That was a tough loss. North Texas was a ten-point underdog in this one and yet had a three-point lead with :36 left in the game. UTSA threw a dart that was caught by a streaking tight end, one-handed, that set up the final play of the game. If you have watched lots of CUSA, you have seen Cardenas make catches like that before (vs Houston) and you’ve seen UTSA be aggressive when they have a chance to win (vs WKU).
North Texas made mistakes, they had chances, and yet they played a good game and I cannot be mad. I cannot even be sad! UTSA had to summon the full breadth of their abilities to pull out a win against this team. Now, there are a few ways to react to this game and not all of them are the same as the way MGN is reacting. We will go through those categories in a second. First, the following:
I wrote this on twitter:
Quote from the podcast: “if they have to make a diving catch over our freshman corner to win the game in the final second, then cool. Good game. That’s all we ask is that NT leaves it all out there” They did! NT played a hell of a football game and I have nothing bad to sayMe, on twitter
The actual audio from the podcast was this:
Now, it was not quite the final second, and it wasn’t Zakhari Franklin, and it was not a pinky but I think the combination left-handed grab by the tight end and the subsequent jump-ball in the end zone are the equivalent.
Let us talk through some reactions and discuss the the details of the game.
Categories of Reaction
- That hurt! I am sad! They had a chance! So close and it hurts to lose like that! This Game Hurt
- You know what? That was a great effort and NT were 10-point dogs/They have come a long way from SMU/UNLV Big Picture
- You are ignoring the details! That last drive was awful!/That QB/Player was awful! If they won it would just cover up that issue! Details!
Broadly speaking, they fall into these. I will admit I only thought about this while watching the beginning of a scary movie and cleaning up the kitchen after making dinner for the children. We can discuss it more if you like, but this is a good first pass.
1 This Game Hurt
Hurting means you care. It feels ugly to lose and especially when the game was won. That is the fun of football, and live sports and why I choose to put myself through the terrible awful grind of following various sports teams. The sweet feeling of victory (21) is so much better than the hurt, and it makes it all worth it in the moment.
Mrs. MGN falls into this category today. She thought we would lose, came in mentally prepared to be blown out, and got sucked into thinking we were going to win. Then they pulled that out of their Tight End and she felt sports-sad all over again. Sometimes blowouts are a better way to lose because you don’t get punched in the face at the end in one fell-swoop.
If you are here, it is okay. I understand. The game comes down to moments and it can seem arbitrary and vicious. Such is life.
2. Big Picture
If you are here, you are with me. MGN takes a more holistic view of it all in the epic quest to be a reasonable fan. I mean, the whole endeavor of this site is to process the fandom but while also being a discerning, cultured, guy that knows what the hell I am talking about.
The progress from SMU -> UNLV -> Memphis/FAU -> La Tech -> UTSA has been remarkable. We have seen improvement, and growth and it has been a lot of fun and very interesting. I am also not surprised that we could not run as well as we did vs Tech because I know what happened. It is not just a frustrating, baffling happening. (We’ll get into this later) We had an idea of what could happening in this game, and it happened. We envisioned a scenario where North Texas could reasonably compete with them and there were going to be a couple of situations where NT was going to really be tested. For the most part they passed those tests, or answered those questions well enough. (That they did not ace those tests are why it was such a close game).
The broader enjoyment and appreciation for the many good things that were there make it hurt less and me feel less sad. (I am very disappointed they lost, but not nearly as much as I was watching them get worked vs UNLV, or throw pick-sixes vs Memphis). They got beat by a guy that’s talented and been there for a while. They made him work hard. They made the coaches work hard. They had the lead on the road in the final minute. That’s a hell of an effort considering everything that could have happened.
We knew NT would have to run the ball — and they did! They only had 22-yards rushing but UTSA was selling out to run. From the preview:
UTSA will try a couple of things to stop it. The first, is just be sound in their scheme and use their keys. If NT starts getting yards in chunks, expect some of what Tech did: safeties walking up especially late. Depending on what, exactly is giving them trouble, you can also expect to see some scrapes and stunts designed to mess with the offensive line’s keys and assignments.
So UTSA was not walking up anyone, but they were flying to the ball. They were being very aggressive in meeting NT at the point of attack. The NT run game was not bad! How can I say such a thing? Well, we did not see runs for losses. NT executed their blocks, got lineman moving, and got positive yards … when they were there. There were simply not a lot of yards to get. When it was short-yardage, they got clever and ran a little speed-option with Aune and Johnson for a score. On first down the were getting 3/4 yards. They kept running, and that opened up the play-pass.
From the preview again:
Game plan: Be sharp in the run game. Execute the blocks and assignments well, and trust your eyes. Be clever in getting Horton the ball, and using him to keep the defense honest. Austin Aune will have to hit his guys over the top, and be crisp on the quick TE screens, and RPO stuff.
This is where NT was not as great. They tried being clever in getting the ball to Horton, but UTSA was ready — again very aggressive. NT tried to use that against them but wasn’t as “crisp” as I hoped for. Aune missed Shorter on a wide-open TD on the first drive. He was behind and late on others and threw a bad interception. He wasn’t as crisp on the TE screens.
That said and noted, he did find Gumms for two long passes, and found Burns for 100+ yuge first-down grabbing catches including a straight drop-back on 3rd-and-15 in winning time. That’s huge from him. That’s big from the offense. When it came down to it? NT scored touchdowns when they needed them. Great stuff from an offense that was very poor vs SMU, iffy in big short-yardage situations vs UNLV (three failed nth-and-1s). That’s growth. That’s progress.
