One Win Away: North Texas 29 Southern Miss 23

One win away.

North Texas beat Southern Miss 29-23 to set up next week’s very important game against UTEP in El Paso.

It was not pretty. Even when the Mean Green built a 20 point lead, it was because of some trick plays that were not necessarily repeatable, and FGs that came on drives where TDs would have been better.

When Southern Miss stormed back to take the lead, it was not completely unexpected, as Ito Smith is talented, and young freshman Keon Howard’s biggest mistakes are fruits of his youth. He will be a handful going in his career in CUSA.

North Texas needed every bit of non-offense luck and playmaking from all parts of this team. After Morris threw an INT on his first pass attempt, the NT defense bottled up the Golden Eagles and forced a kick … that was missed. Lucky? The missed kick is outside of the control of everyone save the kicking battery, but the defense forced that kick and saved the moment. The defense put the team in position to be lucky.
Seth Littrell deserves a lot of credit for the job he has done.
From Nate Brook’s two first half forced turnovers (INT and a FF), to timely tackles and deflections, North Texas played like there was no tomorrow. For the seniors, this is true. There is no next game in Denton. They played like it.

Graham Harrell helped the offense by emptying the playbook, calling a reverse-pass (Morris to Buyers for a big gain) and a flea-flicker (to Smiley for a TD) that gained big yards and created the kinds of big pass plays down the field this team has been missing. That arguably built up Morris confidence as he was able to find Smiley for the first beautiful fade pass anyone can remember this season.

When the (inevitable?) counter-punch from a very talented Southern Miss team came, the lead was comfortable enough to absorb the bulk of the pain. Southern Miss scored 23-straight points and were only up three.

They traded haymaker quarters– North Texas opened with a 17-point 184 yard first, and Southern Miss countered with a 13-point 195 yard third. The difference at the end of three, was the second quarter in which Southern Miss managed to add that late 7-points off their own trick play. NT had only managed a FG.

Haymakers exchanged, the game came down to the fourth quarter and which team could run their offense down the stretch. In the final frame, NT out gained USM 59 to 25, and outscored them 9 to 3. Willy Ivery hurt someone’s feelings and NT’s defense held, a game-sealing interception from Nate Brooks to cap it off. In between, Keena pinned back USM a couple of times and the defense got huge stops with short yardage behind them. It was a team effort to get this fifth win on senior night.

Let us go through this thing:

Offense

Alec Morris started off terribly. Donovan McNabb said it was “a guy who has not started” getting some rust off. I’ll defer to the former NFL QB. He threw a very bad interception on his first pass — tried to force a pass to the flat that was clearly well-covered. After that he settled and fired bombs for big gains. While he was not perfect he was good enough and got better. He badly missed on a couple, and under threw Buyers on the first trick play. His first TD pass to Smiley was a beauty — perfectly lofted to his outside shoulder like they teach it. The first half run game was largely unnecessary, but effective in the few times it was run.
Graham Harrell helped the offense by emptying the playbook
Southern Miss was taken aback by the trick plays and NT did not have to run much of their standard stuff. Missing Jeff Wilson, Mason Fine, Elex Woodworth, Tee Goree, and Willie Robinson was evident in the times the offense looked off. An early screen pass attempt to Andrew Tucker looked like everyone needed more practice. Jordan Murray ran into Tucker as Morris lofted the ball to no one.

Freshman Elijah McIntyre showed some flashes of talent but looked like he was, well, a freshman. The offensive line still committed drive-killing penalties, including on the late second-quarter drive that wiped out a Thadd Thompson 7-yard gain that would have kept NT on schedule. There was one play where the line committed two holding penalties, and late in the fourth a holding call was wiped out only because Southern Miss was offside.

The good news is that this offense was able to produce the season average in points and got some help from the defense to get a little more than that. In the game preview, that was the big question. Against most of this conference, that is all that is required to be competitive in these games.

Turner Smiley stepped up. He had a huge first half, catching two TDs, and added an end-around wherein he trucked a safety. He might have been offensive MVP if not for Willy Ivery’s heroics in the second half.

