Weekend sports are diversions. For players and spectators, the sporting games at the week’s end were a way do distract from the weekly grind of life and bring a little joy and fun to the community. Over a hundred years, it has become big business and a cultural megaforce. Seth Littrell is one of the highest paid public figures in the state. And all he does is coach football!
It is crazy to consider and yet perfectly reasonable as we value the game and the distraction so much. We care so hard so having a coach paid well makes sense. We wan the Mean Green to do great things so we can feel good feelings on Saturdays. So we pay, and we donate and we invest our time and love.
It remains a distraction and diversion, just a sophisticated one.
This week (tonight) North Texas faces UAB, reigning division and league champion and something like the standard of success. They boast a lot of super seniors, a defense that will hit and challenge NT’s abilities, and an offense with a lot of physicality and enough passing and playmakers to take advantage of poor concentration. In short, they are a good team and well-built.
The Blazers under head coach Bill Clark have been built around a punishing run game. Gone is Spencer Brown, back are McBride, Brown, and Stanley. I do not know if I would say any one of them is a one-for-one replacement for Spencer Brown, but all are solid backs who are difficult to bring down. Telfort, Ragland, Smith Jr, Trehern, Wells are all experienced, quality lineman that usually do great work against teams not in the P5.
The quarterback Tyler Johnston III is someone who can get out and run a bit, and throw it when the defense is clearly second-best. He’ll throw in the 50% range, and is good for the high 200 yard passing mark. He’ll throw some interceptions, but the real danger is that he will find his weapons when it matters. In the Rice/Marshall games last year he found his guys in clutch situations and that won them the title.
Trea Shropshire was huge in the title game, (5 for 180 and 1 TD) but has otherwise been unremarkable statistically speaking. That isn’t to say he cannot make plays, but that this set of QBs is only going to find him in certain situations. Meaningful catches > empty calories.
There will be lots of big sets to deal with, and the classic situation is that NT’s defense is worn down late and cannot stop a powerful run game that is protecting a lead, or driving for a field goal or something . The last two wins were by UAB and they came in close ones.
North Texas’ defense was outstanding for about three quarters against SMU. They were not perfect, but fought, and forced turnovers. They got to the QB, and that forced him to make mistakes. Their rhythm was off and that gave the offense a chance. Compared to the previous two times facing SMU, and all of last year, it was a remarkable turnaround. Unfortunately that was not the case in the fourth quarter. The squad was rocked, got gashed, and blew some coverages.
This defense will not be facing many complicated schemes, but just good physical play. They will need to shake off blocks and make tackles. That kind of thing is dirty work, and everyone will be asked to do their part for the full 60 minutes.
Game Plan: Stack the deck and force Tyler Johnston III to use his arm.
Best case scenario: North Texas bottles up the run and the shame of getting murdered by Georgia last week seems into the confidence in this one, for UAB. NT continues the aggression and gets the offense some short fields.
Jace Ruder had a solid game last week. The offense was poor, however, and someone in the wide receiver room not named Roderick Burns has to step up and take full advantage of the opportunities that are there. Burns is catching any and everything but that will quickly be snuffed out by opposing defenses if he is not complimented by the rest of his depth chart.
We expected Deonte Simpson to be a big part of things, but he is slowly making his way back. The same with Jyaire Shorter. Tommy Bush was listed (again) on the depth chart but after being helped off the field I don’t know that he will be playing for a while. Littrell likes to keep all injury news close to the vest so we do not know for sure.
The offense will not change much even with those guys out. That can be a problem, but it is the nature of the system. Littrell and company are less classic Air Raid and more Baylor-style throw-it-vertical-and-power-run-at-speed. Deandre Torrey was banged up after the SMU game and he is the only home-run threat right now. Johnson and Ragsdale are solid, but play more of a bully-ball game than sprinting into open space. The problem against SMU’s weaker defense was that NT was bottled up in short-yardage and inconsistent when it came to throwing the ball.
Snapping the ball from the veteran center Mose was a source of tension. He fired a couple over the head of Ruder and those were terrible drive-killers. Three were near-fumbles and there were a couple of snap-infractions that were messing up the rhythm. It was and continues to be a problem.
Last week was a blown opportunity to steal a win. This offense is a lot of empty yards right now — 500+ vs SMU with only 12 points — and that is a problem. Scoring in the red zone is tough for obvious reasons and teams that can get push on the line have more success than those that do not. NT is poor-to-quite-poor in getting short yardage runs. They do not execute in tight spaces well enough to throw it for conversations, either. It is a problem, and one that will need to solved in this one and later games if the team will have any meaningful success this season.
Game Plan: Get the ball out quickly to playmakers like Torrey (if he is good to go) and Burns. This will build some rhythm for Ruder, who was nice as the game continued, and keep the UAB defense from tee-ing off on him.
Best case scenario: Those almost-there passes last week land softly in the hands of Shorter and company and NT is able to score without having to reach deep into the playbook.
Biggest Concern: Offense
There is talent — Ruder, et al — but we have not seen this combination of players produce good things. The first week there were points and yards but not at the level we would expect of the talent and coaching. Against SMU it was evidence that the jump in quality of competition was telling. UAB is a good defensive team and outside of a Marshall and maybe UTSA, the best that NT will see the rest of the way (or could possibly see). Littrell has gone away from the classic Mike Leach offense but seemingly every Leach-related coach has a slow start to the year before turning it on later. It is something to do with building rhythm in the system which is huge and necessary.
I was planning to pen this midweek or so, so I didn’t have full-on green fever but life and its various responsibilities prevented that. I am much more confident against UAB than I was vs SMU for a couple of reasons: UAB looked poor vs Jacksonville St (who beat FSU so maybe that’s not so weird) and then got absolutely rocked by Georgia. We can surprise that they have a lot of pride and will bounce back. Consider, however, that a lot of these guys already have won a league title. The next step was to come back and compete nationally and open up the new stadium while defending the league title.
Coming out slowly and getting the brakes beat off can kill the motivation and confidence. They may want to take it all out on UNT but if they struggle a bit to start? If they are not quite ready for Phill Bennett’s guys? If Jace Ruder hits Jyaire Shorter on a go-route for six early and they have to open up the offense while TJIII looks shaky? What then?
Upset time: NT 30 UAB 28