The calendar reads ‘August’ and while that normally means the Mean Green is preparing for football, it now means North Texas is playing a game. UTEP in El Paso is the start of the 2022 season, and North Texas fever is a mild one. “QB1” is Austin Aune, and that fills everyone with ‘meh’. Is that a knock on the 29-year old? Sure, if you want it to be. The numbers and film speak for themselves. An argument can be made that the North Texas DNA is about running the ball and defense, and no matter what hot-shot offensive-minded coach comes in here, it will always end up that way. Seth Littrell’s teams came in with some Air Raid and ended last season as a run-first offense that dared not throw deep.
Austin Aune will have a better group of receivers to throw to than the options in the bowl game, but at least two are coming off major injuries and while talented, it gives everyone pause. The running back group is deep, but losing DeAndre Torrey *is* a loss. He had a sneaky good career, that is in the conversation with the recent standouts Patrick Cobb, Lance Dunbar, and Jeff Wilson. Respect the name: DT. He, however, is gone, trying to find a team after being waived by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Getting the most attention will be Oscar Adaway, the sophomore back who had a bright start before losing his season to an injury before the start of last season. He is big, and can bully his way to yards. Ikaika Ragsdale, and Ayo Adeyi have shown some burst and ability in spot play and so has Isaiah Johnson. They’ll be asked to carry the load behind an experienced offensive line that will make things easier on everyone.
Defensively, there is hope. Whereas Phil Bennett has a fan base and can be credited for the tremendous resurgence in quality on that side of the ball, there is still work to be done and absences to overcome. The Murphy twins, the main sources of QB pressure a year a go, are in Los Angeles now. The Mean Green are better coached than they have been in recent years, but still have questions. There is experience, but that can just mean old habits.
The biggest question is around the head coach. Seth Littrell does not have the same shine on his name as he did during his first four years. He can back his teams into bowl games but has not won one, and only has gotten close the one time. His biggest win was the blowout of a clearly drained UTSA, a fun and good time but also something of an anomaly in the Littrell era. He came in as an offensive guru, and yet has presided over some struggle-fest offenses in his time. He is not quite on a hot seat, but at least a warm one.
QB: Austin Aune is the dude. He is the starter … until he messes up, presumably. Aune has the experienced and will be ask to toss the ball deep to quality wide receivers while the rest of the offense focuses on running the ball a ton. It is not a bad idea, but there are major questions. In CUSA, it can be a winning formula, but *even* in CUSA, there will be moments where the QB is asked to win the game for the squad. UAB’s rotating cast of characters has done so, and last year UTSA’s QB did the same in the biggest moment. Can Aune do the necessaries? Will it be Gunnell? JD Head? There are no clear answers.
RB: Oscar Adaway is the man. He’s back from injury and that is good, but the fact that he is recovering is bad. The group (we covered them in above paragraphs) is solid, and NT can always find backs willing and able to do some big things. The problem is that there is no obvious game-breaking talent. Adaway seemingly has that, but the injury bothers me. Will he be the guy that we thought he could be? It is a tough ask. Expect lots of sharing of carries, and good production. Will there be the burst, and the *shouldn’t* yards that we saw from Jeff Wilson, Cobbs, Dunbar et al during their special stretches?
HB/TE: Ver’Keyes Gumms, Jake Roberts et al are all being asked to do a lot of run blocking and catch the occasional pass. It can be thankless, but with a head coach/coordinator combo of fullback and offensive lineman, it makes sense that these guys would be expected to do some dirty work. There is some game-breaker opportunity if they can show the pass-catching talent.
WR: Damon Ward, Thommy Bush, Rod Burns, Ja’Mori Maclin, Kathi Lyles, Jyaire Shorter, and Bryson Jackson are the main weapons. Bush and Shorter looked good or have produced in the past. Bush had a major injury right as he was getting into stride, and Shorter hasn’t been healthy in like two seasons. Roderick Burns has production, but when it came down to it, he did not do the Number One WR job that was necessary. That is to say he didn’t get off the focused coverage teams were bringing. That’s not a knock, but just reality. Everyone else has some interesting abilities, and there are a lot of eyes on Kirkwood, MO’s own Ja’Mori Maclin. He’s the sibling of an NFLer and I can tell you that Kirkwood is a cool little town in the St. Louis, MO area. So yeah.
OL: Cole Brown, Gabe Blair, Manase Mose, Daizion Carroll, Jett Duncan are the starters. They bring experience — 91 starts for Brown, Mose, Carroll, Blair — and talent. We know they can create space for the backs to get loose but needs some help in the passing game to make it all worth it. They were key in the five game win streak.
DL: Tom Trieb, Roderick Brown, Enoch Jackson and Sifa Leota get the start. It is a new crew (Save Rod Brown) than the version that got time last season. That may be a good thing. The Murphy twins brought the pressure and made a name for themselves (enough to move to UCLA) but overall the DL could use more punch. The big question: Can they get QB pressure, and stop the run. You might notice these are always the questions of a DL.
LB: KD Davis is back, after testing the waters. He’s good, he has a ton of experience. Larry Nixon III and Kevin Wood play the WLB and bring experience and talent in those spots. Expect good things.
