Seth Littrell wearing a mask improperly

North Texas vs Southern Miss 2020

North Texas cancelled the Houston game because one position group had or came in contact with someone who had COVID-19. It is a reminder that this season is played during a pandemic and every game that is played is an accomplishment of some note.

From a footballing perspective, we have other concerns. North Texas struggled to defend and played poorly vs SMU. Instead of being challenged at Houston against hungry Cougar team eager to play its first game, North Texas faces an opponent in Southern Miss experiencing attrition and some turmoil. The Golden Eagles are coming off a 66-24 loss to Tulane. The temporary head coach apologized publicly for it and things do not look good. There is still talent to be concerned with, but this is not a well-oiled machine like SMU, nor is it even as dangerous a group as the team that blew out NT last year in Hattiesburg.

One of the big concerns is that Seth Littrell thinks a mask is supposed to be worn as a costume beard.

Seth Littrell wearing a mask improperly
Not How To Wear A Mask, Seth

It has been two weeks since NT was embarrassed by the Ponies and the frustration bubbled up to the surface for me while re-watching some moments and taking some clips from the broadcast. I imagine there was even more head shaking from Seth Littrell.

Me, too.

There was a lot to not like but the problems remain the same. The defense is struggling to absorb the scheme, and the offense is self-destructing. Neither are unsalvageable but it takes repetitions. Game reps, not practice reps. Beyond that NT (and everyone) has had a COVID-19 crisis, so that has limited everything. We may be in for more learning on the job.

Let us begin with a little look back, and begin by discussing about the most concerning aspect of the NT team: the defense.

NT Defense vs USM Offense

There was little to like overall vs SMU. The defense allowed 65 points and 700+ yards. Why? That is the real question. Was the scheme silly? Was the talent that outmatched? Were they “not ready to play” as the old uncle-sitting-on-the-couch adage attests?

Well, there were injuries and mistakes and contact tracing and it combined to cause NT’s defense to be light a few players but mistakes were made across the board by even the guys that played.

Busted Coverage

The above was the blown coverage in the first quarter that caused NT to get highlight reel’d. The corner is supposed to take the out-route from “#2” 1. The other defender should have dropped deeper to undercut that route as well. That means two busted that coverage.

Before that, there was this:

Busted Coverage

That above is a Pony getting lose. This came with the full deck in the secondary, and there is very little blame to apportion to the depth chart here.

Neither of these were the backups or caused by the backups making obvious mistakes. Could the linebackers have diagnosed the play action quicker and made heroic plays? Sure. Was that the reason for the gain? No.

We know NT can make plays. Check this out:

Good rotation on WR Screen

But then later when it was to Roberson:

Can’t Stop 2 vs 3

Just a second’s hesitation from Sanders caused Roberson to be in space and simply use his superior speed to score.

While depressing in the moment, this should offer us some glimmer of hope. This is the kind of thing that can be fixed. It requires a bit of film room study and practice repetitions and the next time the defense faces these scenarios, we should see an NT defender in the vicinity of the player catching the pass.

The other aspect of defensive football is Winning Your One On One Battles. NT often did not do that often enough to make an impact.

In this screenshot SMU reads the end man while doing a zone blocking scheme 2. Optioning the End allows the rest of the line to get good double blocks on the Nose and the other End McCrae. The center (77) gets a hand on the backup linebacker Howell when he shoots the gap. That and the relative slow attack means he doesn’t affect the run by Bentley (26).

Out wide, the linebacker is blocked long enough that he has to chase the play. The corner makes the force-out seven or eight yards down the field.

Let us recap: Larry Nixon III, the SAM linebacker was well-blocked by the WR. The safety to that side, Jaxon Gibbs, made the read and came up, but a little too late.

No touches until second level

Was anyone dominated here? No. Did anyone make a mistake? No. Did anyone make a play? Nope. In the past NT has had safeties that would diagnose this play, fly up and make a tackle at 2-yards. We have had linebackers that would fly through the gap and make a loss at -2 yards.

No one did here, and this was one complaint I had about the defense — it was not getting a hand on the runners until the second or third level.

When you play with three down lineman, you want your big guys to absorb the doubles and allow the linebackers and second-level guys to make plays. Here, no one broke gap integrity (from my view), they just got blocked too well. 3.

No lie: the very next play Bentley runs and is not touched until Sanders tackles him at 15 yards. The momentum carries him three more yards or so.

If NT is going to show improvement it will be because the defensive line gets more and better pressure on runs and passes, and the linebackers and safeties make quicker (and accurate) reads and attack.

