It is rivalry week, no matter what the message board people say. There are many flavors of rival, and they do not all look like the Iron Bowl. In CUSA, this is what it looks like: two struggling teams with relatively small fanbases (compared to the P5 programs) going at each other.
Long time NT fans will remember 2013, when UTSA came into Apogee and ended the home win streak, ended the chance for a CUSA title game appearance for a really good team, and made everyone very disappointed on a cold day in Denton.
The players on that team still are upset about it. The players on UTSA still like to brag about it. Those are the seeds of a rivalry. Snowflakes are formed by microscopic dust particles and so we can build something fun out of something as small as that game.
That these two programs come into this week with pride a bit wounded is secondary to the game. Imagine what happens if NT were to lose to this team?
That is the storyline coming into this one. The defense is feeling good after last week, with some reason to feel that way. Littrell at his weekly conference:
But I think we learned a lot about this team with the way the fought and grinded on the road against a very good Cal team … Overall I was really proud of the fight, determination and resilience our team showed. They just battled out and continued to come back and play a physical game. I think there’s a lot to be learned and we can definitely grow from an experience like that.”
Yes, that is a lot of words that say, essentially, “moral victory.”
UTSA’s head coach Frank Wilson basically said the same about his team’s loss to Army:
They saw (Army) in a bowl game, they saw (Army) a week ago vs. Michigan. They watched (Army) play Oklahoma. They know that they were a worthy team that played well against top-10 teams in the country and knew that they had opportunities to be in position to win. There was not the dejection. Keep on hammering guys, we are that close.
For what it is worth, both coaches quoted the record (3-3) and said it is a rivalry.
“It is a rivalry. I don’t think we’ve had a game decided by more than seven points.
Seth Littrell: ““This is definitely our rivalry game. You look at the past three opportunities this group has gotten against this team, it’s been a battle.”
So we have a rivalry, and two teams smarting from 1-2 starts looking for momentum and both looking at all of their goals in front of them. Wilson likened the non-conference schedule to pre-season NFL. Seth Littrell said that conference play is the “first chance to accomplish our goal”.
The Opponent: UTSA
The Roadrunners are 3-3 lifetime against North Texas They started out the series with that gut-punch win at Apogee. People forget that Derek Thompson led NT down inside the red zone and was two plays away from tying the game late.
NT lost at the Alamodome the next season, blowing a chance at a game winning drive after a muffed punt.
The next season was an awful one for NT, but the lone win came at the Runners’ expense and there was posing with locked gates (oh, crazy Chico).
This will be Mason Fine’s fourth UTSA game and he is so far 2-1. The first one was a loss that was closer than the score indicates. NT had a ton of turnovers, mostly because of a freshman Mason Fine, but he did bust out an 80-yarder on the ground.
UTSA comes into town boasting a talented quarterback that NT wanted. Frank Harris is mobile, and is accurate but still learning the job after three seasons recovering from various injuries.
The defense is still talented, but there is no Pete Golding coordinating them any more.
UTSA plays a multiple 4-2-5 defense, as they have for pretty much their entire history. They boast good defensive lineman and that spells trouble for NT usually. The last few years UTSA has been able to at least hit Mason Fine and mess up the offense.
We will see them go two or three deep along the line with names like Eric Banks – -the DE in the old Marcus Davenport spot. The DT spot has guys that go 300lbs in Baker, Haynes, Newton, and Matterson. The DE spots are quick and mobile — Danzler, Carter-Mclin, Wise, Henry, Hicks.
The two linebackers do not have the name or the hype as did their former LB with the hair and the NT recruiting story, but they are experienced.
The secondary is experienced, but has some youth.
Baylor was able to truck this team over, but it is hard to blame UTSA when apparently the Bears are monsters. They are averaging 59 points per game. Army exploded late against this UTSA team, but it is difficult to gauge any game against the Black Knights.
Incarnate Word looked like they were going to give UTSA a game but were flustered early and that explosive offense was held in check all game.
NT will probably be without Rico Bussey, and the way things are looking that means Mason Fine will need some help from a robust run game. Good thing that Tre Siggers is in the game to bring some physicality. Frank Wilson said we are a spread team, and that is true. He means that we do not look to the pass as our primary means — and while we have a good QB we do not trust our pass game as a go-to.
NT’s Z-wide receiver Deion Hair-Griffin is talented, but he is also still looking for some production out there. He has been targeted 13 times by Mason Fine and grabbed only 3 passes for 36 yards.
