Houston losing D’Eriq King after he redshirted was never going to be an automatic win for NT. In fact, this site cautioned against thinking the defense would continue the streak of touchdown-free quarters. Dana Holgerson is too good of an offensive mind to let his teams go without a score.
We also were concerned about Marques Stevenson, he of the many targets and ability to change the game returning the ball.
We also thought the run game would be the focus of the Houston defense. It was.
We hoped that NT would have the answer for all these things. They did not.
No, North Texas lost 46-25 to Houston in front of the largest crowd in Apogee history. Mason Fine mustered 353 yards passing but a good portion of that was while chasing the game.
The run game was the focus, and Houston got lots of pressure. NT was unable to find the necessary counter measures early. The essential takeaway from the first quarter was that NT had a 4th-and-22, and two 4th-and-1s.
They punted twice and were stopped short of the sticks the other time. Houston scored 14-first quarter points. One was on a 68-yard TD by Patrick Carr. The other was on a 9-play, 81-yard drive.
North Texas held Houston to a FG after that turnover, but only managed a FG after that.
NT had a better second quarter but totaled six points, and needed a buzzer-beating FG to do it. The good news was that that the defense managed three stops of the Houston offense in that time. It could have been worse earlier.
Houston scored on their first drive, 8-plays, 60-yards that included a big pass-interference call on Taylor Robinson on 3rd and 4 from the NT 23.
NT scored six on the next drive, an 11-play, 75-yard drive that saw Siggers get into the end zone from four.
Then it kind of fell apart. NT kicked it off to Stevenson who returned it 82-yards for six. The next possession saw NT score again — this time a 33-yard score to Jyaire Shorter
NT managed another stop after 5-plays and only 14 yards. NT could not move, punting to Bryson Smith who returned it 60-yards for six. Houston added a 2-point conversion to make it 39-18.
By then it was desperation time. NT failed to convert on 4th and 2, getting stuffed in the backfield with 12:32 left.
Houston punted after 4 minutes, and NT scored after 3:16 to make it 39-25. Houston scored again, on four plays. Clayton Tune got free for 55-yards. Patrick Carr scored from 12.
NT turned it over and then Houston kneeled it out.
So where did it go wrong? Let us analyze this loss.
NT had yet-another slow start to the the game. They were not quite sure if they wanted to be aggressive, and we can look at Seth Littrell and criticize. The run game was the focus for both teams, and NT was unable to power through the Houston line like they did UTSA’s.
The pass game was not crisp. The snaps were low, and that seemed to throw off the timing. The early shots were just sort of the sticks and that meant the WRs needed to get a yard. They failed to do so.
That set up some big decisions. NT punted early, then was stopped later in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, the situation was the same. Mason Fine throws incomplete on 3rd-and-5 to Lawrence. That led to a field goal.
Later, NT got to the Houston 27 after a big 4th-and-9 pass to Lawrence that got 12. NT followed that with a four-yard-loss, a Fine sack that lost 9, and an incomplete pass. Punt.
The next time NT had the ball, on 4th-and-1 from the NT 40 Mose had a false-start that caused a punt. Mose had a bad game, losing his man, snapping high, and this play here.
The next drive was promising but the half was creeping up. NT found points but the earlier blunders kept them from the end zone.
The second-half first possession was better. NT looked complete, mixing up pass and power runs that kept Houston off-balance. The pass game was crisp, getting the ball out of Fine’s hands faster, and the run game managed to get yards in short-to-go situations. There were some more mishandling of the ball, however.
Later, NT got out of a tough situation twice. The intentional grounding call put NT at 2nd-and-22. A couple of big completions helped the cause but NT scored on 3rd-and-10. Not nearly the best down-and-distance management.
Last drive that mattered: NT threw three-straight but couldn’t get the blocking on the Darden screen. NT punted from their own 8.
There were compounding problems here. NT had trouble blocking up front, snapping the ball, and throwing on-time passes, and then catching those passes. After they were caught — if they were caught — NT did not have many plays made.
