Overmatched: SMU 54 – NT 32

Boy howdy.

That really did escalate quickly. Courtland Sutton continued his 2-year campaign of destruction over NT in his 8-catch, 163-yard, 4-TD domination to go with last year’s 4-catch 162-yard, 3-TD effort in Denton. So it goes. No one who followed the program had any illusions about stopping him completely, as he is a problem and NT’s defense is vulnerable to singular-talents*.

*Which team is not?

North Texas’ aggressive defense challenges defensive backs to hold their own in 1v1 matchups. Unfortunately there is no DB on the Mean Green roster than can hold Sutton in that situation. There is no shame in this. The problem is that NT’s strategy of flooding the field in a zone meant the pass rush had to be generated with three down lineman. Ben Hicks was not good when not targeting Sutton, but even he was able to sit and find an open man when afforded loads of time on third down. This situation meant NT did well on first and second downs, but allowed soul-crushing conversions on third. Through the first half — the important part of the game — SMU converted six-of-eight (75%) of third downs. It was only after Sutton sat midway through the third period that SMU began to struggle.

Still, Sutton wasn’t the only concern for NT. The offense was unlucky and the front five had trouble opening lanes for Wilson. SMU focused on stopping the potent NT rush offense but the pass game did not do enough to take advantage of that focus to an extent that made SMU change their plans. NT took the early 10-0 lead and looked solid. Even after a 3-and-out on the third drive the subsequent attempts had promise, but no luck.

Start QTR Time How Pos QTR Time END Plays-Yards TOP
NT29 1 02:26 KO SMU38 2 13:45 DOWNS 9 – 33 3:41
NT06 2 11:38 INT NT24 2 08:07 PUNT 6 – 18 3:31
NT20 2 05:08 KO SMU43 2 02:26 INT 8 – 37 2:42
NT28 2 00:10 KO NT42 2 00:00 HALF 1 – 14 0:10

The turnover on downs came on 4th-and-1 where the line did not get enough push. The punt was after a drive that had promise. The Interception was after a solid 40-yard drive. If NT converts one or two of those crucial drive-killing plays we might have had a shootout instead of the two-touchdown deficit that was the first half.

There is danger is simply looking at the scoreline or the boxscore and making judgments but there is also risk in keeping green-tinted glasses on while looking at this effort. Let’s take a finer tooth comb in this immediate reaction while trying to maintain perspective.

Offense

Mason Fine ended the game 32/47 424 yards and 3TDS in easily his best game in NT colors. His two interceptions included one bad throw, and one deflected, unlucky break. Overall he looked in command of his offense, making solid reads and finding his playmakers in each quarter. He was not helped by the run game, which struggled to open up lanes for Jeff Wilson, but Fine make good throws and mixed in enough scrambles to keep drives alive. In comparable blowouts last year, he did not look nearly as good in the filthiest of garbage time as he did tonight. While we want to hold back effusive praise in a 22-point loss, we have to acknowledge that NT has had three games of quality offense in a row — Bowl game, Lamar, SMU. Iowa will be a significant test, but there are bright spots out wide — Guyton, Darden, and Jeff Wilson is still NT’s best offensive player. NT did a good job keeping balance — getting the ball in RB hands even on passes — but there were a couple of questionable play calls. The odd QB-double pass that got Mason Fine sacked came after Guyton’s 72-yard TD and was probably too cute for the moment. NT followed that up with a holding penalty that earned SMU a safety. We likely would have high praise for that call if it would have worked but I do not see the sense in going away from an attack that just had big returns in the previous possession.

Things we liked: Guyton, Darden, Poised Mason Fine
Things we did not like: O-Line not getting push, drops, bad routes.

Defense

Courtland Sutton has dominated NT like no other player I have seen with my own two eyes in two straight years. He is NFL-level talent and his dominance is nothing to be ashamed of. What is concerning is the backup QB hitting the RS Sophomore Myron Gailliard for 76-yards. NT will give up these big plays by nature of the scheme, but it does not make any of them easier to stomach. It is understandable to allow Sutton or Louisiana Tech’s 2016 duo of WRs to make plays, but it is quite another to see UTEP’s TE and SMU’s randoms to do the same.

When NT limits those types of plays we can say they have arrived as a defense. Right now it is still a work in progress. NT performed much better against a more dynamic QB last season in Denton. The Xavier Jones and Gailliard scores were unacceptable, and three of the Sutton scores were understandable while disappointing.

SMU always had the talent a slight talent advantage and the home venue, but the difference between these two teams tonight was largely the self-inflicted wounds. Missing assignments against a QB with essentially one option was disappointing as NT could not get off the field and gave Sutton more chances to beat them. Case in point: SMU’s go-ahead TD in the second quarter came on a drive in which they converted two 3rd-and-plus-8, including a 3rd-and-10 and a 3rd-and-13 (the TD).

The makings of a good defense are here, but they are a long way from showing it.

Special Teams

NT went to a two-returner look and it was mostly just replacement-level until the muffed punt return made me hate it. Two weeks: two muffed returns. The new special teams coordinator Mary Biagi is not covering himself in glory right now. That said, Jaelon Darden looks dangerous whenever he touches the ball and putting him as the returner looks to be the move right now.

Coaching

NT really had no good plan for Sutton, but there was very little to do. The complete breakdowns in coverage are awful and have to be addressed. Chad Morris is a good offensive coach and found a way to play-action NT a few times that our staff was unready for. The gap between SMU and NT is not as large as the last two years’ scores have indicated, but this was a bad loss. Losing would have been understandable but imploding in the fashion they did was the worst scenario that did not involve an injury.

That said, this was a slight dip in an overall positive trend line. North Texas’ offense looks like the potent Air Raid we were sold, and the defense has showed some sings of improvement from the sieve it was two years ago. As always, the great news is the this conference is not good this year. Only the most optimistic among us picked NT to be 2-0 at this point (ahem, me) and it is important to remember that college football has high variance in game quality.That is to say that these types of games happen, where luck can be your enemy.

What It Means

NT is 1-1 on the season, and Seth Littrell is 0-2 in the Safeway Bowl. The manner of losing is going to hurt his standing with the NT fan, and rightfully so. Bad losses happen but ones to the local rival who already has shown disdain for our program is frustrating. Still, that all will be forgotten with a good showing against Iowa. It is an opportunity game in more than one sense, and NT will again be an underdog but has a chance to win the program the kind of casual goodwill that has been missing. NT is still probably a couple of years away from seriously challenging an Iowa and that is why this SMU loss stings.