Quadruple Fine-overs: NT 17 UTSA 31

When I ran the Massey simulator for the Army game, it came up Army 9 out of 10 times. The score was usually something like Army 35-17, but once NT won the simulation 52-7. Last week NT essentially that outcome in part because they grabbed seven turnovers and Army’s DBs slipped.

This week NT was on the other end of that luck tonight. Mason Fine threw interceptions on passes that fell incomplete last week. Jeff Wilson was not able to save a poor pass performance by breaking any 41+ yard runs and the defense did not manage seven TOs to help.

Note: While Jeff did not score, Mason did do this:

I have seen fans say we lacked hunger or were out-coached, or that the whole team played poorly. I cannot agree with any of this. I saw a North Texas team play essentially how they have played all season.

Before we get detailed, let us just look at the defensive numbers:

Stat Season v UTSA
Points Against 27.1 31
Yards per Play 5.48 5.3
Sacks Allowed 4.14 4
Sacks For 2.14 5
Rushing YPC Allowed 4.66 4.3
Passing YPA Allowed 6.6 7.47

This game was about turnovers by our freshman QB — understandable, yet still frustrating — and the inability to run the ball inside.

More numbers before we get to the main thrust of this review:

  • NT had four turnovers (2 INT, 2 Fumble)
  • UTSA went 4/4 inside the red zone
  • NT went 2/5 in the red zone
  • In the 3rd Qtr that saw UTSA score 10 and NT 7, NT out gained UTSA 175 to 71.
  • NT allowed two scoring drives of over 50 yards, and one of 50.

Game Narrative

North Texas kicked off defended UTSA and forced a punt. The offense went backwards (pretty expected) and punted. Then UTSA went on an 11-play 49 yard TD drive that involved some 3rd down conversions, nice passing, and nifty running by Dalton Sturm.

North Texas and UTSA traded three punts until UTSA drove 5 plays 80 yards and hit Josh Stewart deep for a score. North Texas managed only 30 yards in 8 plays during this time.

After their score made it 14-0, Mason Fine threw an awful INT but he hit two straight 12+ yard passes before that pick. North Texas was finally moving.

NT managed a 10-play 67 yard drive only to fumble with no time left on the clock that was nearly a scoop-and-score for UTSA.

Starting the second half, Mason Fine scorched everyone for 80 yards and the first TD. We were all ecstatic.

The defense forced a 3-and-out from UTSA and everyone was hyped. This looked exactly like the beginning of the second half against Army, right?

Wrong. Fine immediately fumbled on a messed up swing pass and UTSA drove a sort 20 yards for a FG to make it 17-7. This was the beginning of the first death.

North Texas drives 29 yards in 4 plays before … another INT. This time Mason Fine over throws a screen pass to Jeff Wilson. It was a gift.

UTSA drives 50 yards in six plays for another TD making it 24-7. This is how you lose games folks. Still NT had UTSA at 2nd-and-18 but allowed a 31 yard pass, and then three straight runs for a TD.

It was miracle time. North Texas got the ball with 5:34 left in the quarter and used it all to drive down to the UTSA 6. More time came off the clock in the 4th before NT kicked a FG.

UTSA then went on a game-clinching 8-play 69-yard TD drive to make it 31. This is where I suspect everyone was disappointed with the defense and most of the ‘poor’ play narrative comes from.

NT scored a TD, got the onside kick to make it interesting before losing the ball on downs. A possible TD was called back because of offensvie pass interference that would have made it different ball game. NT had three time outs remaining with about 4 minutes to play.

NT forced a punt, then the final stat-padding drive stalled at the UTSA 25.

Offense

Mason Fine was bad. He played like a freshman. I want to reiterate the extent to which I understand this fact and also how it is still important for the starting quarterback to play well for this team to succeed. For any team to succeed.

UTSA’s Dalton Sturm played a classic game-manager game. He made SR plays like getting out of bounds, scrambling and sliding, and throwing the ball away.

