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North Texas at UTSA: 2020

Happy Thanksgiving, Mean Green Nation!

I hope you ate and had a safe and enjoyable time with your family and/or friends on Thursday. This year has been long and contentious and for Castle MGN it was nice to enjoy some time away from the news and internet and enjoy my family.

We are still in the midst of a deadly pandemic and while the precautions and policies have been politicized, we all want the same thing: a return to something normal very soon. North Texas is still scheduled to play at UTSA this weekend in San Antonio. Bexar County, in which San Antonio is located had 1000+ and 6 deaths on Thanksgiving Day. I will not be attending the game.

This year’s version of the Roadrunners are markedly better than the team North Texas took apart 45-3 in Denton last year. They have a new head coach in Jeff Traylor, a Texas guy, who recruited and coached in the state and built up a lot of good will. He was with SMU with Chad Morris and left to go to Arkansas when Morris did the same. He was on the sideline when NT embarrassed the Razorbacks. Offensively UTSA are better by six points per game (20.3->20.6) and decidedly better defensively (33.9->26.0) under his watch. The oddsmakers put UTSA as a -5 point favorite coming into this one, and it moved down to -2.5 today. The very short answer is this: UTSA is better than they were (awful) but they are not good. They are CUSA-okay, which means they are 6-4 and 4-2 in CUSA. This 2020 version of CUSA is a random assortment of in-progress, and non-good teams and so a winning record in this league is only so impressive. Still, that improvement is due to talent, fewer injuries, enthusiasm, and a new lease on life thanks to the new coaching staff.

I still wouldn’t know what to think of UTSA even if they beat North Texas. Our favorite little program is only 3-3 and 2-2 in league play. The defense was shredded by Charlotte and Southern Miss (in league play, lets not talk about SMU) and looked wobbly vs Middle and Rice. The brightest spot — and it is quite bright — is the offense that is ridiculously good. It makes sense that NT is 3-3, as the defense might just be as bad as the offense is good. The team is a leader (nationally, as well as in the league) in almost whatever offensive category you want to choose. With this janky season, it is difficult to do an apples comparison, but you can make a strong case that NT is the best offensive in this league by a wide margin.

You can also make the argument that NT has the worst defense in the nation by a wide margin. The silver lining in this holiday season is that there is hope in the form of the Twins Murphy and the rejuvenated Dion Novil. They wreaked havoc the last two games and have helped NT produce the kind of defense that can win games and get blowouts.

NT beat MTSU after coming alive on both sides of the ball — thanks to Jason Bean on offense and the aforementioned Defenders — and ran away with that game. They beat a pretty solid Rice team a month-and-a-half later with the same combination. There was rust on offense and a little concern in the first quarter but NT dominated quarters 2-4 and won going away.

Rivalry Talk

Everything about this year seems muted and so is this Rivalry. Yes, it is one, even if a budding one. It doesn’t have to look like the Egg Bowl to be contentious. In a non-pandemic year neither team has as many passionate fans per capita and that cannot be expected to change given these circumstances.

We wrote about this previously so I will do a little copy pasta:

The Roadrunners are 3-3 lifetime against North Texas They started out the series with that gut-punch WIN AT Apogee. People forget that Derek Thompson led NT down inside the red zone and was two plays away from tying the game late.

NT LOST AT the Alamodome the next season, blowing a chance at a game winning drive after a muffed punt. 

The next season was an awful one for NT, but the LONE WIN came at the Runners’ expense and there was posing with locked gates (oh, crazy Chico). 

This will be Mason Fine’s fourth UTSA game and he is so far 2-1. The first one was A LOSS that was closer than the score indicates. NT had a ton of TURNOVERS, mostly because of a freshman Mason Fine, but he did bust out an 80-yarder on the ground. 

There was of course THE DRIVE that was all-but-a-loss. Last year was an UNBECOMING WIN, that UTSA nearly pulled out late. There was an over-throw on a slot pass that would have won things for UTSA. 

Last season NT dominated on both sides of the ball on the way to the biggest win in the series. UTSA was more terrible on offense and Novil and company took full advantage of the early injury to Frank Harris, the one-time NT recruiting target.

NT is on a three-game win streak in this series and leads 4-3. Last year’s 45-3 win was the biggest in the series, and NT was the first to top 40-points. Those three points allowed were the least in series history.