We knew the game plan and they passed the test on offense. Was it an A+? Nah. They ran well enough to make UTSA respect it. They passed well enough to score go-ahead touchdowns. There is room for improvement and there is a lot of season left for which to demonstrate that.
In your extreme frustration at Austin Aune throwing the ball hither and thither, or at the play-calling decision on a given drive, or at the collective defense’s decision-making at the end, you are angry and upset and cannot enjoy the “good” that happened before. I get it. Also, given I am a Big Picture guy, I know what things are bad and how they have hurt us in the past. Given those impediments, for me, that made the overcoming of those impediments more enjoyable. Still, I can completely understand watching a weakness, or the one thing that could have been changed shine so bright.
I also think Aune could have played better, and the staff has missed on some recruiting and all of those things could have made a difference in this game. That said, the time for addressing the recruiting is not in-game, and the staff can only coach up the guys that are on the roster, and the players can only make plays in this game.
I believe in the idea of being honest and criticizing a decision before it is made, but after a decision is made, owing that decision like it was yours. It helps a group of people move in the same direction. As it applies to this team, I think the time for saying “Um, maybe another guy” is on signing day, not right now in the moment. The guy we got is the guy we got.
As for the final drive and even the celebrating on the field — it is hard for me to criticize without knowing what happened. It is loud on the field — especially in a dome — and some guys might not have known it was first down. They really could have thought it was over. Beyond that, the catch by Cardenas wasn’t because of blown coverage or being un-ready. It was covered and a great catch. The next play was also a bang-bang play and NT has made the decision (during the week) to say “we are going to defend in our base defense in these situations”. The time for criticizing that is in prep-week, and saying:
Coach with criticism: “but what if they have a matchup and we don’t like it! It is risky! They could line up and throw a fade at our freshman corner”
Other Coach: “Yeah but overall, we don’t want them to come down and scheme up a play that puts us in a bind. I think we get simply looks and play-calls and that makes it easier to react as a defense”
Reasonable people can argue! I don’t think either one is “right” but each option has positives and negatives. I thought NT defended well on the drive — dropped eight like they had been doing. UTSA called a great first play — that QB draw to beat them to catch them off guard. It happens! Good coaching! NT won the next two-or-three plays and was a half-yard away from winning the game. That’s the game! That does not necessarily mean a revamp of the entire defensive philosophy in my mind.
BUT — if you think it does, then the time to do it is the offseason. Change it, prep it, rep it, coach it, execute it. Personally, I do not believe in prevent defense, but I also don’t like big-blitzing with that situation. You are putting everything on one-play and that is crazy if you aren’t just completely out-matched. NT did not think they were completely out-matched and that is a reasonable assessment. I am fine with the final drive.
North Texas is now in race for second-place for the right to be the road team in the CUSA title game. Next up is a very-tough WKU team that nearly beat UTSA at the dome earlier this season. WKU beat UAB on Friday as well. That game is just as big for the conference race as this one was, without the rivalry implications.
UTSA won, but has UAB on the road next week — a team that wants their own revenge. They also travel to Rice, a team that is also on NT’s schedule. Rice is suddenly potent, and can’t be dismissed easily.
CUSA has a lot of parity, and the top of the conference is tough. NT competed with last-years champ, and they can feel good about it even while also being disappointed. That said, this season is not over and there is still a lot to play for. Big Picture thinking does not mean ignoring the bad in this game. It means that they got to be addressed or else there will be more losses.
NT’s defense played a hell of a game. They held UTSA to 3 points on their first six drives (1 FG, 1 INT, 1 Downs, 1 Punt, 1 Missed FG). After that, UTSA scored a TD to make it 10-6. They found solutions to the NT defensive plan of dropping eight into coverage. They did more play-action on early downs (found that TE on a throw) and also did more spread-to-run stuff like coming out in 12-personnel and running zone. North Texas’s defense showed some vulnerabilities. They got gashed by Harris on a couple of short-yardage plays. They allowed 100-yards to Brady but that was fine. For the most part they could not run when they wanted to on early downs, and NT was focussing on the pass-game.
Obviously, on the final plays NT got beat down the field. The TE made a hell of a grab, and the toss on the jump ball over Texada was not ideal. The plan was sound, the execution very good, and NT was a half-yard away from winning the game. The tackles in short-yardage vs their big wideouts was great. UTSA wanted to do a handful of things and could not. The counters to NT’s plan were addressed. Bennett coached a good game! Texada grabbed an interception! Solid stuff.
The offense was less good, but as I wrote above, NT got scores when they needed to do so. Aune missed a wide-open Jyaire Shorter on the first drive. That was going to be a walk-in score. That could have been the difference in the game — but he hit big passes later. Roderick Burns Jr was amazing, grabbing seemingly on the biggest catches. North Texas needed big catches from him on the final drive — 2:30 left down four, needing a TD — and he grabbed one on the sideline.
Var’kees Gumms caught two for big gains. The first was for a score after the second UTSA go-ahead score. The last one he caught on a wheel, and got NT inside the ten. The run game got the ball across the line, and NT was in business with a minute or so left. We wrote above about how the run game was held to 22-yards but it was effective. NT certainly could have used more from there, but a better pass game would have made UTSA wary about selling out to stop the run. NT hit them over the top when it mattered, and it almost was enough.
If you watched UNLV and Memphis defend NT, you saw some similar stuff. Everyone is going to defend NT that way, and the only chance at winning is to get pass plays to keep them honest. In short, Austin Aune is going to have to make throws to Shorter on time, and on target.
WKU in Bowling Green