North Texas vs Houston Preview

This has been an strange week. The Houston Cougars star QB D’Eriq King abruptly announced that he is redshirting the rest of this season — a prelude to a transfer perhaps — that would remove him from the upcoming game vs North Texas. 

Incredibly, his backup is Clayton Tune, Hebron HS’s own steps into the shoes. You might recognize the family name. Yes, he is the brother of former NT QB Nathan Tune. He of the dog and the losing and the hip injury.

Further down the depth chart is one Logan Holgerson, son of the Houston head coach Dana Holgerson and one-time NT target. This duo has some talent and the head coach is a certified offensive master-mind but De’Eriq King is special so it is a bittersweet announcement that he will not play for the Cougars this Saturday.

North Texas went from three-point underdogs to about a six-point favorite with the announcement. Two things about the last time Houston was at Apogee: 1) they were quarterbacked by Case Keenum. 2) It was the Apogee opener.

The University of Houston Cougars

We have an interesting matchup then. North Texas is favored, feeling good, coming off a thorough beatdown of UTSA at home last week. Houston lost a heartbreaker in which Tulane pulled off a miracle play on the back of a some aggressive trickeration. The football gods rewarded the Green Wave’s playing to win.

This was always going to be a measuring stick game for Seth Littrell and North Texas. The U of Houston program has been ripe for P5 head coaches — Art Briles, Kevin Sumlin, and Tom Herman. Those guys have been helped by some quality assistants that are making, or have made their own names: Kliff Kingsbury, Major Applewhite, Kid Briles, and yes, the current head man Dana Holgerson.

That Houston was able to wrangle a P5 coach — Holgerson coached at WVU for seven years — is significant even if the result of a special set of circumstances. Houston is something like a model for the non-P5 schools as it pertains to hiring and keeping an identity.

The Houston reputation has historically been one of offensive prowess. Andrew Ware and David Klinger tore up the record books and when Briles came to town, he and others helped push a new era of offensive success.

Tom Herman was able to recruit talent to the program, and everything culminated with Ed Oliver and the Cougars upsetting Oklahoma to start the season a couple of years ago.

Since then, Herman went to UT, Ed Oliver quit, Major Applewhite was fired, and well now we are at Dana Holgerson and his QB is going to sit the rest of the season.

Thus far, the Coogs are 1-3. The opener against Oklahoma was a blowout that saw new transfer Jalen Hurts destroy the team without much of an effort. Houston beat Prairie View — but not by the margin we would expect. Holgerson’s mentor and former coach Mike Leach and his Washington State Cougars came to town to play and Leach got the better of that matchup.

Last week, Tulane won 38-31 thanks to a sneaky fake kneel-down and a Minnesota-vs-New-Orleans Hail Mary.

Houston comes in allowing 33+ppg but three of the opponents faced are quality offensive teams. North Texas is in that conversation, as well, but the loss of Rico Bussey and some questions about execution perhaps put NT on a lower tier compared to the competition they’ve faced already.

The real question for Houston was the relative lack of cohesion offensively. These things take time. Holgerson’s offense still has Air Raid underpinnings and that means a lot more focus on repetitions and rhythm. Holgerson has mentioned how good the production of his second-year QBs is — this is also one reason why King sitting out a year to try again next season is not such an outlandish idea.

The Houston roster is adjusting to its fourth staff combination in four years, so there are parts that do not necessarily fit with the rest of the others. The offense averages 30.8 a game — compared to NT’s 35ppg — which is lower than perhaps they expect, but still a solid number.

Last year Applewhite’s squad averaged 43 per game and lost only five. Unfortunately for the Major, two fo those losses came at the end of the year and included a 70-14 blowout to Army. That got everyone fired and paved the way for the new regime.

Defending Houston

The Houston offense will look very different without its trigger-man. King has put up his worst number since his freshman year. He has thrown 58/110 for 52.7 completion rate for 663 yards and six scores against two picks. His rating is 117.2

His junior year he threw 219/345 for 63.5% 2982 yards 36 TDs and 6 interceptions for a rating for 167.04.

He was, however, averaging about about 17 more yards rushing per game (78) than last year and already had six scores. Last year he had 14 on the ground. He is and was a true dual threat. His highlight reel against Tulane included freezing a safety in his tracks, and evading a number of tacklers on the way to a NCAA record 16th straight game with a running and passing score.

He is good and NT is lucky to not have to face him. We fans are unlucky to not be able to watch him live in Denton. So it goes.

The line has five upperclassmen, including one graduate transfer in Justin Murphy out of UCLA. North Texas was able to create some pressure against Cal’s young line, and UTSA’s um, bad one. This group is solid and big.

The X and Z positions — outside receivers — have not produced too much thus far. Bryson Smith, and Jeremy Singleton have combined for 11 catches and 100 yards and no scores. Inside WR Marquez Stevenson has produced 17 grabs for 234 and 3 scores, however. Keith Corbin, we should note, is the second leading WR with 11 grabs for 192 and two TDs, and will also join King as a redshirt sitting down this season.

Stevenson has nearly double the targets of Corbin thus far — 32 to 18 and for good reason: he is a playmaker.

Stevenson was the leading receiver a year ago, with 1019 yards on 75 receptions and 9 scores. He also returns kicks and punts.

UH likes to give it to him on jet sweeps and reverses. He is agile, quick, and speedy and tougher to bring down than expected.

Outside of that, it will be hard to gauge what to expect from this offense this weekend. Clayton Tune is not the same type of player, and his stats from last season are from a different regime. Dana Holgerson has the upper hand, ironically.

At RB, Patrick Carr was the main runner last season, with 800+ yards but Kyle Porter as the most totes this season with 47, just eight behind leader King with 55. Carr did not play against Oklahoma or Prairie View and only logged 9 attempts vs Wazzu. He had 17 for 63 against Tulane last week.

