Opportunity Game: Southern Miss Preview 11.18.16

North Texas has an interesting opportunity this weekend. The scenario looks like this:

Beat Southern Miss at Apogee + Beat UTEP in El Paso = Bowl Eligibility

That is tremendously exciting. The predicted upper limit of wins by those paid to do this kind of prognostication was something like 4 wins. Seth Littrell has reached that mark already.

The hype for this game is nowhere near the levels of Oct 23rd, when NT had reached .500 with their fourth win and for good reason. This Southern Miss game is not as winnable as the pre-Halloween match vs UTSA. Forget the fact that the fightin’ Littrells are down a quarterback in Mason Fine and their best player in Jeff Wilson. Southern Miss has injuries also, but the Golden Eagle ceiling is much higher than UTSAs, even though the Runners beat USM in a ridiculous upset earlier in the season.
A great offense is explosive and also efficient.
We are all smart enough to not believe in the transitive property. No one is as good or as bad as they play in one game. The body of work matters, and the body of work is itself subject to analysis of context. For example, SoMiss is not the same team that beat Kentucky on Sept 3rd, Kentucky is not the same team that lost to SoMiss. Right now Kentucky is ranked 75 in S&P+, and Charlotte is 121. Southern Miss beat the former and lost to the latter.

Predicting the season so far ahead is dumb, but fun, I said in the season preview prediction section. There was no real way to see so far ahead clearly. We were concerned about injuries to the Offensive Line, Jeff Wilson, the QB … wait. We were right on.

Then, we thought injuries to these players would kill any hope for even the one or two wins that were ‘reasonable’. We did not know that the injury to the QB would mean we would simply be starting Alec Morris again. Mason Fine has not been ruled out for the season — or even this game — but it sure does feel like this is Alec Morris’ show to run for the time being.

Even he is not the same guy he was on September 3rd. Littrell said he has been good recently and really, both QBs need more help up front and out wide than anything.

Seth Littrell Press Conference 11.15.16

Morris stepped in against WKU with little pressure, and performed well enough to get a drive going. Later in the game, he forced some passes and looked less confident. When he is protected — like any QB — he can fire nice passes in the short-to-intermediate range with authority and accuracy. At his worst — again like most QBs — he is tentative, and locks in on one route, forcing throws. Since his Alabama days, Morris has had a problem firing accurate deep passes. This problem is compounded by the fact that getting anything deep requires lots of pass protection time, and WRs that can get open deep.

That NT has not had many step-back-and-launch-a-deep-pass highlights should be no surprise, then. NT does not need that type of play, though I will note that every offense could use that kind of thing.

A great offense is explosive and also efficient. They achieve this state by either being good at every aspect that playing a base defense means you will give up a series of 3-and-4 yard gains that you cannot stop. The other option is being so good at one aspect that a defense has to overload to merely slow down the onslaught which leaves room to hide the weak or merely average parts of the offensive attack.

Right now NT is neither. The pass game is not crisp and efficient because the QB play has been at various times inexperienced, out of practice, hesitant, under fire, and forced to make tough passes. The run game is only explosive and not efficient. Essentially we hope for a Jeff Wilson (or Andrew Tucker) to hit a home run while they strike out other times (strikeouts being no-yard gains).

Obviously these are interconnected. The run game has opened pass lanes that have not always been fully exploited. The pass game has caused the run game to be overloaded and makes it difficult to get efficient gains.

The inconsistency that is the root of the problems will not go away anytime soon. NT will need an offseason and new players to correct this. I have hope. Mike Leach began his run at Washington State with an iffy line, and an inefficient attack and five years later that line is the strength of the team.

These things take time.

Predictions

SRS: #112 North Texas vs #96 Southern Miss
S&P+: #105 North Texas 36% win probability; 25.2 – 31.3 #71 Southern Miss
ESPN FPI: #117 North Texas 34.6% win probability vs #95 Southern Miss
Sagarin: #141 North Texas 26 – 33.85 #102 Southern Miss
FEI #105 North Texas win probability .459; 26 – 28 #89 Southern Miss
Massey: #139 North Texas 28 – 31 #126 Southern Miss

Southern Miss

Head Coach Jay Hopson velt vindicated by beating Kentucky, as there were some questions about him replacing the departed Todd Monken (left to coordinate Tampa Bay Bucs). Now the mediocre season is being attributed to the coaching staff changes, and the graduations of some of last year’s players.