Mason Fine — the good lord bless his heart — tries to make plays. He dives head first. He throws into coverage. He does not give up on plays.

All of this is commendable, but without a live arm like Aaron Rodgers or Brett Favre it is dangerous. Hell, it is dangerous even with those kinds of arms.

He threw two interceptions and nearly had two others but they were dropped. The first throw came along the sideline as he tried to fit a ball into triple coverage over the top. He may have seen a guy open slightly, but the right play there is playing for second down. NT had just went down 14 and we all sure could have used a nice drive to keep the fans in it.

The third quarter saw the absolute best and worst of the kid. He ran for 80, displaying his primary gifts. Then he basically threw a fumble. Tossing a swing pass to Wilson, he lost the ball (was it batted?) and UTSA recovered, drove for 3 points. He followed that up with a nice little sequence of plays before over throwing a screen pass that led to 7 more for them.

Was that scheme? Was that hunger? Was that being out coached? Not really. Those were freshman mistakes. The kind we have Mason making so he does not make them later in his career. That said, this program is not here to make Mason Fine a solid QB — it is here to win games. While we want to be reasonable in assessing him, we cannot overlook the mistakes simply because he is young and we like him.

Graham Harrell and Seth Littrell have tried to reduce the pressure on the kid by going to our best player and letting him carry the load by carrying the rock. Jeff Wilson could not find room. The line that has been able to magically create enough room for Jeff Wilson to run was beat. Was this effort? Was this coaching? I doubt it. North Texas’ line has been beat all season. We know this. We have wrote about this.

The failure to get short yardage were just as instrumental to the losing of this game as were the INTs. From the UTSA 1, Jeff Wilson was stuffed twice for no-gain, fumbling the second time. From the UTSA 6, Jeff Wilson was stuffed for 3 total yards on two rushes, forcing a FG. If NT scores a TD there the gap is only 10 instead of 14.

In the first half, he had something like 8 rushes for for 5 yards. As a team NT ran 13 times for 1.6 yards in the first half. Let us give credit to Harrell for finding a way to get Wilson the ball with those swing passes, one of which went for 38 yards (and another was nearly a fumble, then there was the actual fumble *headdesk*)

UTSA obviously made it a point to stop the only aspect of this offense that is somewhat reliable and did a good job of doing that. MTSU did something similar and Mason Fine was solid but under pressure. In this one, he had the makings of a solid game but turned the ball over. The late game drives had more of the pass attack that sort of worked in spurts in the first.

More about this in the Coaching section.

Defense

Rating this group really depends on your expectations. The most reasonable among us did not expect another 7 turnovers. Considering the circumstances, this group was solid. They forced 5 3-and-outs, including a couple at A Stop Could Change The Game moments, and even look good in the totals box score.

UTSA played well offensively in that they protected the ball, took what was available, and made enough plays to win. Those deep passes? We knew they would hit on one or two. Josh Stewart caught some clutch passes to move the chains (one 31-yarder, and another on a slant) and a TD. NT did not get gashed for 40-yard TDs but did allow some big runs.

That has been par for the course. Again, this was a 14-7 game in the third quarter before NT turned the ball over twice in their own territory.

Still, there were areas to improve in. Although NT got to Sturm enough to sack him, he had hours to throw — especially in the second half. It looked like Ekeler went to a zone in pass coverage after getting burned by Sturm’s running against zero-blitzes. NT brought the house a few times and was killed for it. The straight 4-man pass rush was unable to get to him consistently and he found his guys running slow-developing routes. This was in stark contrast to Fine, who again had very little time to go through a read.

The defense was burned for those aforementioned chunk runs. The stats say there were 8 in total, including the final TD for 19-yards. By then, North Texas was tiring and allowing more yards. UTSA moved the ball fairly easily then. Still, Jarveon Williams, Sturm, and Jalen Rhodes all had 10+ yard runs. It was disappointing to see, especially considering how poor UTSA had been recently but let us give them credit. UTSA has been focusing on improving their run game after two poor showings.