Shorter, Darden, Lawrence, Simpson, Hair-Griffin made some good catches but did not get enough YAC to turn these drives into TD-scoring drives.
NT needs the pass-game equivalent of those Siggers runs where he powers through arm tackles.
Mason Fine was hit entirely too often early, and then of course, when NT was chasing the game he took the brunt of the hits.
NT managed 456 total yards, scored 25 points., went 8/22 on third downs and 4/7 on fourth.
NT had a nice second quarter after a terrible first. The 68-yard score from Carr was a great effort from him, finding the cutback lane and exploding to daylight. NT did not fill the run lane gap and that is a mistake we have seen before. Talent will make you pay for mistakes, and Carr is talented. Chalk this one up to inexperience.
The second drive in the first quarter was more inexperience, and miscommunication. Marques Stevenson took a pass 32-yards and make people miss in open space.
The second quarter saw better pressure on Tune, better gap-integrity in the run game, and better tackling overall.
Early in the third, NT allowed an opening TD after a big return from Stevenson. They got beat on some check downs. Later, Patrick Carr powered his way into the end zone.
The next Houston drive was a great exercise in discipline.
Overall NT held Houston to 359 yards, 235 through the air, 4/11 on third downs and sacked Tune once. It was not always pretty, but 15 of the 46-points were thanks to special teams.
Marques Stevenson had 112 kick return yards, one of which went for six. The other set up a short field that led to another TD. Bryson Smith had 2 returns for 63 yards including the big 60-yard score.
Biagi’s group has been praised heavily recently, especially after the Arkansas game last season. He deserves praise for the good, and criticism for the bad. This game was a reminder of the time NT kicked twice to ODU’s star returner and yes, he scored on both.
This game was not lost because of Special Teams, but it certainly wasn’t helped by it. Houston scored only 31 offensively and NT’s offense only mustered 25, so that would not cut it. The coverage teams did not help the cause, however.
Seth Littrell has a troubling trend where he loses all the big games. Three is no real definition for “big”, but the ones that immediately come to mind are these:
Bowl games: 0-3. Two were by blowout (Utah State, Troy) and one was an OT loss.
Championship game: 0-1. The embarrassing blowout to FAU in the title game.
Big Regular Season Games: 2-4? He beat UTSA in 2017, albeit via miracle comeback. He beat FAU in a big game last season. He lost to Louisiana Tech, and UAB in big games, and this one where NT was favored by 7.5 in front of the largest crowd in NT history.
It is an unfortunate truth that eventually fans will become accustomed to success. If the program wants to maintain the growth and success, it needs to win some of these 50/50 games.
Dana Holgerson called a good game and had some good playmakers. NT did not capitalize often enough, and the special teams killed them.
NT was always going to drop off compared to last year’s team. The biggest concern has been the offense. Last year we hoped it would be more consistent, even though it had big overall numbers. Seth Littrell suggested they knew this was the case anyway, and that changes were coming even before Graham Harrell moved on to USC.
This season, the pass game has been lacking, while the run game has carried the offense. NT has the same old problem it has had for three seasons: it cannot protect Fine that well, it cannot find consistency, and it comes up short in crunch time.
There is a lot to play for this season. All of CUSA is weaker. Defending Champ UAB just lost on the road to a weak WKU, that is starting a new QB. Southern Miss looks good and talented but they have questions still. La Tech was taken to OT by Rice, a program that is still rebuilding.
Over in the East, favorite Marshall was demolished 52-14 by Cincinnati. FIU is a shell of itself. FAU just beat Charlotte, but has not looked like that championship-winning side from 2017 until today.
The point is that NT very well may be bad vs the rest of the nation. But so is the rest of the league and well, the hardware is what matters. Last year’s team was better but faced a better UAB team, and a luckier La Tech team at the wrong time.
Darrel Dickey won Sun Belt titles but few remember the quality of the league then. In fact, few people go back and assess the quality of any trophy in the display case. To modify the famous Herm Edwards words, “you play to win the trophies.”
There is still a trophy to play for and NT is 1-0 on that road.