HOUSTON, TX — As usual, the traveling North Texas crowd looked bigger than the home supporters, but that did not matter. Mike Bloomgren’s Rice Owls came to play on Saturday at Rice Stadium, and Seth Littrell’s Mean Green did not.
Of course, things are not as simple as effort and desire and the twenty-two starters on each team cannot be summed up by a simple adjective. Still, North Texas preaches being the “most excited to play” and it looked like the green team was not.
NT went down 20-0 and the same old problems emerged: could not protect Fine, mistakes in execution, and some questionable play calling. Defensively, Reffet’s player okay but could not generate the consistent pass rush that would have put Rice in reaction mode.
Late in the game, needing a stop, the defense surrendered two first downs that sealed the game for Rice. They ran out the clock and celebrated their second win of the season, and their first at Rice Stadium.
Rice had that to play for — Bloomgren has done a great job of keeping his team ready despite so many close calls — and NT had just a chance at a bowl game in a season that started with much higher hopes.
This season is effectively over. There is one game to play: next week vs UAB on Senior Day. Outside of sending off Mason Fine and the other guys who helped revive the program, there will be nothing extra to play for.
Long time North Texas fans will remember that the last time the season ended this way it was 2015, and we had a coaching change. Seth Littrell will not be fired, but he will still he sought after despite this season’s outcome. He can point to the record book, the young talent on the roster, and the three bowl appearances as proof that he built something at NT.
The setbacks can be explained by acknowledging that he is a first-time coach and learning mistakes happen. There probably could have been some better decisions made in recruiting and hiring but it all has been for the good and this has been one of the most successful eras of the program that does not include a trophy case.
It is important to keep that perspective when attempting to digest an ugly loss such as this one. Rice, for all the very due praise they have gotten all season for being tough, is not as talented as NT from 1-85.
They made that not matter for a large portion of this game, however. A lot of that is coaching.
putting their The offense had only 238 yards on 57 plays. Rice wanted to choke the game by holding the ball but the real culprit was the poor execution. Fine threw an ugly early interception and missed a few receivers — including Greg White in the end zone. The line could not create space for Siggers not protect Fine often enough to get a rhythm.
Later, NT had a shot from the red zone after Rice fumbled. The refs did not call an interference call on 3rd-and-12 but NT was not exactly not exactly putting the Owl defense on their heels. They needed a 4th down conversion the previous drive and a ball to go through a defender’s hands on a pass to Lawrence.
Ultimately, NT had their chances to win and did not capitalize.
The Rice offense was solid and unspectacular. They scored 20 in the first half, aided by some short fields but scored when they needed to. The NT defense allowed some conversions early and that hurt them. Later in the second half they did well to force punts except on the final drive when they allowed a big first down on third and long.
NT brought heavy pressure and left Nick Harvey in single coverage. QB Tom Stewart lofted a pass to his big target Austin Trammel who had inside position and used his superior size to go up and get it. Rice used up more clock and then converted a game-sealing 3rd down on the ground.
Defense should be judged in two ways: comprehensive and situational. North texas did well overall and poorly in the latter category. The overall numbers are solid. Holding a team to 20 and under 350 is usually winning defensive football.
However, allowing red zone touchdowns and game sealing drives when you need a stop is not. The staff takes a lot of heat and some of it is very deserved — how, in a scheme that is designed to get pressure, does the squad not get enough pressure?
Some of it is undeserved — this defense is young and getting better weekly.
In this one everyone will remember that the defense was the last unit to make a losing play, but the gave the offense enough possessions and therefore opportunity to win.
We wrote that Seth Littrell would earn his paycheck this week, as he had to motivate his group in a game that is very easy to dismiss against a team with nothing to lose, and hunger to impress.
There are a string of bad starts to this season — on the road and at home. SMU, Cal, this game come to mind quickly. North Texas is simply not ready to play to start the game. That is coaching.
The head coach is an offensive guru, and handpicked his new offensive coordinator. He said in preseason that he always had changes in mind for this year and wanted to be aggressive and more explosive.
Injuries have taken some of the experience from the team, but the mistakes that have plagued the group all year do not inspire confidence.
The criticism of the Air Raid system Littrell brought with him was of empty calories: big numbers but little in the way of details. Put another way it is “yes, you can have big per-game numbers but can you win a big game, or a big drive, or a high-leverage moment?”
Littrell’s group has pulled off some big plays in crucial moments but also has some huge, glaringly bad performances in others. It is discouraging to see his offense be the inconsistent performer in those games and moments.
This was a terrible loss. Rice deserves a lot of credit and Bloomgren has them playing well. Still, NT is further along the process than Rice is and had an all-timer at QB.
There is little reason to expect better in the finale against a better team than Rice, and a more experienced coach than Bloomgren. UAB beat Tech this day and combined with the USM loss to WKU, controls their fate in the west division.
Put simply: NT has nothing but pride to play for while UAB has a championship appearance on the line.