Secondary: “Eagle” Quinn Whitlock was targeted in everyone’s game plan, and is playing the strong nickel spot. John Davis and Deshawn Maddie are playing the corners. Or at least listed as corners. Gaddie played more of a safety role so this all may be just a misprint. Keelan Crosby and Sean-Thomas Faulker are the safeties. This group is experienced and we are trusting the coaching to do the bulk of the work. No one is afraid of this secondary, but fortunately there are no dangerous passing offenses to worry about. WKU of 2021 is not on the schedule (although the 2022 version is, and they may be good).
K: Ethan Mooney
P: Bernardo Rodriguez
A couple of returning guys with solid resumes. Nothing to really get crazy about here in either direction.
As of this writing there are merely hours of preparation. UTEP is bringing the whole of El Paso and some of Juarez to this game. If you are in the parking lot, be careful of random acts of … intimacy. Also, fights. There are a lot of fights. Beyond that, this is a good matchup and it is a little sad that NT is losing a quality experience on the road right when they are getting good again. Now, good is relative, and UTEP is still a bad program in a bad spot, with no money and little hope of doing much. (Sorry, these are the facts). They had a run of terrible season stop with a 7-win one in which they scraped by against very bad teams. They squandered their big television opportunity against a ranked UTSA at home and subsequently limped around the rest of the way.
The brand of football is not too different than the one NT played last year: run, play defense, and throw it deep to the most talented WR you have. Dana Dimel is clever, and will pull out some sneaky stuff on you. The trick is to not let the Miners hang around for long and put them out quick and early. They have a good QB with a big arm, but he’s not going to rewrite any national record books. The WR that was tearing things up has moved on to Arizona (Cowing, if you are wondering). Like the K-State teams of old, UTEP can be very hit or miss depending on their JUCO recruiting/transfer success rate. They can find real talented guys, and also have years where they struggle to integrate that group. Last year was a HIT, and yet they merely went 7-6 and lost the bowl game. They played tough, which is another hallmark of those K-State teams that Dimel is trying to emulate.
Defensively, Praise Amaewhule is the guy that will be chasing Aune. The rest of the roster is a bit in flux. Dimel talked about guys winning jobs or losing them this week. Suffice it to say there will be opportunity to make some noise if it all clicks right for NT.
The biggest challenge might be the crowd. I cannot remember a bigger partisan crowd as an opponent in conference play. The Sun Bowl can get pretty rowdy, and the fans will be pumped up after last season’s good time. This is the “915” game, and they are nearing a sell-out. NT has to get through the first rush of adrenaline and enthusiasm, take the crowd out of it, and pull away. The classic example is last year when UTSA did just that in El Paso in a big night game. Dimel said this week that they tried to learn from that time, and will try to be calmer about executing this time.
There is danger in that NT succeeded once the spotlight was off, and everyone had low expectations. The losing streak was followed by a winning one, against poor teams in half-empty stadia. The big game vs UTSA was nice, the Frisco Football Classic was not.
If you chalk up the poor season to the injuries, you can have hope. Seth Littrell and his team say “taking care of their bodies” has been a big talking point. (Stares at the camera). NT, and most of CUSA, is not very deep but also very talented at the first level. UTEP can very well blow the doors off this game and make the start of 2022 very miserable. I can see NT doing the same.
A Win Looks Like NT hitting a big pass on the first drive, and using the run game to control the clock. The defense gets UTEP’s Hardison throwing picks and getting put on the ground, and NT grinds this one away 38-14.
A Loss Looks Like UTEP riding the momentum and getting to the ball quick, giving second and third efforts and disrupting NT’s run game. The pass game is off, and we are frustrated with Aune, the staff, and everyone. UTEP finds touchdowns while NT finds punting opportunities and it all sucks 31-17.
I cannot shake my low opinion of UTEP. It is not even the green glow I have about me on Saturdays in the fall. I just have a very low opinion. NT found ways to beat these kinds of teams last year. It was the good ones they struggled with. Seth Littrell has a better version of last year’s team in a lot of respect, simply because of increased health. I wonder about the direction and identity. Littrell talked about the team’s identity being a topic of conversation all off-season, and I think there is a lot of value in going all-in on the run+ defense game while they struggle with the QB choices. Personally, I like throwing the ball around given the era, but Zagging while they Zig is not a bad choice. It is limiting, but a choice with some success potential. I also believe in building around the talent you have, and not the talent you want to have.
Bush, Shorter, et al are good, but have not earned the right to have an offense built around them. The running backs+offensive line have, however, earned that right. Give them the ball and let them run the show until they prove otherwise. Let the pass game be the compliment and earn the right to carry the team naturally.
This game opened as a NT -5 favorite, but now is a pick-em, mostly. I mean it all depends on the book you go with, but I look at it as the people and oddsmakers not really loving the idea of NT on the road in a hostile environment. That’s a fair assessment. The bigger the game, the smaller the Littrell performance has been a good rule of thumb.
I am choosing to be positive. This is about the run game, the defense, and my low opinion of UTEP. I think NT wins this one fairly easily and we get overly excited about our SMU chances.