North Texas vs UTSA 10.29.16 Preview

This is a secret rivalry. Those skeptical fans like to say something similar to “I do not think they are a rival but if there is any team I want to beat, it is [UTSA/UNT]”. I ask you, what am I supposed to make of that? While I cannot force rivalry-like feelings on you, I can explain my own.

There were very few worse sports feelings than the sick feeling in my stomach I felt walking out of Apogee in November 2013. North Texas was poised to appear in the CUSA Championship game if they won out (they eventually blew out Tulsa) and came out slowly against UTSA on that cold day at Apogee.

North Texas 13 UTSA 21: Post Mortem

I created a team page for UTSA on MGN, joining SMU as the only two so far.

Preparation

For North Texas the biggest danger is the squad feeling like they have already accomplished something before, you know, actually having done so. The double-digit point spreads North Texas has beaten the last two weeks put NT in a position to have nothing to lose. The mental preparation during the week is different against a favorite than it is vs a bad team. That the team knew that prep for Army would require good practice and all the attention is concerning, because UTSA is easier to prep for. Preparing the players is why we pay these coaches so much. For his part, Seth Littrell has said that the team has focused every week after the Florida game, and play hard every game.

Still, I am concerned because North Texas has already exceeded the majority of pundit’s predictions. There are two ways to play this and I hope they go the better one. Those two ways: (1) Playing with house money, NT continues the run because they play with the freedom of a team unfettered by expectations; (2) Feeling themselves, they do not practice or play with the hunger and disciplined that got them to this win total.

Predictions

Line: North Texas +3.5 as of this writing.
SRS: North Texas #89 UTSA #101
S&P+: North Texas win probability 56%, Score prediction: #94 NT 29.0 – 26.5 #110 UTSA
ESPN FPI: North Texas #109 UTSA #116, NT win probability 49.2%
Sagarin: #120 North Texas 27.30 – 25.21 #134 UTSA
FEI: Score prediction #77 North Texas 27-26 #81 UTSA
Massey: Score prediction #120 North Texas 26 – 28 #143 UTSA

Six advanced stats and one Vegas line tell us that this is difficult to pick. If we interpret the SRS rankings as higher-wins, North Texas takes four out of these seven and all by a couple of percentage points or actual points. That Massey and ESPN rank NT higher but give the nod to UTSA is just a matter of acknowledging UTSA’s better play at home. Even in their poor home games against UTEP and the opener vs an FCS team, they played much better than on the road against Colorado State and Rice. See the tables below for the totals in those.

UTSA

The Runners’ new head coach Frank Wilson has done two things that have caught my attention. The first is make waves in recruiting. While some of those major signings have since been arrested, or injured, they made the kind of initial splash that means NT coaches will have to take the Wilson staff seriously. UTSA may not get better through scheme or coaching but amassing talent in a conference like this might be enough to challenge for a division title every four years.

The second thing is choosing to go with a pro-style offense. Let me note here that I think you can win with any offensive philosophy at any level provided you get buy in, coach it well, and acquire the players that are likely to thrive in your system. What is interesting is that Frank Wilson is essentially going with the offense that Les Miles was fired for sticking with, and that Dan McCarney failed to recruit to. As I mentioned, under the right circumstances Wilson can have a lot of success, but his recruitment of spread QBs (Schertz Clemons’ Frank Harris) raises eyebrows.

Against Arizona State, UTSA went to more of their spread looks and had much more success than in the previous weeks. Still, formations and alignments do not an offense make. UTSA’s philosophy is running the ball to set up Dalton Sturm passes to Josh Stewart and Kerry Thomas. Stewart is big, tall, fast, and has averaged 23 yards per reception. He has been targeted 15.2% of the time and is averaging 11.9 yards per target and a 50% catch rate.

The good news for the NT defense, is that through this week, Dalton Sturm has been sacked the fifth most in the nation. So this game could very well come down to which defense is getting pressure on which oft-sacked QB. Yes, you see Mason Fine at number two on that list with 25 sacks taken. That both mobile QBs are sacked so often tells you a lot about their respective offensive lines. For NT — which we will discuss in a bit — the line built to run block has not pass protected well. For UTSA, it has meant some poor run games against even poor defense.

But again, it is really easy for even we fans to look at that -1 yard rush game and the 125 against Rice and think NT’s defense will bottle up the run. Well, the 339 against Southern Miss, in which Jarveon Williams and Jalen Rhodes tallied 299 by themselves, including two 80+ yarders is concerning. NT has not given up big runs of late, but it can happen.

