29-23 winners. Sagarin: NT 16.31 points better than Liberty

Leaders

Passing
– LIB Buckshot Calvert 44 of 73 for 652 yards, 6TDs 1 INT
– NT Mason Fine 89 of 135 for 1143, 8TDs 1 INT

Rushing
– LIB Kentory Matthews 26 att for 182 yards 1 TD
– LIB Peytton Picket 18 att for 133 yards 2 TD
– NT Loren Easly 25 attempts for 99 yards 1 TD
– NT DeAndre Torrey 2 attempts for 63 yards and 3 TDs

Rushing
– LIB DJ Stubbs 8 receptions for 174 yards 1 TD
– LIB Damien King 8 receptions for 172 yards 1 TD
– NT Rico Busssey, Jr. 22 receptions for 264 yards 4 TDs
– NT Jalen Guyton 14 receptions 248 yards 3 TDs

Predictions

This is a 13-point game, according to Vegas, and it seems the oddsmakers think the North Texas defense will revert to 2017 levels and allow big yards and big plays.

It is true, NT has played so much better than last year defensively that it seems a little too good to be true, and the opponents have been poor. The truth is that Liberty is good enough to put points up on the first team defense.

It is also true that the NT defense showed signs of this quality last year but just fell apart in key situations. That is the thing about defense: one mistake makes the entire possession look poor.

The obvious weaknesses on NT’s side are in the secondary, not in the play, but the strategy. NT decided to go man-to-man and trust it’s corners to win battles all game. They did so against Arkansas, but what happens against a guy who knows how to place the ball well?

We shall see. I do not expect to see NT go man-to-man as often in this one, but when they do, that will be the opening.

North Texas has enough firepower to win this one going away, but the travel and the hype surrounding the program are unknowns right now. Do they let any of the stuff go to their heads? Does a trip to Lynchburg throw off everyone’s rhythm? Will 21K screaming baptists shake the foundations of NT football?

No.

North Texas 45
Liberty 17