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North Texas at Louisiana Tech: 2021

Just a couple of years ago this matchup was a division-decider. Now, your Mean Green are something like -10 point underdogs on the road in Joe Aillet stadium. Last week the Mean Green were beat badly at home by the division favorites in UAB. If you have watched Louisiana Tech closely this season, you have seen a team that can win the league.

Tech is 1-2, and Littrell called them “a couple of plays from being 3-0” and that is true. They lost a heartbreaker to Mississippi State and last week on a Hail Mary by SMU. Tech head coach Skip Holtz said “you can say that we are a couple of plays away from being 3-0 but we are a 1-2 football team” and that is true. What we can take away from their almost status is that they are good. Some teams are worse than their record and others are better. Tech is about right, as they play to their competition and have lulls and gaps in their game where they allow teams to come back.

The truth, fellow Mean Greeners, is that I do not know that NT is capable of hanging with Tech. We saw a horrible offense on display in the last one, and in two games against FBS talent, NT has managed just the 18 points. Skip Holtz called it an anomaly, “I know the last two weeks is not what the team has become. or what I’m used to seeing from North Texas.”

Tell me about it.

North Texas will have its hands full and that mostly comes down to the offense. Let us discuss.

Attacking Louisiana Tech

Jace Ruder struggled throwing the ball. I’ve seen him described as “staring at the pass rush” and “getting happy feet” and everything that says essentially: He is not comfortable. This was obvious when his first throw against UAB was intercepted. He nearly was broken on the next play, so it makes some senes that he would feel like he can’t not think about getting hit when he throws.

The offensive line has four returning starters. The run game features a game-breaker in Deandre Torrey and yet the fact remains that NT cannot run the ball effectively (ie, when it matters) nor can they make the quarterback feel comfortable. North Texas does a lot of Baylor-Briles stuff. We won’t go into great deal here but it basically is the following: establish the run and throw the ball vertical.

It is more complicated than that, but it heavily relies on being able to get some play-action deep after the run is a threat. The WRs also need to beat their defender vertically and make plays. Jaelon Darden had a lot of success in this offense, and Deonte Simpson and Jyaire Shorter have had spots of good play in it as well. NT usually does not struggle to get WRs open, just hitting them in stride. The quarterbacks that play in this system can do a good run-pass-option read and throw a nice deep ball.

Ruder and Austin Aune have struggled a ton so far this season. We have seen the most recent criticism be something like “the wideouts can’t get open”. I think that is true but also lazy. It is very hard to get open when everyone knows what you are going to do. We discussed last week’s seemingly simple offense that did not see much misdirection. NT does not do the greatest job of self-scouting, it seems.

This Tech defense stymied SMU and Mississippi State for stretches and I expect they will have little trouble with a North Texas offense struggling to get out of its own way.

Game plan: Get Ruder in rhythm earlier with short passes, find some dynamism in the play calling and game planning.

Best case scenario: Simpson is ready to play, and everyone took last week’s beat down personally and plays to their potential.

Defending Tech

Tech is led by grad transfer Austin Kendall. He has adapted to the system much quicker even though its “only been two months”. He has talent and this collection of new guys on this squad looks a lot like some of the better Tech teams of the past with some self-sabatoge mixed in. When they are clicking they look really dangerous. When they are not clicking, it looks like everyone is getting used to each other and the play-book.

We will see familiar face Smoke Harris (great name). Again, there is talent throughout and a good coaching staff preparing this team. Phil Bennet has this NT team doing good things thus far and a lot of that is really just tackling when they should be tackling and being fundamentally sound. There are breakdowns and having zero offensive support doesn’t help the stat line but if you have been watching, you aren’t super disappointed at the defensive play.

Still, there is plenty of room for improvement on a team with lots of experience. North Texas did well to get into the backfield and stop the UAB run game throughout. They held them to a respectable sub-200 yard day. The problem was that UAB was able to find wide open pass-catchers in the secondary and that made whatever effort they made on early downs a waste.

The tight end was running free. The backup QB came in and had an easy day. North Texas seemingly can focus on one aspect of their offensive attack and sort-of neutralize it. They do not do a great job of keeping everything else in focus, however.

All that said, you can win games with this defense. That is, if there were some points scored. North Texas managed just the six points last week. That means, the first touchdown won the game for UAB. It is very difficult to ask a defense in 2021 to hold the opposition to less than six points.

Game plan: Get to Austin Kendall and mess up Tech from the start. Tech can score in bunches but goes through some quiet phases.

Best case scenario: The defense gets some turnovers that lead directly to points — not great field position, but actual points scored by the defenders.

Biggest Concern

The offense. Seth Littrell game planning and calling plays and all that is one thing, but this offense is not clicking at all. We have not seen the same kind of poor output like this since that first 2016 team with a freshman QB and mismatched parts (there was a converted corner playing slot receiver). I don’t know that there is any one cause. The quarterback play is not great. Fine. There are injuries. Happens. The offensive line is not playing as well as they did previously. Also happens. The offense, the best in the league last year, probably got some extra film attention and defensive coordinators are looking closely at things. Expected.

My thoughts are that it is a little bit of all the things above. Ruder is not playing as well in the system because defensive coordinators are ready for options 1, 2, and 3 and the injuries are not allowing any options. The line play is also not helping. It is bad.

Predictions

I have a rule of thumb for not writing these on game day because of too much green Kool-Aid. I have had a ridiculously busy week and so I cannot help it.

North Texas: 17
Louisiana Tech: 35