The … key to defending UTSA: stop the run on first, and second, and contain Dalton Sturm on third.

Jarveon Williams is very similar to our own Jeff Wilson. He makes plays once he hits the second level, using his speed and elusiveness to turn 5-yard gains into TDs. His Highlight Yards per Opp are 6.4 but the Opportunity Rate is only 30%. Again, his line is not doing the greatest job, but enough to allow playmakers to make enough plays.

Dalton Sturm is shifty, avoids sacks by escaping pressure and finding targets. We have mentioned the NT Defense’s problems with these kinds of QBs, but again, that is not an unusual thing. Mobile QBs are killer because of their versatility. The key here is to wrap him up when our LBs get hands on him. The worst case scenario is that he does something like Matt Davis’ 3rd-and-45 conversion to Courtland Sutton. Ironically, that may have been the best thing to happen to this defense since, as they have been ridiculously good in the time since. (Our DB Havoc Rate is 7.9% vs a national average of 6.5%, good for 28th in the nation.)

The ridiculously easy to say, but hard to accomplish key to defending UTSA: stop the run on first, and second, and contain Dalton Sturm on third.

North Texas is good (ranked 50) at first down, great at second (9th) and awful on third (127). Keep an eye out for this.

UTSA Offense

Date Opponent Surface Result Rush Yards Pass Yards Plays Total Yards Yards/Play
09/03/16 Alabama St. Turf W 26-13 162 287 67 449 6.70
09/10/16 @ Colorado St. Turf L 14-23 -1 236 64 235 3.67
09/16/16 Arizona St. Turf L 28-32 93 229 67 322 4.81
09/24/16 @ Old Dominion Turf L 19-33 131 211 69 342 4.96
10/08/16 Southern Miss. Turf W 55-32 339 193 47 532 11.32
10/15/16 @ Rice Turf W 14-13 125 209 63 334 5.30
10/22/16 UTEP Turf L 49-52 278 247 89 525 5.90
Totals 1127 1612 466 2739 5.88

Defensively, UTSA stands out in the 4th quarter. It is mostly a function of a good portion of their games being wrapped up long before the final stanza. Colorado State, for example, did not need much beyond their 20 first half points to put UTSA away. Rice and UTSA battled in an ugly game that featured multiple missed kicks and a 14-13 scoreline. Whatever the case, these are the facts. For what it is worth, NT’s offense is slightly better in the fourth than in the third. Same with the second and first. NT’s offense starts slow and improves.

The Mean Green offense has been slowly getting better, but is inconsistent. Advanced stats will not tell us much more than our eyes have seen in this case. We know NT gets behind schedule and relies on big third down conversions to Thaddeous Thompson, or big runs from Jeff Wilson. It is known. The question then is, Can We Run Against Them?

The answer: Yes, mostly.

Army was the second best run defense we faced. NT gashed them after sticking with it in the second half. While MTSU held Jeff Wilson, NT has had consecutive weeks of great run performances and a bye in between to work out the kinks of the scheme. UTSA can be tough against the run, but they are nowhere near as good as Army. The caveat here is if the offensive line plays to its run game potential, and the staff does not get pass happy unnecessarily.

Mason Fine had success against Army’s secondary because of the poor weather conditions 1 He also played poorly in part because of those conditions. This weekend’s game will be under perfect 72-degree conditions at the Alamodome. My hope and expectation is that we will see the improving Mason Fine of the MTSU/Marshall weeks. Army’s defense is more disciplined than UTSA’s but there will not be a slippery field causing DBs to fall. 2

UTSA’s DBs are solid as far as the conference goes, but have been lit up by Arizona State in their comeback, Southern Miss in their attempted comeback, and even UTEP. If you have watched a UTSA game you have seen the opponents running free often. The bad news, is that our offense is one of the worst they will have faced.

UTSA Defense

Date Opponent Surface Result Rush Yards Pass Yards Plays Total Yards Yards/Play
09/03/16 Alabama St. Turf W 26-13 145 142 60 287 4.78
09/10/16 @ Colorado St. Turf L 14-23 220 108 70 328 4.69
09/16/16 Arizona St. Turf L 28-32 205 264 79 469 5.94
09/24/16 @ Old Dominion Turf L 19-33 238 207 80 445 5.56
10/08/16 Southern Miss. Turf W 55-32 179 378 89 557 6.26
10/15/16 @ Rice Turf W 14-13 114 237 69 351 5.09
10/22/16 UTEP Turf L 49-52 159 285 62 444 7.16
Totals 1260 1621 509 2881 5.66

North Texas

This offense needs Jeff Wilson to have himself an all-time North Texas season the rest of the way to make a bowl game and even think about contending for the CUSA West division. It is not reasonably probable, but it is possible.

