Return Of The D: NT 38 Marshall 21

Eric Keena ran for 18 yards on 4th down and 9 from the North Texas 41. After getting hit slightly late, he taunted his tackler and caused a ruckus. The stats say that Jeff Wilson, who ran for 188 yards before being injured, was the statistical difference in this game. It is hard for me not to tell the story of the punter who hyped up the team to pull away in a tie game.

To that point, North Texas was only slightly better than Marshall on this night. The offense was better than it was last week, but still endured too many 3rd-and-longs. Mason Fine was sacked six times, two more than the season average per game. The run game had some trouble finding the edge consistently, and there were too many drive-killing penalties.

I maintain these are the mistakes of a young team in transition.

That said, North Texas began the game with a TD drive. Just like last week. Jeff Wilson scored to cap it off, just like last week. The defense managed to hold Marshall, as they did Middle last week. This time, the offense managed to score again. All of the casuals on twitter make a mention of how tough and confident this team looks.

After the defense put up a double-stand against Marshall to close the half, sandwiching a Jeff Wilson fumble, Marshall scored on the kickoff to begin the second half.

The ensuing drive started well but stalled after a sack. Then Keena scampered for 18, and saved the momentum. Mason Fine capped the drive with TD strike to Tyler Wilson while enjoying all the time in the world in the pocket.

The stadium ignited, and while Marshall managed to score on the very next drive it was only to tie. Momentum is a tricky concept. How can it be so powerful and yet swing so wildly? Well, if you call it belief and/or confidence it makes more sense. So much of human ability is determined by belief that it makes sense. Coming into this season my entire premise for picking NT to win 7(!) games was that they had lost belief in the previous coaching staff somewhere in the first game.

All of the casuals on twitter make a mention of how tough and confident this team looks. Now consider this: a compelling argument can be made that this team is less talented in aggregate than last year’s team. And yet this one looks like it would put up 45 on Danny Mac’s squad.

And so you see why I count that Keena’s run as hugely important than any ordinary conversion.

Let us go through the units and pretend we know everything:

Offense

The numbers say we dominated on offense: 458 yards, 252 rushing, 23 first downs. We who watched the game know that in between those huge runs, those competent drives, and those TD celebrations were frequent appearances of yellow flags, sacks, and desperation scrambles from the FindDozer.

The broadcast folks made mention of Seth Littrell’s goal of 250 yards rushing as The Benchmark for winning. I heard that as “We Need Jeff Wilson To Carry Us”. This blog maintains that he is our best offensive player and this was evident tonight. While Willy Ivery is talented, he is not Jeff Wilson.

Ivery had a couple of highlight runs but only managed 42 on 11 carries. Wilson totalled 116 on 25 in all the carries that were not the 72-yard scamper that won the game (Marshall never scored again).

Mason Fine still runs too much like a full back but he is clearly more comfortable with his responsibilities than he was earlier. As Littrell said, the run game needs to do the bulk of the offensive work. When it is moving the ball, life is easier.

This is not some revelation but perhaps surprising considering the nature of the offense. This roster does not have the personnell to throw the ball as a first choice, yet. As was noted in the MGN Slack, when Jordan Murray came in to play RG the run game improved dramatically.

There are positive signs for the future, however. Tyler Wilson, Turner Smiley, and Kenny Buyers all contributed big plays in pressure situations. Next season we will have to worry about Thaddeous Thompsons’s replacement. He turned in yet another game as the possession receiver extraordinaire.

Defense

In a conference that showcased three teams who scored 50+ points this week, having a defense hold a high-powered CUSA opponent to 271 yards on 3.9 yards per play; grab 5 sacks; and collect a pick-six is such an incredible feeling.

Marshall came into this game as a fairly explosive team (ranked 22 in IsoPPP) with a capable set of offensive players. North Texas held them to 14 offensive points and the above stats. The defensive line and various blitzing linebackers and defensive backs harried Chase Litton into poor throws, sacks, and long third downs. This defense was always built for the big play

Only Louisville defended better against Marshall and that is good.