Everyone needs to be more physical, making the tackle on first touch, and swarming to the ball. We saw little of that. NT was getting pushed back, the first man to the ball did not always make the tackle, and there were few NT swarms to the ball.

Let’s look at this week’s starters, according to the game notes.

PositionNoNameClassStarts (this year)
END93Caleb ColvinRsSR2/2
NOSE97Dion NovilSr2/2
END2Davontae McCraeRsSo2/2
SAM14Kevin WoodSo1/2
WILL5Tyreke DavisSr1/2
MIKE23KD DavisJr1/2
FS11Cam JohnsonSr2/2
LC17DeShawn GaddieSo2/2
HAWK10Makyle SandersSr2/2
BS22Keelan CrosbySo2/2
RC24Quinn WhitlockRsJr2/2
Starters

USM is bringing some talent — WR Tim Jones is good. He’s fast and can make plays.

QB Jack Abraham is accurate, but will turn the ball over. USM usually has talent, but has lost a lot of players to transfer this season. They were destroyed by Tulane at home last week mostly because the defense could not stop that Green Wave offense.

Last year Jack Abraham threw for 400+ and three scores as USM rolled in the second half. Mason Fine was stifled and NT limped to a 45-27 loss. USM has not won in Denton since 2014.

The head coach is Scotty Walden, the 30-year old interim coach who was the co-offensive coordinators. He’s a bright guy, but may be in over his head coaching this thing as it is veering off the rails.

This Southern Miss team reminds me of Houston Baptist in that they have the tools to put up numbers, but maybe not every tool they need to blow NT out or win going away — at least offensively. There is a lot to like here, but after losing a heartbreaker (that ESPNer to Tech by 1-point) and getting ripped by Tulane, if things start to waver for this offense, NT might be okay.

Worst case scenario is that NT allows some early quick scores and puts pressure on the young QBs to make plays.

NT Offense vs USM Defense

Southern Miss runs a 4-2-5/hybrid scheme and has for a while. NT is familiar with it as many squads have something like this in this league. Ky’el Hemby is the leader of the defense, a big safety who has excelled in this system. The defense lost a lot of talent and is relying on some JUCO transfers. Last week vs Tulane’s spread option things got out of hand.

NT can run the ball, but it is not a Tulane-style of offense. USM will be happy to see something normal like the Littrell Raid. NT has moved the ball well in two games this season, and the biggest issues are self-inflicted.

NT killed drives early vs SMU by committing penalties, or making errors. False starts drive-killers. NT killed three early drives with terrible false starts that killed the tempo and moved the team off down-and-distance schedule.

Ugh

We’ve written and discussed (on the podcast) our issue with the dual-QB system, so we will not rehash that again. Jason Bean did not see the field as well as Aune did at times, but Aune was not as good as he could be.

Here is that interception.

Bad interception

This ball needs to go to the far corner of the endzone. This is that proverbial “throw it where only your guy can get it”. While it is a good general rule to throw it up and “let your guy go make a play”, you have to know your teammate’s strengths and weaknesses. Jaelon Darden is good, but he is not Randy Moss. You do not throw jump balls to him. No, you throw it to him in space and let him make a play.

Either do not make this throw, throw it to the corner, or throw it away. Or find the third option.

Let us look at a non-interception that is just as much of a drive-killer.

Juuuust a bit outside.

This has got to be a catchable ball to Shorter, who has two steps on his guy. The greats put this in stride, the good, put this where he can catch it. Everyone else it is hit or miss.

NT wants to stretch the field and have their playmakers make plays. This is part of it. Sometimes you just have to do your job better. There is no magic play call or scheme that will make Shorter more open than he was. Aune has got to make that throw. I wrote something similar about Bean missing a throw that was similar but we will stick with the Aune video here as he threw the most passes.

Whoever is the QB has got to get in rhythm quickly and stay calm. The Littrell game plan to “play whoever has the hot hand” means you have to see who has the hot hand. That does not allow the starter to play with a clear mind and execute.

Overall

This game could go either way in any extreme. North Texas is coming off a quarantine and USM just got humiliated against a rival (hey, sounds familiar). Both have enough offensive firepower to put up numbers, but both have enough holes to either self-destruct or allow 60-points to halfway decent opposition.

Give me NT in a close one, 41-38.

Notes

  • Oscar Adaway had a play where he bear-crawled with the ball and the refs didn’t call him down. NT went with quick tempo and got the first down.
  • I shook my head in frustration many times watching this again.

  1. That is the number 2 receiver counting from outside in

  2. Thus the name “zone read”

  3. Nixon even moves inside to force the bounce from Bentley outside.