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North Texas at SMU Preview: 2021

I saw a tweet from the SMU football account calling NT “that team from Denton”. If I were in a more fun-loving mood I might see more clearly the fun and light-hearted nature of it. I am, however, in the middle of another long, work-filled week and I am left cynical and more mean-spirited that I have any right to be.

So I read said tweet, and think about how the social media manager is just stealing a bit from more established rivalries. “I, too, will tweet like them”, they think. This, of course, is very SMU. Why build, when you can just buy? Why be clever, when you can simply … um borrow.

Of course there is plenty to sports-hate about SMU and right now the most prominent is the worst possible reality: They have a better football team.

North Texas is attempting to find a defense, and a quarterback, and some momentum. SMU has a strong offense, talented players, and (right now) the stronger league. Things are looking up for the Ponies and not so great for the good guys. They even snagged half-man, half-truck Tre Siggers from us!

Vegas has NT about a three-score dog and that sounds about right. If you recall, last week North Texas beat up on Northwestern State 44-14. We had some quibbles — mostly the sub-par quarterback play from new QB Jace Ruder. There was much to like from Deandre Torrey — 25 touches 244 yards and 3 scores — but there is a real concern that he was the only one doing much. The defense was the pre-game concern, and for the most part there was a lot to like. This week there will be much greater challenge than the best that Northwestern St had to offer.

Defending SMU

Last year NT was smoked 65-35. There were ridiculous defensive lapses and NT went on to have the worst defensive performance all year. Ulysses Bentley IV ran for 227 and three scores. He is back and just as dangerous. The line that blocked for him is also back. The run game should be formidable again is what I am getting at.

The pass game will be slightly different as former starter Shane Buechele is gone. Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai threw for seven scores last week vs FCS Abilene Christian and is backed up by a 4-star talent in Preston Stone. Mordecai’s stat line is a beauty: 24 of 30 317 yards 7 TDs. You might remember the name Reggie Roberson Jr, former WVU guy, and the guy who was catching some of those seven scores. He grabbed two vs NT last year in that blowout. He is also back after missing the latter half of the year with an injury.

Rashee Rice and Danny Gray are also back. All told there is about 250 yards and 3 scores returning from the NT game last season. Adding to the squad is former Oklahoma TE Grant Calcaterra, who caught two scores and totaled 51 yards in the win to start this season.

Again, there is talent here and a coaching staff that knows how to get productive seasons out of said talent. North Texas was exposed last year and the hope is that former SMU head coach Phil Bennett is going to help the squad turn this thing around.

It is asking a lot to say NT can stop this offense, but getting to Mordecai is Job One. That means the Murphy boys will need to create pressure and force tougher throws than he had to make against ACU. if that sounds generic, that is because it is classic defensive advice. The Murphys will be the key to having a great game, and beyond that, we know that Bennett is unafraid of bringing pressure.

Sonny Dykes will be ready for the pressure, and expect some classic pressure-absorbing answers, like screens and misdirection. Dykes will run the base offense and adjust if necessary. Last year NT was allowing the first option to go for first downs and touchdowns and SMU was not asked very many questions.

The bare minimum here is that NT competes. SMU very well may get 500+ yards and 40 points, but there is a difference between 65 and 40. There is a difference between 700 yards and 500 yards.

Yes, you read it and yes, I wrote it.

North Texas has eight returning starters and more, if you count the Murphys. That counts for something but it is a new system for the third year in a row, and NT has a confidence problem it has yet to rectify.

Game plan: Get to Mordecai and force quick and hurried decisions to give the secondary a chance to stop big plays before they happen. Gang tackle the trio of good backs or else there will be big run plays.

Best case scenario: Four down lineman get to Mordecai and he make some mistakes. Roberson is not quite fully healed up and some overconfidence means the skill positions start to force things instead of taking what is in front of them.

Attacking SMU

SMU has a talented defense that gave up a lot of points and yards in the AAC. They hired new coordinator Jim Leavitt, a guy who is familiar with CUSA-level foes and may have seen some film on NT while watching and preparing his FAU squad last year but is otherwise new to preparing for North Texas. While it is true that Seth Littrell’s squad moved the ball well and scored points, it all came after being down 21-0.

Putting up 35 points is not bad, but allowing 65 is how they lost. Were those yards junk yards? Not necessarily. It is hard to move the ball even against a defense that knows it will not lose by allowing a first down or a touchdown, but it is not the same situation as getting clutch yards when the game is on the line.

SMU returns seven starters from last year, including Elijah Chatman, and Delano Robinson. The safeties should be solid as well. Jim Leavitt likes to bring pressure and is an experienced and talented coordinator. He knows what he is doing. He is likely thrilled at the prospect of designing up some crazy looks for inexperienced NT QB Jace Ruder and good, but mistake-prone Austin Aune, the backup and erstwhile starter.

Ruder made some reads and got the ball out but was inaccurate, throwing two interceptions. NT has some question marks at WR right now, even if there is a ton of talent in Deonte Simpson, Jyaire Shorter and Tommy Bush.

Game Plan: Spread and shred. NT likes to throw big, downfield passes for gains but it would not hurt to mix it up with some short stuff to keep the defense honest. Then hit them with the deep stuff.

Best case scenario: Deandre Torrey is hard to catch, and Simpson, Shorter, Bush, and Roderick Burns show out with that downfield speed.

Big Concern

Seth Littrell

Why? Well, two years straight NT has gotten worked and started the game down 21-0. Last year we could blame the terrible defense and young QBs. The year previous was with Mason Fine. It is hard to argue that Seth Littrell does not get out-schemed after seeing him get out-schemed by good coaches (Lane Kiffin) and in bowl games. There have not been very many memorable games where we could say “The opposing team was not ready for what Seth Littrell was throwing at them”, and many more where we were saying “NT does not look ready to play”. I do not like forever blaming the players. While there is a certain amount of self-motivation required, having a plan you believe in gives a team great confidence.

This is an opportunity, then, to show something like a change in colors. North Texas does not need to win this game to reignite the fans and the team. They need to compete, show some fight, show that they are not the laughing stock defense, and empty-calorie offense that we have seen the last two seasons.

Seth Littrell has talent and has been good for North Texas. He has to evolve as a head coach, and find himself. Chip Kelly went through it at UCLA and has turned it around thus far 1 . It can be done.

Prediction

I do not have the green fever yet. Looking straight up at these teams there are a lot of similarities, but SMU just has the better version. Young, talented, inexperienced QBs? Yes. But SMU has a better version of that. Talented, game breaking RBs? Yes, SMU has more of them (including one we had!). Good, talented, and productive WRs? Yes, SMU has had guys do more for longer while NT has guys that have shown some great things in spurts.

Shaky defenses with new, experienced coordinators? Yep. SMU just gave up points to some better teams. NT got smoked by Charlotte and Southern Miss.

NT 21 SMU 35

Best case scenario: NT was playing coy and kept its cards close to the vest and breaks out some fun stuff for SMU and next week’s opponent: UAB. These are huge games but this is not a must-win, just a must-compete.


  1. Kelly had a super-young team but had some real issues in his last three seasons in the NFL and early UCLA days that indicated he had no new ideas.