Forgive me if I do not feel empathy for them.

The question for us is this: Which QB has Ekeler prepared for more? Nick Mullens is the clear best choice, but he is questionable after going out with “concussion-like symptoms”.

These things take time.
Last week true freshman Keon Howard ran 28 times for 98 yards and threw for 230 with 50% completion rate. He turned the ball over three times on the first three possessions.

I think you have an idea of who we want to face. That said, Southern Miss has allowed lots of yards and points and that was even with Mullens pulling the strings offensively. They can still score, as they are talented at the skill positions, so even with the boost that comes with a turnover prone QB and a porous defense, NT has to produce offensively.

They are explosive in the pass game, but Ito Smith is a great back in the run game. He can catch the ball out of there too, so tackling in the open field will be a concern.

They throw the ball to the TE Allen and he’s big and can break tackles. Looking at the highlights against ODU, we can see what they like about Keon Howard in the future. He’s big and fast and when he figures out how to play the position efficiently, he will be a problem.

Defensively, Southern Miss has a ridiculous havoc ranking — the DL in particular ranks 5th. That said, they are prone to lapses. The defense rankes 119 in first quarter S&P+ but improves as the game goes on. They are also 124th in first down S&P+. In a nutshell, the Golden Eagle defense is near-great in stopping the pass, but abysmal in stopping the run. This would mean good things for NT if Jeff Wilson were healthy but he is not. Ivery and company have talent enough to take advantage but there still is a clear difference between a healthy Wilson and the rest of the roster.

North Texas

The question is simply this: can the NT offense make enough plays to keep this game within reach for the offense. The length of the offense’s reach is undefined right now, but I put it somewhere near the season average in points and yards. Alec Morris can approximate the total offense produced by Mason Fine with his slightly better field vision and experience, even though he is not as mobile.

Can a Jeff Wilson-less run game be as productive? NT managed 115 yard on the ground last week, but 71 of that was on Tucker’s TD run.

The better question is Can the OL block the disruptive USM DL? If we look at the body of work the answer is a resounding ‘no’. NT had a problem with UTSA’s disruptive DL in short yardage. Against WKU and La Tech the issue was not that NT had zero positive plays, but that the pressure on the OL often caused penalties that cancelled positive plays.

Much of my hope regarding NT’s chances are related to USM’s tendency to give up plays like this:

Morris and Goree can exploit busted coverage like this. North Texas is not so bad that they cannot get big plays or score. Avoiding situations like last week wherein the deficit was so great that FGs were not an option is one goal this week.

Five scoring drives is about the reasonable limit for the offense. This week, the defense has a chance to show the scoring ability it did against Marshall and Army. If Keon Howard is the starter, there will be opportunities.

Conclusions

On paper Southern Miss is the more talented team. Keon Howard probably would have started over Mason Fine this season, for example. North Texas does have home field, a coaching staff that has everyone playing hard and moving in the same direction.

My interpretation of the last two games is that NT was simply overmatched. In this one, they will not be, at least from an execution standpoint. That, and the tantalizing opportunity in front of everyone — a bowl game — makes me think NT has the edge. Southern Miss has had a chance against “lesser” competition the last couple of weeks and has underperformed. In fact, this has ben a theme all year. Not once all year did they look like the complete team we expected. This was written off or explained away, but USM has never gotten it together like LT or WKU.

For NT, it is hard to remember the team that was playing well on defense, and making improvements on offense through the fog of two beat downs. It is hard to remember how good the offense looked in the first half of the La Tech game through the fog of last week’s beat down. While the pessimistic complain that there is very little improvement — I disagree — there has not been much regression either. This team still has the same problems and outside of the injuries to Mason Fine and Jeff Wilson, the same good aspects.

In any situation all you can ask for is a chance. NT has theirs. Two very winnable games to become bowl eligible for only the second time since 2004, and to reach five wins for only the third time since then also.