After every trick play was used up, the offense had to rely on execution and had problems. While the 23-straight points were not entirely the offense’s fault, they did not help things by going 3-and-out on the first drive of the third, and fumbling on the very next drive (Willy Ivery). That fumble killed a 6-play 40 yard drive that could have saved things and maybe saved some of the drama late.

Still, North Texas managed to drive for a TD when it counted — in the fourth quarter down three. It was in that drive that we glimpsed the future of this offense. Six plays and only one incompletion, four first downs, and one TD.

Play Chart:

  1. Morris to Smiley for 11 yards, 1st down to NT 46.
  2. Morris to Buyers for 13 yards, to USM 41, 1st down.
  3. Morris to McIntyre for 13 yards, 1st down to USM 28.
  4. Ivery 17 yard rush to the USM 11, 1st down.
  5. Morris incomplete, intended for McIntyre.
  6. Ivery 11 yard TD rush and one embarrassment of a would-be tackler.

Willy Ivery had himself a game, 18 rushes for 111 yards and the game-winning TD.

Oh and this:

Defense

Nate. Brooks.

After two games in which he was beaten for big gains — Carlos Henderson and Taywan Taylor had big days against Brooks the last two weeks — the sophomore corner showed why he still is one of the est DBs in the league. He stuck to USM’s Allenzae Staggers all night, holding him to 4 catches on 11 targets for only 26 yards.

He came up with two INTs, one acrobatic, and the other free safety-like, and forced a fumble on Keon Howard’s scramble. He also was his usual sure-tackling self.

Nate Brooks stat line: 6 tackles, 3 solo, 1 TFL, 2 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FF.

Outside of that, the defense did what we thought they could: Force Keon Howard to turn the ball over. He was loose with it, and the defense grabbed the ball four times. Khari Muhammad picked off Howard in the fourth quarter. There was another fumble forced that USM recovered. All those turnovers and TFLs meant Ito Smith did not get more chances. He is really good and pretty much managed the comeback on his own.

There are plenty of quibbles with the defense, the lack of depth is showing the cracks in the unit. There were some missed tackels that led to big plays, and obviously some miscommunications led to some wide open guys.

My gut tells me this group will improve as Ekeler and Reffert recruit the players they want, and coach the guys they have into the defense they envision. I do not imagine it is far off from the the one we are seeing, but probably with a little more depth and talent in some areas.

I am encouraged to see guys that were part of the previous regime make plays — McClain, Brooks, Davis, Preston, Dilonga — and new guys doing the same — Wheeler, Jenkins, Finney.

Going forward, I would really like to see the post-play penalties cleaned up. Combs got a flag for roughing after forcing USM into a loss. It all worked out in the end, but it is the kind of thing that can lose a close game.

Special Teams

Eric Keena was his usual solid-to-great self, and Trevor Moore had two FGs. The punt coverage unit wiped out a 66-yard punt from Keena with a penalty, but otherwise did a good job. USM did not have anything significant returning their kicks.

Smiley had an awful fumble that was not entirely his fault. His own man ran into him, knocking the ball out. Still, neither Smiley nor Wyche had good returns. It seems no one outside of Tyler Wilson has made a case for themselves here.

Coaching

Considering this team has a significant number of McCarney guys, or disadvantages caused by McCarney decisions — lack of depth, some talent deficits, recruiting disadvantages — Seth Littrell deserves a lot of credit for the job he has done.

We have seen NT coaches spend time developing excuses for losing — and there have been many good excuses, ones that border on reasons for losing — instead of actually producing a squad that competes every game, every play.

Watching the 2015 team succumb to the dispair was understandable and yet frustrating. Watching this disadvantaged team overcome obstacles is exciting. This was a very big opportunity against a team that was more talented. North Texas had injuries and suspensions on an already limited roster and pulled out the win after blowing a 20-point lead. That’s quality.

Against Rice (down 17) and against Southern Miss, and a few other times throughout the season, this team has shown some things that other NT squads did not. This is a good thing.

Next week: A game for bowl eligibility against UTEP.

note: header image from MGFB twitter account