Every team the rest of the way knows this, however. But we know they know and can do something about it. Last week the staff tried to take advantage of the pass opportunities, but used up most of their limited plays going away from the main guy. Early, heavy doses of the outside and inside zone we run should be the order of the day. Mason Fine runs and or play action should follow that. It is not pretty but it should be effective.

The great thing about this offense is that in it’s simplicity and reliance on execution, it cannot really be out schemed.3 If the UTSA defense tries to over-pursue, there should be giant cutback lanes for Wilson to dance through. If they try to stunt and scrape, there will be power and counter options to hit them with. And of course, some timely Mason Fine runs.

Of course this offense has a way of hurting itself. Holdings, poor pass protection, drops, and bad passes have all killed once-promising drives. Hell even some bad play calling has hurt this squad. That could derail anything.

The pass game should be better. The cold and Army’s defense killed the rhythm and any sense of crispness last week, but the conditions should make things easy this weekend. Remember even Andy McNulty passed well in the Dome. While I cannot pick Jeff Wilson to run for 10ypc again, the relative improvement of the pass game (more than 118 yards) should make up the difference and allow some scores. There will not be the blustery wind that moved Trevor Moore’s kicks, either. So there should be some scoring. Even the fact that UTSA runs as similar defensive scheme should help things. The experience against a multi-attacking front might make things a bit easier.

Defensively, the challenge will again be in stopping Dalton Sturm on third downs. He can scramble, he can find guys. He also throws into coverage. Interceptions are slightly more reproducible than fumble recoveries, and NT had grabbed an INT in every game this season, but can we predict yet another?

Yes, because this is just a blog and I can do things like that.

There is no such thing as momentum in football, but there is a confidence and belief. The 2015 North Texas team did not have either on both sizes of the ball, but this one does. The freedom that comes from confidence in the scheme, and the belief that good things will happen is infectious, and makes everyone less hesitant.

As long as the staff can control that vibe and channel it toward keeping up the preparation and focus that has produced the defensive gems of the last three game weeks (for the most part), NT should play extremely well. UTSA’s offense is not as multiple and varied as it was in 2013, when the fakes, motion, and movement made that great defense think instead of react.

I feel good about their chances even though the week after playing an option team is usually tough. North Texas was the squad that handed out the beatings, though, so that should not apply physically. We have already addressed the mental part. Well except the part where this is a huge game. NT is only a slight underdog, but this is such a winnable game that a poor performance cannot be hand waived away. Certainly the guys know their bowl chances are improved if they get a win in SA in front of what should be a large contingent of traveling Mean Green fans. They know those bowl chances will be hurt by losing right when people are paying attention.

This week there have been three or four stories extolling the turnaround and predicting bowl games.

This are the kinds of problems a good program wants. Last year’s Halloween matchup had only the drama of a winless season hanging over Mike Canales, the interim coach. That our terrible squad was able to pull of that lone win against the Runners was just more weirdness in a series that has seen no game margin be greater than 8 points.

Recent Results:

Date Time Location Result Att Recaps
Nov 23 2013 2:30 Apogee L 21-13 19,335 UTSA Post Mortem
Nov 29 2014 11:00 am Alamodome L 27-34 24,012 It’s Over
Oct 31 2015 6:00 pm Apogee W 30-23 10,292 Revenge

That first game was decided as Derek Thompson threw an INT as the game expired. In that second game, Zac Whitfield muffed a punt that UTSA recovered to end the game. Last year NT stopped UTSA on the final drive that could have tied the game. It was the only game where NT’s defense got pressure on the QB.

Random things as I finish this post up: NT is 0-1 as the favorite in this series. UTSA is 1-1. UTSA is 1-0 at home in this series, while NT is 1-1. UTSA has outgained NT in every game in this series (UTSA: 458, 452, 477, NT: 334, 437, 371). Jeff Wilson is averaging 116 per game against UTSA, and scored his only touchdown of the season against them in 2015.


  1. Those floating passes should have been picked off. 
  2. I write this knowing perfectly well that Rice’s defensive backs fell down on the drive that saved the season.. Rice Stadium has beautiful turf. Falling can happen and I would rather be lucky than good any day of the week. Please, UTSA dudes, Fall. 
  3. I am exaggerating here. Of course every scheme can be out schemed in the micro sense. But there is no pressure package that has stopped an Air Raid with consistency, like the zone blitz did the Run n Shoot.