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NT Clinches Title Game Berth, Squeaks Out Win vs Rice 21-17

“But of that day and hour knoweth no man”

Matthew 24:36

The quote is very much not about football, but has universal application because the sentiment is similar. No matter how much you care and think and read the signs and plan and prepare, you just don’t know when your time will be called. Take old Bernardo Rodriguez, punter. He spends his time thinking about catching the snap, taking his steps, and executing a great punt. He has a punt that goes this way, and that, and is high, and is low.

He does not work on one-handed catches running backward. Well, not as his primary gig.

You never know when you will be put in the spotlight. You never know when it will be your time to shine — good or bad. Rodriguez one-handed that snap and just might have made the play of the game just because of its importance and how it all hung in the balance.

This game was important. North Texas had an opportunity to clinch 2nd place and in so doing earn a spot as the visiting team in the CUSA championship game. WKU had already snuck away from Florida with a win in OT thanks to a 2-point conversion on their turn. North Texas entered Senior Day as 14-point favorites. Rice needed a win to earn a bowl berth, but had dropped two straight in blowout fashion to WKU and UTSA. For many reasons we expected NT to win this more handily than they did. Instead we were “treated” to a back-and-forth slugfest that saw the Owls run game look formidable and the NT offense look impotent.

How, did North Texas pull this off? Well they got points when it mattered, and stops throughout the game. NT went down 17-14 and drove 75-yards on 6 runs (for 69 yards) and scored on an Aune pass to Ragsdale. That put Aune at 31 for the year, equal with the great Mason Fine’s 2017 season. That year was the last time NT had been to the title game.

NT’s defense forced a Rice punt, and North Texas’ offense scored on an Aune pass … that was called back for holding. The next play was a run for nothing, and then came Rodriguez’s punt. Rice was pinned back but had plenty of time — 4:43 left — and started their campaign. NT pinned them back at 3rd and 15 when the Rice center put the snap low. Freshman QB AJ Padgett, a guy who put up 229 yards and a score, did his best to scoop the ball up and try to stay ‘live’. The ref ruled him down, but replays showed that was probably very wrong. There was no way to correct this and NT was lucky, rather than good. I am not complaining. On 4th and 23, KD “Shark” Davis” intercepted the pass. NT kneeled it out and the support staff readied their ticket emails to supporters.

Lets do this recap differently, because this game was different

What happened? It felt like we played bad?

Yes, NT played poorly on offense and managed just 362 yards of offense. That’s two games straight that NT has been under 400 yards. Rice is a poor defense, and from the looks of it it looked like NT was a little out of rhythm. Remember NT was on a bye week last week, and while it was good for the bones, it was not good for cohesion. Blocks need to hit at the right times, and passing routes need to get open when the QB expects them and so on and so forth.

Was that a factor? I am choosing to believe so. Rice was sliced up in recent weeks, so it could have simply been pride. I did not see the Owls doing anything ridiculous, it just looked like NT had trouble getting rhythm. When things did line up, NT moved the ball well. Jyaire Shorter got open and scored. Ikaika Ragsdale got open and scored. He also ran for 122. Big runs were there for the running, but this or that would happen. They got the big run when they absolutely needed them. 69 yards on 7 totes to get into scoring position.

Didn’t the defense play well? Aren’t you going to mention them?

Yes, the defense balled out. Rice put up 414 yard of offense, which is not bad, but it was in part thanks to how many times NT punted them the ball. If those drives are longer, or end in scores, Rice doesn’t have such good position and can’t use the full gamut of their (simplistic) offense. Instead they’d be forced to throw the ball a bit more, with their freshman QB. We saw what happened when they had to pass the ball. They threw a pick, they snapped it poorly. They looked less than good. When they could force NT to stack the box and then throw it up to big receivers one-on-one? Well the offense looked much better.

The NT defense got stop-after-stop and held Rice to just 14 points for much of the game. Twice they were backed up in the red zone and Rice came away with just 3 out of a potential 14 points. Not terrible folks. Rice was 4/12 on third downs, 1/2 on fourth, and only had 10 red zone points. This with 35 minutes of possession. Fortune gave the Owls the perfect circumstance to execute their hold-the-ball-and-take-smart-shots plan. It nearly worked but for the solid NT defense.

What Does This Mean, Are We BAD??

