North Texas at UAB 2020– Maybe

Everything is a maybe now. COVID-19 is rampaging across the nation again. Then numbers are greater than they were after the initial rush in the Spring. El Paso is so overwhelmed that the UTEP-UAB next week will be held in Midland, Tx. Last week four CUSA games were postponed/cancelled/what-have-you.

If you are not completely sure that this week’s game will be held in Birmingham, you are not alone. If it does take place, North Texas will have not played in about a month’s time. The last we saw of the squad, it was beating the pants off of Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro. Jason Bean put on an offensive display, and won the starting QB job (for now) entering into the next game.

UAB has struggled a bit losing two games in a row: 20-24 to ULL and 34-27 to La Tech in double OT. Both losses demonstrated some of the weaknesses in the team. In particular La Tech had this game quite near won. Bryson Lucero, QB for UAB, threw a back-breaking interception early and UAB in general became very predictable offensively.

UAB’s defense is good, but can be scored upon. Remember that even the best defense in recent memory was scored upon by NT’s offense. Jason Bean at his best can run around this team, and find guys open. UAB’s defense at its absolute peak will destroy the NT line and disrupt the timing and run lanes.

On the other side of the ball, NT is just about the worst defense in the nation. UAB can run the ball, and will try to run the ball with everything they have. Thus far this season NT’s defense has made everyone’s rushing attack about 10-15% better. That does not bode well as they try to face Spencer Brown, one of the best backs in the league who runs behind a big and vicious offensive line.

The saving grace is that the QB situation is poor. NT could theoretically load up against the run and go man-to-man and expect some good things to happen. That is not to say that UAB cannot unleash some quality football through the air, it is just that they are not nearly as good at it as they are at other things.

NT has shown that it does not matter how moribund the offense, they will allow it to get big plays.

Bill Clark coaches with a chip on his shoulder and hears the criticism from his peers. His team has just about dominated the league these last two seasons, save for the loss to FAU in the title game. There are lots of things people say about him and his program: They are benefiting from the rules in the Return (too many old guys), they were allowed to have non-qualifiers etc. Call it professional jealously. Clark has won a league title and is pressing his advantage in recruiting one of the most fertile area in the league and nation.

Seth Littrell had his moment in the sun but now is facing criticism. The things they say are these: He hasn’t not built a defense that can win anything, his offenses get big aggregate numbers but rarely can deliver when it matters, and also he does not have his teams adequately prepared for each game.

It is hard to argue with the above, and the one division title aside, NT has not impressed. They are 0-fer in bowl games, title game, and big games. In that latter category I include the last time NT played at Birmingham and blew a big lead on the way to a crushing loss.

This North Texas team is loaded with talent but infrequently plays as a cohesive whole. The defense is a disaster and the latest coaching hires look like a big miss by the head man. There is hope — but there is also the gigantic wrench that is COVID-19. Whatever momentum that was gained after that MTSU win surely has dissipated. Teams can get better in bye weeks but the sharpness that comes from game day experience cannot be replicated.

NT Defense vs UAB Offense

UAB will try to run the ball until it cannot. Well, that should be the plan. For a couple weeks, UAB got away a little too early from that aspect of the offense and got into trouble. I can see the idea — do not let the defense focus, keep them off-balance and hit them with some big passes. In practice that is where the issues come from.

Bryson Lucero got time vs Tech, but we also saw Tyler Johnston III. You might remember he was the thrower of the group the last time NT met this squad. Lucero has thrown 8 interceptions thus far this season.

Out wide, WR Austin Watkins is still a big threat. He’s big and fast. So is Myron Mitchell.

The NT starters:

PositionNoNameClassStarts
END35Gabriel MurphyRS Fr0/5
NOSE97Dion NovilSr5/5
END42Grayson MurphyRS Fr0/5
SAM14Tyreke DavisSO3/5
WILL30Larry Nixon IIIRS SO3/5
MIKE23KD DavisJR3/5
FS11Cam JohnsonSR5/5
LC8John DavisRS Jr0/5
HAWK10Makyle SandersSR4/5
BS17DeShawn GaddieSo4/5
RC24Quinn WhitlockRSJR5/5
Defensive starters

The Murphy twins at end are supposed to provide speed. They played well against Middle but the Blue Raiders are a poor team. The weakness in the schema and in execution of it is in the secondary. John Davis is starting at left corner over Upton Stout. No one along the two deep in the secondary has overly impressed. There is always one play where someone is lost as the ball floats unthreatened above their head.