The thing to be concerned with, is the ability for Holgerson to scheme up some say touchdowns. The opening play looked like an RPO that turned into a speed-roll-out for King — something easy and that Tulane had seen on film. In actuality, it was a clever play designed to get their most dangerous receiver one-on-one in space with a flat-footed DB.

Houston’s First Play

As you can see, it worked. Football is about the players, but making it easier for those players to be successful is what makes good teams great. That is the coaching and scheming that can produce even greater teams than the sum of their parts.

While Houston will be down two tremendously talented players, this staff can still scheme up a touchdown or two and that is something NT DC Troy Reffett will be charged in looking for.

Best case scenario: the moment is too much for Tune, who is rattled and makes mistakes
Worst case scenario: Tune has enough of an unknown factor that is supported by some clever play-design that makes Houston even more dangerous than if NT had to prepare for King. 

Attacking Houston

Good news, friends. North Texas has an identity. On the podcast this past Sunday, we talked up Tre Siggers and all he means to this program. North Texas is Air Raid in philosophy, but when we are honest with ourselves, we do not trust the pass game to grind out a drive.

Mason Fine is great, but his relationship with his receivers is still a work-in-progress at best. Tre Siggers is something like a sure thing, averaging 131 per game on the ground. He runs aggressively, through arm tackles, and seems to seek out contact. 

Siggers is 27 for 196 and 2 scores on first down runs. That is a blistering 7.26 yards per carry. He is better on second down: 20 tote, 187 yards and a score.

He has only one carry on third down and 1-3 yards to go, but NT as a team has only 9 plays in that situation and has produced 8 first downs. He seems like he would be an obvious battering ram, but in reality he is more like a cannon ball.

The last guy in Mean Green to run like this is scoring touchdowns for the 49ers in the NFL. It really is not like NT has had a bad rush attack. DeAndre Torrey nearly had a 1000-yard season last year. Loren Easly looked like the number-one guy before he went down against Louisiana Tech. 

Tre Siggers has just brought something extra to the run attack that makes him someone to account for with extra-special attention by the defense. 

Every offense needs a player that can make 40/60 plays. The ones that turn a 3-yard loss into a 10-yard gain, and 5-yard gains into 50-yarders. With his ability to run through defenders, Siggers is turning gains that are blocked up for 7-yards into 45-yard scampers.

North Texas is doing well to not over-use him either. He is at about 17 carries a game and he put up 143 on just 14 against UTSA. NT has the aforementioned talent in this group, so a handful of Siggers carries go a long way toward establishing the fact that the defense will need to account for the run game.

Beyond that, Mason Fine just needs to be something like a caretaker. He is best when he does not have to throw 50 times in a game. Every quarterback is. The game plan against NT has been to bring pressure and hit Mason Fine early and often. This has worked in every big loss NT has suffered for the last four years.

Everyone likes Jyaire Shorter, but he is still more potential than production at this point. His 8 grabs on 15 targets for 116 yards and 2 scores is great for a run-first team, but not as the Z-receiver in a spread team.

Jaelon Darden continues to be the number one receiver. He’s scored in every FBS game, even if last week was a garbage time TD grab.

Houston plays a 4-2-5/3-3-5 hybrid defense that nearly every team does in 2019. Payton Turner (6’6″ 288 Jr) is the bandit player, the hybrid DE/LB/QB Destroyer type.

At DT there is Young and Fleming — Fleming being the NG. Those two are the more typical 4-3 DT types, in that the are in the 280 range. Olivier Charles-Pierre is 345lbs and is the space-eating type. He will play situationally. Anenih, Parish, and Chambers are at the other DE spot, being typical “other” DE type size at 6’2″ and mid 200s. 

Behind them are two good LBs in Kirven and Mutin. The leading tackler is Nickel back 3 Grant Stuard 6’1″ 210 Jr. He has 3.0 tackles for loss, putting him third on the team behind two DL guys.

Gerverrius Owens at 200lbs is the bigger of the two. Damarion Williams is 170. Deontay Anderson is the bigger safety at 217 and he can hit.

North Texas probably likes that Tulane’s line got some real push against this defense, putting a few DLs on their backs. That opened up the play-action and they got big plays over the top with some speedy guys. Tulane threw to a guy they thought could win some jump balls and he did.

NT does not have Rico Bussey to do that, so Deion Hair-Griffin is the speed option, and Shorter is something like the jump-ball option. I would not be surprised to see a little bit of Deonte Simpson get a look in that role. He made an appearance and NT likes the freshman’s talent.

Best case scenario: North Texas is able to power-run with Siggers/Torrey/one-of-Easly-Johnson-Smith getting over 200 yards, while Fine throws 2 TDs on 19 passes. 
Worst case scenario: The run game is unable to find its footing, and Fine is hit, intercepted, or there are dropped passes that kill drives. 

Coaching

Seth Littrell and Bodie Reeder have put up some prolific offenses in their time. Dana Holgerson has done so as well, but at more places and as the head coach. He has produced at Texas Tech, Houston, Oklahoma State, WVU — as coordinator and HC — and now at Houston as the head man. He has seen a ton and found ways to produce offense and scores.

All that is to say that we have to respect his ability to get offense from Clayton Tune.

Reffett’s group is getting more reputations but has faced two poor offenses with less-than-impressive schemers coaching them. Cal has not scored well in any game this season and UTSA has had offensive challenges for the last three seasons. That is to say we will see more of the defense that was burned by SMU than the one that has only allowed six points in the last seven quarters. 

The scheme is sound, however, and lessons have been learned.

MGN eBook Season Prediction: L 38-41 
MGN Prediction Today: W 31-24