Struggle Win: North Texas 27 UTEP 24

The North Texas Mean Green went to UTEP and struggled with the Miners. This has been a theme for some time. NT lost the last two in El Paso coming into today, including that awful 52-24 defeat in 2016 that served as the Miners’ most recent win.

Senior Ryan Metz started in place of redshirt freshman Kai Locksley and perhaps showed a little bit of why he should remain the starter. He brought another dimension (passing) to things, while retaining just enough of the ground attack that makes Locksley so dangerous.

He threw for 313 yards on 16/33 passing. A good number of those yards were so much luck that it was infuriating and frustrating and perhaps a little reminiscent of last year’s defensive performance. So it goes. North Texas was always going to have a bad game this season and it came against UTEP, a very beatable team that — despite the offensive explosion — only managed 24 points on 417 yards.

The offense had a similar fall-off, but it managed 27 points — the same number as it produced last week against Tech but in much different fashion. We have concerns about the Easly-less run game, and the struggling pass game. That said, those are relative complaints as MGN remembers when a struggling pass game looked like barely getting 100 yards.

Mason Fine put up 294 yards and threw two scores (one on another one of those jet-sweep ‘touch’ passes) on 23 of 34 passing. Rico Bussey dominated the game with 8 grabs for 117 and a score. Jaelon Darden reappeared for five grabs and 91 yards. That was all good, but why does it feel bad? Well, UTEP came in looking terrible and we all expected an offensive show. Instead we got a solid game and it required some tough yards late to put things away.

All in all that was a winning effort when we did not think we would need one.

Let us obsess about this game that was horrible to watch:

Offense

Again, the offense put up good numbers 428 yards, 294 passing and 134 rushing. The Mean Green added 21 first downs and converted 8/17 first downs. NT ran only 69 plays and came in averaging 81 per game. The good news: NT averaged 6.2 yards per play and came in at 6.08. So yes, by at least one measure this offense was better than it had been.

Okay, but 27 is not 44, which was the per-game average coming in. Part of that was that the first and third quarters saw some bad running. NT could not get the easy runs that get them ahead of the chains and then saw Mason Fine run for his life on later downs. Mike Lawrence had a drop, and Rico Bussey lost the ball over his shoulder again. Little things like that were overcome, but against a good team those can be losing plays — see last week.

In the second and fourth quarters Nic Smith and company did some nice things. Mason Fine led some TD drives and NT won the game by scoring when it had to. Mason Fine was 9/9 for 105 and a score in the third quarter when the run game struggled.

Ideally, he is tossing TDs early — something like we saw in the first quarter against Tech — and NT is running to close things out later. Credit to the UTEP defensive line that showed it is good in its own right. The D-Line helped UTEP produce five tackles for loss. They were tough.

Defense

That was not fun to watch. We can forgive the NT defense for being caught a bit off guard. There was no tape of Metz in this UTEP offense. Gone were the QB-centric run things that UTEP had relied on so much this season and in place were more of the passing things that Locksley is not so good at.

UTEP broke out the K-State jump pass on the QB-play action thing and kept NT honest about it by actually running Metz some times. Former NT coordinator and interim Head Coach Mike Canales called a good game, catching NT sleeping on some plays and finding the fullback — son of UTEP head coach Dana Dimel — and Q. Wadley big plays on play-action.

There was some bad luck to deal with: A couple of catches were the result of miracles or falling down (Cam Johnson on the 67-yard TD to Keynan Foster). That is frustrating but the defense did come up with a couple of interceptions to extend the nation-leading lead in that category.

Tyreke Davis and Nate Brooks grabbed one each. Davis’ was a diving one across the middle that was the best of the night.

There were two sacks (shared among four players) and five tackes for loss. The defense swarmed and gang-tackled, which is nice to see.

Ultimately, there were a few mistakes but it was a good effort. Ryan Metz was able to escape and extend drives on some third-and-longs. It was not the defense’s finest hour. Again, we should commend the UTEP squad for executing and pulling out some nice plays. They mixed in surprise with power runs that got them to 24 points.

You can see the outlines of the team they want to be in the coming years.

Special Teams

Cole Hedlund had a 52 and a 29 yarder. Kenworthy had four nice punts that flipped the field and the coverage was solid. No muffed punts this time, so that is nice.

NT blocked one UTEP kick that ultimately decided the game.

What It Means

North Texas is 5-1 and 1-1 in conference play. Elsewhere, Louisiana Tech dropped their home opener to UAB. The Blazers defensive line held J’Mar Smith to 9/23 for 107 and an interception. UAB rushed for 229 yards and three scores.

The Blazers do a lot of what UTEP tried tonight but with success and have a defense to be very afraid of. That matchup is coming up in two weeks but next week is a very good USM team that is coming off a bye.

North Texas was always going to have to battle for this division, good start or no. The squad has not been playing that well on offense, but there is still time to correct that. North Texas was expected (by MGN) to come out more crisply, but there was a lethargy there. I suppose it could be chalked up to human nature, but coaching and play is supposed to bring teams beyond the natural inclinations.

NT might have escaped this one, and that is good. It means that the squad has a chance to control some aspect of its fate. There will be tougher teams and less room for awful play.

Next Up

Southern Miss who had a bye. Apogee Stadium gets a chance at a re-do against a good squad that can score and has talent on defense