Putting speed on the line is meant to stop that by reducing the time for the QB to throw. To be fair, the defense has produced enough stops recently to be competitive, but it is not nearly the strength of the team yet.

Dion Novel will need to be a dominant force in the middle. UAB’s line — Four upperclassmen — is big and strong and experienced at opening running lanes for Spencer Brown. UAB has not run for less than 4 yard per carry outside of the Miami game. NT is no Miami.

NT has not allowed under 4 yard per carry since the Houston Baptist game. They’ve averaged over 5 yard allowed per tote this year. NT is second-worst in the league to Charlotte in average yards against per carry.

UAB is tenth in the league in passing, and has thrown 10 scores against 9 interceptions. Unfortunately NT is the absolute worst in defending the pass in the league. Only Rice is worst in yards-per-attempt against, (8.6 to Rice’s 9.0). NT has allowed 14 scores against 2 interceptions.

NT Offense vs UAB Defense

The good news: This is not the same UAB defense that was terrorizing the division in recent years. The bad news: they are still good.

Let us flip the stats: NT is first in passing in this conference at 9.1 yards-per-attempt, 14 scores and 5 interceptions and a ridiculous 338 yard per game. NT is racking up 5.8 yard per attempt when running the ball and has scored 13 times and also lead the league in yard per game at 255.

Unfortunately UAB is shining brightly in stopping the pass. They lead the league in YPA against (5.5) but have allowed 12 scores. They are only fifth in rush yards against at 4.25 against per game and have allowed only 5 scores.

Louisiana Lafayette beat UAB in a slug fest and managed their lowest yards all season. They had been putting up 6.5 all season but only managed 4.6 vs UAB. Tech at home, was able to go up-and-down for spurts.

This season is weird and finding trends is harder than it usually is. Players are in-and-out for all teams and every game can be an entirely different team in many aspects. The takeaway is this: do not be surprised if NT can move the ball against UAB but also do not be surprised if they get punched in the throat.

A good portion of this all hinges on Jason Bean. He was tremendous against Middle, simply outrunning the entire team while he made plays. What we would like is a little of what Tech was able to do vs UAB: throw it in the seams accurately.

UAB paled two-high safeties for a good portion of the Tech game, and the Bulldogs were able to find those players enough to move the sticks. On the first drive it got Tech into scoring territory. Some of that is blind luck, but the passes were thrown with accuracy and their guys made the grabs. It just needs to happen enough times to make a dent.

UAB is more disciplined and tougher tacklers than Middle and while Bean may be able to escape for some yards — they will likely be 4-and-5 yard gallops instead of 48-yard ones.

That is important, as it means NT will have to execute long drives for its points instead of the big haymakers it used to get the lead against Middle.

Good offense

The great news is that NT has Jaelon Darden. He can score from wherever and make incredible catches. When he does make a mistake, he makes up for it. He’s at 46 catches, 689 yards, 10 scores at 137.8 yards per game.

Record Watch

Jaelon Darden needs …
… 28 more catches to pass Casey Fitzerald’s NT record of 229 career receptions.
… 3 more TD catches to pass Ron Shanklin’s NT record of 31 career scores.
… 488 more yards to surpass Johnny Quinn’s NT career record for receiving yards.
… 20 more scores to pass Lance Dunbar’s NT career TD record. ( He needs 3 to pass Jeff Wilson for 3rd all-time, and 9 to pass Patrick Cobbs for 2nd all time)

Concluding Thoughts

North Texas has put up school records for yardage with Jason Bean at QB. They also did that against poor teams and Bean did look bad when he was out there vs SMU.

UAB will be a real test for this team in many ways. NT has not fared well vs Clark’s teams even when NT won. Remember that NT needed a miracle Jeff Wilson run to get into field goal range to beat UAB in the final seconds in 2017.

Getting a win when they should not — UAB are -16.5 favorites — is one of those things that NT has not done too often under Littrell. The ideal scenario says North Texas gets an early lead thanks to some UAB defensive mistakes and offensive turnovers and holds one while UAB has to use their weak ‘hand’ (that pass game) to mount a comeback against an NT defense that knows what to expect.

In reality, we probably will see some nerves on the part of the offense. Do not forget that NT started out behind against MTSU on the road — a not-good team. The realistic scenario says UAB’s pass game finds the throws it had schemed up against NT’s inexperienced and league-worst pass defense and feeds Spencer Brown 31 times for 171 yards and 3 scores.