That said, they hit big runs in the 4th, when the defense was tired. Through three quarters they were at 105 on 31 carries (3.4 ypc). That is decent-to-good and confirms my thinking that this defense played well enough to win an average game. That is to say, if the offense could have managed more than the 111 yards and 2/7 3rd down conversions in the first half this could have been a different game. It could have been more like the game we were hoping for.

Coaching

A few of my Mean Green friends want to put the blame squarely on the coaching staff, calling our guys out for being out coached. Considering that NT out gained them by nearly 80 yards on the road with a freshman QB is evidence to the contrary. They lost a winnable game, yes. They lost because the freshman QB played like a freshman and made mistakes.

If we admit this, how can we blame the staff for it? While I have answered this question before with something like “they can call more screen stuff”, having seen (again) Mason Fine struggle with the quick WR and RB screens, I see why they do not include those in his arsenal as often. Jeff Wilson, while improving, is not the best pass catcher and also slipped on a play with huge potential. Simply put, there are no easy answers.

The long term solutions will not help us right now. By that I mean getting more bodies on the offensive line. The short term stuff is a bit easier, and why I am not too upset about the turnovers tonight. Seth and Graham can continue to coach Fine about decision making.

Graham Harrell has managed to sneak in some things that have worked to overcome the limitations of our group. The Pistol look last week changed the game. This week I saw a PA pass that was nice, along with some things that got the ball to Goree and Thaddeous Thompson.

There is no perfect play call, and when the front five are not able to get the push necessary to stay on schedule it makes things infinitely harder. Football is simple sometimes.

Implications for the Year

North Texas played the biggest game in recent memory (since about 2013) and flopped. The chances to bowl are very slim now, as two wins are required from Louisiana Tech, WKU, Southern Miss, and UTEP. The very slim, outside, not-even-worth-talking about chances for a CUSA division title are damned-near done. This is the nature of college football. After all, remember when in week one when Houston was on top of the college football world? Remember how Texas was great, then terrible but now upset Baylor?

This was a missed opportunity, but it may be good in the longer term. Seth Littrell has not built up a team yet. He has cobbled together a roster in a short time. Slightly lowered expectations from here on should keep things manageable.

Rivalry Thoughts

Again, losing to this team feels awful. This thing will have more juice when both squads are back to a competing for division titles and not just respectability. UTSA’s home had huge swaths of empty seats, which is a nice bit of schadenfreude for every CUSA opponent who heard endless internet brags about the UTSA fan support.

Being petty and laughing at that is fun to a point, but ultimately bad for all of the conference members. We want CUSA to be well-supported for our own enjoyment and for the players. Playing in front of 24K is better than 10K etc, etc.

I mentioned some thoughts on UTSA’s “new tradition” Come And Take It 4th Quarter thing and predictably was met with defensive tweets about it.

I called it ‘a good effort but a bit forced’. Let me expound a bit:

  1. I am very supportive of new, home-grown traditions. There is a lot of borrowing in college football and new stuff is good stuff.
  2. The CATI flag is over-used in Texas. Like, it is cool and everything but you can see it at Astros games to Texas Tech gear sites. Everyone in this state likes to reference it and use it and it is fine and great.
  3. I also realize that UTSA made it a thing for themselves in recent years
  4. I am not a fan of adopting a state-wide favorite thing and calling it your own. I am even less of a fan of combining that with faux-ultra fandom and unfurling a tifo that is clearly aping the more impressive parts of soccer fandom. That feels forced. Combine that with the adoption of a popular state flag/phrase and you have 25 students lifting that thing over empty seats.
  5. While I appreciate the UTSA administration adopting this fan idea, it does not absolve the UTSA fans for being uncreative.

I say all this while completely acknowledging that there is very little that is new or unique in this world, if at all. So this might even become a thing that people do and it will always look weird to me every other year when NT plays at the dome.

You could maybe argue that it is very similar to Wisconsin’s adoption of this but if you cannot see how it so obviously not similar in at least two glaring ways I do not want to have this conversation with you.