Eric Jenkins took the interception back for six and that continued the streak of games with an interception to six. Yes, that is all six games this season (including that Florida game).

This defense was always built for the big play. It bends, but very often does not break. Thus far this season it has not faced the most potent offenses in the nation, and the upcoming games will test Mike Ekeler’s defense like no other has. The good news is that this unit is improving weekly. In the SMU game, there were broken plays, missed tackles, and almost plays. Tonight, we did not see that. Brandon Garner got two sacks, and three tackles for loss. That is indicative of the successful aggression this defense has now.

Special Teams

Do we count Keena’s run as a great special teams play? We probably should considering this unit was poor tonight. The kick game went 1-2, and the KO unit allowed a TD. John Schilleci has been praised in this space before, and it is only right that we point out that his missed tackle was the reason Marshall took it to the house to start the second half.

To my eyes 1 it seemed that the lane fits were in the right places and a couple of guys even got off their blocks. I mean, Schelleci was in position to make the tackle, after all. Perhaps most importantly, he was unable to even slow the guy. Keion Davis shrugged of the attempt, and continued running through the lane the tackle came from. It happens. Later, Marshall did well on a punt return or two. Overall this was a poor-to-mediocre performance here.

Coaching

The team came off of a disappointing offensive performance and put up big numbers. Seth Littrell has been searching for consistency — in drives, quarters, halves, games — all season. The swings between good and bad will likely continue. While it will be frustrating it is important to remember the circumstances and keep our eyes open for signs of overall improvement. I see that here.

As this group figures out what it does well (run) and what it does not do well (WR edge screens, really deep drops) the confidence will increase and good things will follow.

The offensive staff has had to shuffle the offensive line because of poor play and injuries. Graham Harrell has had to adapt his play calling to the talent available, and everyone has had to break in the freshman quarterback on the fly. With all that, NT has put up 394+ yards in four out of six games. You may remember this was a feat only accomplished once last season.

Yards do not win you games. Points do. This team is scoring full 10 points more per game than last year’s team. That is why this team has tripled that team’s wins.

Next

Next week is a well-deserved bye week. North Texas takes on Army in West Point in two weeks. They started out hot, but have lost two in a row (Buffalo and Duke). While Seth Littrell guided his squad to a win in Houston against Rice, the NT fans were at least 35% of that crowd.

Here is the deal, you guys. I (crazily) predicted 7 wins on the premise that the defense would be as disruptive and dominating at times like we saw tonight. I hoped the offense would be more explosive, but they still are good enough to win games — especially when Jeff Wilson is getting good blocks up front.

Given the state of CUSA West, and the general unpredictability of college football in general, North Texas has about a 1-in-10 shot of winning the division, and a 1-in-5 shot of getting to six wins.

Right now everyone ahead of NT in the CUSA West standings are on the schedule, meaning that North Texas would leapfrog them with wins against each. While the actual percentages differ depending on your flavor preference of advanced analytics, NT’s most likely wins are UTEP, UTSA, and Army in that order of likelihood.

By most measures, the UTEP game is the only one that is actually probable (greater than 50%). It is not the easiest road to six, but it is a very possible one.

Before the year, I predicted 7-wins and one of those being a steal against one of WKU/La Tech/Southern Miss. Before today I would have said La Tech is the most vulnerable. After Southern Miss allowed four plays of 70+ yards against a previously anemic UTSA? Well, maybe that home game in November is not so ominous. Maybe.

Whatever happens — and that very well could be losses the rest of the way — it is fun to sit here at the beginning of October and see North Texas at 3-3. Part of the fun of being a fan is excitedly speculating about bowl games and conference tie-breakers. I, for one, am enjoying this moment very much.

Go Mean Green


  1. I could not rewind as I was watching this via over-the-air TV in San Antonio. Yes, I realize it is 2016. Take it up with Spectrum.