North Texas at UTSA Preview

We do not have much time, so let us be straightforward: North Texas should blow the doors off this UTSA Roadrunner team tonight.

North Texas is slightly ahead of their record-setting pace for yards and points last season, and UTSA is nowhere near the tough team that nearly won in Denton back in October 2017.

The last few weeks, we have posited that mustering the motivation would be the biggest issue for the Mean Green after losing to UAB and all-but-closing the door on the league title chances.

This week is not so difficult. North Texas-UTSA is not Ohio State-Michigan, but it has all the ingredients and there have been enough losses on both sides to have hurt feelings about the other team.

Back in 2013, North Texas fans had at best a mild annoyance at the upstart team from San Antonio. Much of the dislike — if it rose to that level — was based in manner in which UTSA Roadrunner fans acted online. “We are going to step in and dominate everyone.”

Mean Green people, stuck watching NT Football spin their wheels in the mud after the Todd Dodge fiasco, were all too aware of the difficulties of life in lower-FBS football and did not appreciate those comments.

On November 23, 2013 North Texas was playing for a perfect Apogee season while UTSA had a solid team led by a senior QB. The Roadrunners were good, hoping for an NCAA ruling to get bowl-eligible in their second-season in FBS, but finishing 7-5 including a 6-win conference season.

I note all of the above to highlight how good the team North Texas lost to was. Most NT fans thought NT was the far-better team (they were), but on that extremely cold day they could not put a drive together and ultimately fell, losing the chance for a conference title appearance and a perfect season.

That NT team still went on to win a bowl game — the last NT team to do so. Between you and I, if that game were played two days before or after there would have been a more raucous crowd and a better NT team. It wasn’t, so that loss hurt like hell.

I wrote after the game that to begin a rivalry, there needed to be some hurt feelings. North Texas, being the established program with stakes — UTSA was playing with house money for a while there — had to be the first to lose. If NT wins that game UTSA — fans and players alike — simply shrug and say “we are only a 3-year old team!”

On the podcast after, a guest said “I hate UTSA. It just happened yesterday.” This is how a rivalry begins.

The next season, both squads had awful teams in the Alamodome. Zach Whitfield touched a punt return ball that UTSA recovered, nixing a chance for Andrew McNulty to lead a game-tying drive. Andrew McNulty had one of his best games ever that day — NT had not passed for more than 107 yards in a month’s time leading up to that game. It was a bad year. UTSA had a bad run game that powered through and sliced through the NT defense. It was a bad year.

The year after NT and UTSA played in Apogee and Mike Canales led that Mean Green team to the only win of the season and it came at UTSA’s expense. Again, both teams were bad but NT was historically so.

In Mason Fine’s freshman season, UTSA beat NT in the Alamodome again, this time taking advantage of the young QB’s turnovers to pull away late. This was the only game of the series to not come down to the final drive or finish within one possession.

Last year, obviously, was special. Mason Fine led North Texas to a miracle win in what the UNT president dubbed “The division championship game.”

To recap:

  • 2013: UTSA 21 – UNT 13 | Derek Thompson is intercepted in the final seconds after a desperation drive to tie. At Apogee.
  • 2014: UTSA 34 – UNT 27 | Zach Whitfield muffs the punt that would have given NT possession and a chance to tie. At the Alamodome.
  • 2015: UNT 30 – UTSA 23 | Jeff Wilson and Damarcus Smith ran for 270+ yards between them and the defense held UTSA on their final drive. At Apogee.
  • 2016: UTSA
  • 2017: UNT 29 – UTSA 26 | Mason Fine leads NT ona 98-yard drive with no timeouts and under a minute left. At Apogee

That brings us to this season. There has not been a more mismatched game between the two. In the past five years of this game, both teams have been up or down at the same time. The previous exception was in 2016, when UTSA had the stronger team by some margin. Still, UNT had come in to that Haloween weekend having beat Army and felt like they had some chance. Were it not for the turnovers — including one at the goal line by Jeff Wilson — the game could have been closer.

This Year’s UTSA:

The Runners are ranked 130 of 130 in scoring, at a meager 13.5 points per game. Since their last win against Rice on October 6th, where they won 20-3 on the strength of their defense (and bad Owl play) their point totals (all losses) — 3, 17 (aided by a pick-six), 3, 7, 0.

Beyond this, the defense that was the strength of the team has fallen apart. Louisiana Tech scored 31, USM 27, then UAB 52, FIU 45, and last week offensively-challenged Marshall had 23 in a game that should have been worse.

This UTSA team is one of the worst NT has faced in some time. If we go down the list of this season’s bad teams we get this: Arkansas, UTEP, Rice.

Arkansas is loaded with talent that cannot be said of UTSA. UTEP is improving, and played close games with Tech and UAB. Rice is also improving and NT eventually showed why they are the better team.

In fact, at worst, I think UNT plays UTSA like they did Rice last season in Houston. In that one, NT came out a little rusty, threw a pick-six, and then eventually pulled away without the nice blowout win that we all wanted.

This North Texas team is frustratingly good — so much talent on offense and the defense aggressively playmaking. These collapses throughout the season have meant big early leads wasting away before crushing losses — save for the FAU game.

The takeaway probably should be that this is team is an evolution of the gunslinging one that was involved in so many shootouts last season. NT is still scoring, but doing it inconsistently. NT is still winning but doing so with some tough losses.

North Texas is very good, and has not lost to teams it “should” have beaten since the ODU game — and even then, that weird Monarch team is an under-performing, talented team with upper classmen. A good number of that team finished 10-3 just two seasons ago.

Where ODU found a QB that could get passes to their talented WRs Jonathan “He Spit On Me” Duhart, and Travis “Just Toss it Up to Me” Fulgham, UTSA has no such luck.

The rotating class of pass throwers is the classic “There but for the grace of Mason Fine go we” situation. We remember it well, as NT coaches rifled through the roster looking for anyone that could stand in there and complete a pass.

At this level of competition, having the best QB on the field does a lot for moving the gambling line. Yes, that is the case all across football generally but even great QBs need help. Just last night we saw Will Grier and Gardner Minshew both lose in games where they could have been called the better QB. Yes, Kyler Murray is good, but you see my point.

UTSA has rolled out Cordale Grundy, Jordan Weeks, DJ Gillins, and Bryce Rivers. Each has had a shining moment or two, but only Grudny had completed more than 50% of his passes (50.5 to be exact) and he also is the only QB to throw more TDs than INTs — 5 to 3.

We saw Mason Fine struggle in his first year and the potent offense we see weekly was a struggle-fest that first season. We could be kind and say UTSA is simply going through growing pains, but it is difficult to see how or what UTSA is trying to do every week.

The run game cannot run. The pass game is struggling with young (and not good?) QBs. There is no evident rhyme or reason to the play calls or the QB rotation. When the head coach — in late October — is saying “Maybe we should pare back the offense a bit” that is a bad sign.

That UTSA defense — once so praised and still boasting some quality players — is bad now. They give up big plays in the run game and the pass game and in pretty much any situation you can think of, they will allow you to move the ball and probably score on it.

There is confusion in the secondary, and even more on the sidelines it seems. North Texas should eat well, like I did just two games ago.

North Texas are 24.5 point favorites in this one and it should not be even that close.

North Texas 55 UTSA 6