A win in San Antonio would put NT at 3-2, a .600 record. UTSA would then fall to 4-3, or .571, and NT would leapfrog the Runners in the standings. This is important as UTSA currently has a chance to win the division. 1

Attacking UTSA

Jason Bean. Jaelon Darden. Whoever wants to run the ball. That’s how. Seriously, UTSA has some dudes on defense — Nose Jaylon Haynes is beasting, Charles Wiley is a Mississippi transfer, and Rashad Wisdom is a ball-hawk. They have been getting turnovers and making plays. They also give up some big plays. While much has been made of the North Texas defense being terrible (fact) UTSA’s defense is overly reliant on turnovers. That means while NT has allowed 67 10+ yard gains in four conference games, UTSA has allowed 83. (In english) that means NT allows roughly 17 10+ yard gains per game, while UTSA allows about 14. That is not too much of a difference.

UTSA has, of course, only allowed 24.5 points per game in this league so far. MTSU, UAB, Tech, FAU, UTEP, and USM are not juggernauts but NT did allow big points to (an admittedly better at the time) USM. The fact remains that this is (by far) the best offense that UTSA will have faced … outside of BYU. That game on the road in Utah was the moral-est victory (loss) of the season for ol’ UTSA and the reason there should be a healthy fear.

You can perhaps rationalize things and say BYU just had a blip of a performance but it was nonetheless impressive against one of the best teams in the country.

NT comes in averaging 8.8 yards per attempt throwing the ball, and 5.96 running. North Texas is 14th in the nation in third down percentage (51%), and 21st in the nation in yards passing per game (321), and 5th in total yards per game (559). Littrell’s crew has also put up 67 10+ yard gains in just four conference games (compared to UTSA’s 77 in six).

This is informative:

That was Frank Gore, Jr running through the entire UTSA team. Gore is a talent, but so is DeAndre Torrey, Oscar Adaway, Tre Siggers (143 last year vs UTSA) and Nic Smith. USM pretty much had the game won vs UTSA but did some self-harm. Look for something along the lines of the performance against Rice and less of the one vs Middle.

NT started slowly last week and a good portion of that was the play-calling. If (for once!) NT can start quickly, we can be extra confident in the fortunes for the good guys in green. Spotting Rice 10 points and having to mount a comeback was not good for anyone’s stress-levels.

Rice was able to hold NT in key drives early in both halves. The Mean Green had 27 points and that is just on the edge of winnable (UTSA allows 26 per). Expect something like 34 for NT, big yards from Torrey and the game to be dependent on Jason Bean completing deep tosses to his talented wide receivers. NT has been able to get behind every secondary they have faced, and this should not be much different. Bean just has to put the ball in their hands.

Defending UTSA

Frank Harris is the talent and Littrell tried to recruit him. In his time in San Antonio, Harris has only played two snaps vs UNT — last year before leaving the game. He’s most dangerous running the ball, but he can toss it just fine. Against USM he made a clutch play — turning a mistake into a first down that essentially sealed the game — and those are the kinds of plays that can make a difference. He dominated the game vs UTEP (but that’s UTEP) and he is the jab to the knockout punch that is Sincere McCormick.

McCormick is over 1K already, and put up 173 on 32 carries last week. UTSA uses him as a workhorse, but he is shifty enough and has enough burst to open things up. NT held him to 62 yards his freshman year, but that was then and he is the clear number one option this season.

Here are his highlights vs MTSU where he ran for 82 and two scores.

Out wide are two play-makers in Cephus and Franklin. You might recall Joshua Cephus’ catch vs Texas State to start the year:

We are all concerned about the defense. The last two games have given some hope. NT allowed MTSU and Rice to the lowest yards-per-play allowed all season.

  • HBU — 6.62
  • SMU — 8.45
  • USM — 5.75
  • CLT — 8.56
  • @MTSU — 5.61
  • Rice — 5.37

The best news is that NT had 8 TFLs vs Middle (equal to USM and Charlotte) and 12 vs Rice. Rice also had only 49 yards rushing (thanks to sacks for -38 yards). Grayson & Gabriel Murphy combined for five tackles for loss, and Dion Novil had five himself vs Rice.