Our leading yards per target man is Jason Pirtle, with 22. But he has been absent since his big game vs ACU. The TEs have not been a part of the game plan since. Bussey is at 15 yards per target, and beyond that it is Jyaire Shorter and Jaelon Darden with 8, and 7.
Not much doing there. Darden is likely going to be the focus, as he can take it to the house, and one of Shorter, White, and DHG need to step up and get 8-10 catches for 80-100 yards.
Shorter seems to be built for the role, but he dropped a big TD against Cal, and later a couple of tough opportunities. DHG is explosive, but again, lots of targets and no production.
Reeder and Littrell like his speed to take the top off the defense, but if he is not getting the ball?
Best case scenario: North Texas is able to move the ball with the run game and some quality completions to Shorter/Darden/Lawrence.
Worst case scenario: More penalties and drops and NT is turning the ball over and needing big TDs late.
It all starts with the quarterback. This is cliché in 2019 but very true with this team. Frank Harris can do some D’Eriq King-type things. He can escape the pocket and take it to the house. UIW didn’t have the foot speed on defense to close him down in space. He was able to extend the play and find his options to move the chains.
Baylor shut him down through talent and scheme. They forced him to sit back and pick out options and he was unable to do so. The ideal UTSA possession uses RB Sincere McCormick and Frank Harris as a one-two punch with bubble screens and the occasional downfield shot as constraint plays when the defense creeps up.
NT likes to bring pressure and loves a QB that will drop to a spot. NT faced a QB that liked to escape the pocket in Cal’s Chase Garber and we likely will not see too much of a different game plan in the first quarter. NT shut down Cal for three quarters and was able to wrap up Garber after allowing some big runs early.
Harris is more explosive than Garber, but maybe not as polished as a passer just yet.
McCormick is quick and explosive, and we have already seen NT make mistakes in gap assignments. This site and Seth Littrell agree on one thing however: The defense just needs more time and they will gel.
The mistake this unit have made are ones from inexperience and youth. Tyreke and KD Davis have talent and fly around at the LB spot. Tyreke was the nickel safety last year, and has enough in coverage that NT can bring some flexibility to their looks.
NT has proven thus far that you cannot simply line up and lean on this group, and that there is enough speed on the field that you cannot try to just run around it. The best bet? Well, take advantage of NT corners Nick Harvey and Cam Johnson as they are on islands out there.
Again, Frank Harris can throw the ball, is he Tom Brady just yet? Nah. Make him stand tall in the pocket and think about the closing pressure and deliver on his third read. Do not let him run to his left and find guys on the run.
The UTSA O-Line is all big and tall. NT so far has seen their pass-rush fall down on the initial push, and that may be a concern.
TE Carlos Strickland is 6’4″ 230 lbs and has 10 catches on 16 targets for 75 yards and a score. He is something of a safety blanket. Blaze Moorhead is the shifty slot receiver and leading pass-catcher with 11 on 12 targets for just 58 yards. Tykee Ogle-Kellogg is a big 6’4″ 210 lb WR with 8 targets.
The backs have 14 grabs between them, as safety valves and on designed stuff.
Best case scenario: NT is able to continue the three-quarter run and bottle up an offense with about two really good options and a handful of maybes.
Worst case scenario: Frank Harris escapes contain and makes plays with his feet or finds playmakers on 3rd down to extend drives.
Seth Littrell has had the clear better team once, the home field advantage once with a couple of evenly matched teams, and the second best team once. He is 2-1 in that span against UTSA.
North Texas has been down 20 at the end of the first quarter in the last two games. Littrell has lots of good words about how and why that happened, and his plan for addressing it.
NT has the better, and deeper team in this matchup and the home field advantage. NT needs about 30-40 points per game from its offense to make sure that things are not dire, as the defense is still gelling.
Right now, the offense is still struggling while the defense looked good last week for three quarters. The good news is that Tre Siggers looks to have taken the top job at tailback with DeAndre Torrey being the changeup.
Jyaire Shorter has the talent to be a quality CUSA WR, and Jaelon Darden can take a short pass for a score from anywhere on the field.
Whatever happens in this game is what this team will be. Teams do not typically get too much better or worse beyond week four. The defense will be the exception, as they grow into their roles, but that will only be so much.
CUSA is having a down year and this thing is ripe for winning. It all starts this week, and Seth Littrell is charged with getting his program started right.
MGN e-book Preview Prediction: NT W 38-17
MGN Prediction Today: NT W 34-17