North Texas will take a win any way it comes. Rice played the squad tougher than expected, but that is our fault for expecting less? I mean, the Owls have pride and this was their shot at a bowl game (they can get in maybe with APR if the bowls lack enough 6-win teams). They executed a game plan on a cold, rainy November day in Denton. Long time Mean Greeners know that it is hard to muster up the desire to fight on these post-holiday weekends. Rice gave it their best shot but NT had plenty of room for error. Bad teams will give you chances. It happens. We saw UTEP give NT about 12 early chances in the opener. Rice did something similar.

There is room for improvement but it is stuff that can be fixed with some more rhythm, and fewer rain drops. It is fair to say that NT has slipped in quality in recent weeks. That of course has a lot to do with missing guys that are important to the run game. You might have noticed Mazin Richards went down also, with little pressure on his ankle as he was helped off.

This game is one of attrition. Why build depth? Why recruit for positions that have talent already? Well you are hedging against these scenarios. NT had four backs that were worthy of starting. Now they have 1.35. They thought they went two-deep at DL/rush backer. Now? Well guys are limping. Guys are banged up. This is football.

Seth Littrell? Does it mean I have to like him or think he is doing a great job?

There was a long thread about something along these lines. MGN believes that it’s fine to hold the coaching staff to some standards, and it’s fine to have strong feelings before and after a game. That’s part of the fun. This isn’t important but it feels important and there’s big money involved and they ask you for your money and you feel invested in it all.

MGN has long said that the minimum standard around here is something like this:

1) be competitive in your league every three/four years.

Winning your conference, division, competition in a league title game, losing to the best team in the league which happens to be in your division as your only loss that keeps you out of the title game. These are things that MGN considers “competing”. NT has been to two title games — this one, and the 2017 year. That is two appearances in five years. There was also the 2018 year, which I normally wrap in that 17 year — because that team was early, and thinner. The 2018 team was strong and only trailed for about 20 min or something going into the finale game. To this publication, that is three competitive years in seven. Not terrible.

2) Be entertaining in the “retooling” years.

So 2016, 2019, 2020, 2021? Was NT entertaining? I mean, sort of? They got to a couple of bowls and won a couple of games. I think the overarching thing about those seasons is embarrassment. The 2020 season saw NT have a gawdawful defense. I really don’t know how that team got to a bowl. The team allowed 500 yards rushing to App State. It turned more people off than not.

3) In your good years, be good in non-conference.

Hey remember that Arkansas year? That was fun! That was 2018. I hold that team in high esteem even though they didn’t win the title that year. They were good and beat Arkansas. They nearly beat Tech at home (blocked FG) when Tech was real good. This season NT had a weak non-conference schedule and got embarrassed.

In this measure we can also include the bowl games. This is where Seth has been dim. 0-5 in bowls and in three or so he has the worst loss in the history of that bowl game. That’s not the kind of thing you want to experience as a fan, player, staff, or anyone associated with the program.

4) Make us proud, and don’t be embarrassing

On the field? Eh, there have been some big embarrassing moments. Off the field? Generally speaking Seth Littrell has run a solid program. I don’t blame him for the actions of 100+ players and staff. There will be and have been mistakes, problems, and concerns. Littrell has been good about booting guys (even talented guys!) that have not met the standard of conduct.

If Seth Littrell’s NT lost this game to Rice it would have been an epic collapse. If Littrell wins his first title? That would be great! That is part of what he is being measured on. If he gets run out the building? Not great. That’s another mark against in the “embarrassing” slot. What about a bowl win? That is a plus. Another blowout? Ugh.

That’s how it works. Seth Littrell is a solid coach. He turned around this program — he has benefited from the Wren Baker administration but that’s not a knock. I don’t know how much better some other coach would do. We should judge Seth Littrell honestly and fairly. It is no different than the game they play. WKU is not in the title game even though they are a good team that only lost two games. They lost those games to the two entrants in the game. They lost to North Texas. They don’t get in. That’s it.

It can be that Littrell is at the point in his career where it has set up that he needs to win to get an extension or a raise or whathaveyou. It can come down to a game or two and that is just fine.

You can add this one onto his resume. He is 44-43 in his career. He has five bowl appearances with no wins. He has two championship game appearances with just the one loss … so far.

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