That kind of domination can kill any offense and that is the hope. Rice was playing without their number one back, but getting to the QB and stopping the RB early make it infinitely easier to stop even the best backs. USM and Charlotte were running at NT with heads of steam, while Rice was getting chopped up after two or three steps.

More Detail

UTSA runs a 3-3-5 scheme (like every team) and relies on the interior guys to get the pressure that stops up anything. NT was getting great running looks from Rice as they kept two safeties back and let NT run. Early, NT was unable to get much going and that shut down the offense. Getting a little variety in the attack will be helpful — moving Jason Bean and getting the ball into Jaelon Darden’s hands early would open things up greatly.

Once NT was able to establish the run enough, Rice was unable to keep up. No one in the league can really stop Darden, and he is a game-breaker. Despite his big numbers (11 scores on the season in a shortened year) it feels like North Texas does not get him involved as often as it should. BYU tried to lean on UTSA and had lots of success (400+ yards) but did not get the scores. NT is not sharp enough passing or powerful enough in the run game to get the short yardage execution as often as we all would like. Those are quibbles with the best offense in the league, however.

If Jason Bean can find Simpson, Ogunmakin, et al on those deep shots, UTSA will be in for a long day. That will open up the run and the option stuff from Bean and whoever is the main ball-carrier that day.


Defensively NT will be relying on the relatively undersized Murphy boys to generate the necessary pressure. The problem is they are light and vulnerable to some push. We saw Rice lean on NT early and get some big runs in that first quarter. NT was able to get enough pressure in short yardage and in passing downs to stop drives — eventually forcing Rice to punt on short yardage. That was a psychological win. Still, we saw Rice get a 97-yard drive against this defense.

NT gets beat deep too often (still) and that will not change much. Mike Collins of Rice threw for 300+ yards but some of that was on the final drive, and early in the game. NT shut him down in the middle quarters and won the game in that spot. Frank Harris is not Joe Montana, but he is a talent. NT practicing against Jason Bean will help prepare the team for a QB that can escape, but for Harris being a southpaw.

UTSA will move the ball and score. NT just needs enough stops to give Bean and company enough possessions to do what they do. Despite the great defense vs Rice, the Owls did manage to possess the ball for the majority of the game and more importantly keep the number of NT possessions down (11 vs 14 vs MTSU). That may seem minor but one more chance with the ball is another chance to score.

Implications

We wrote that Seth Littrell needs to win some shouldn’t games — this one qualifies. UTSA is favored in this one, but not by much. UTSA has played more games and has had a more consistent season and has a better defense. They are also at home. Those make it more likely that UTSA will win but this is the time for Seth Littrell and his staff to make the difference.

NT has an outside chance to win the division, but the more clear opportunity is to keep UTSA down, get a win in a rivalry game, and continue the feel-good around the program the last three games.

Okay, What Will Happen?

It’s the holiday season and I am feeling generous. Call last week the rust-shaking game. North Texas is going to open up with a haymaker, and score on the first drive. UTSA tries to run and do their thing, but Frank Harris gets a little jumpy and throws a sky ball to an NT safety. NT scores again this time thanks to Jaelon Darden and the rout is on.

In 2013, it was cold and freezing in Denton. MGN and lots of cold Mean Green fans piled into Apogee for the chance to see an undefeated season at home be completed. The chance to play for the West division was on the line against an upstart team. NT rolled out its best team in about ten years and started too slowly. The offense was just a bit off and the defense was solid but not all-encompassing. NT lost a gut punch game that was felt throughout all the Mean Green Nation.

Fast forward to 2020, and this pandemic. UTSA fans are not nearly at the same high but the ones who are following are excited but wary of the chances in front of them even in a pandemic season2. NT has a chance to get its fourth straight win in this series, crush all good feelings, and do it on the road in the Alamodome. It would be a nice return of the favor. Like then, the visiting team does not have much to play for3 and the home team has some of the unexpected good run vibes going.

Prediction

NT 34 UTSA 29


  1. Again, this all depends on the pandemic that is currently forcing cancellations across the nation. Games are currently scheduled through early December but with Thanksgiving likely to be a super-spreader event, I do not foresee much of a season left.

  2. Bowls being cancelled. Stadiums half-full if at all

  3. NT still has a mathematical chance of the division and the league title game, sure, but it is a smallish one and would mean having to upset Marshall, who is dominant.