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Bear Attack Too Much for North Texas, Lose 17-23

BERKELEY, CA. — North Texas came into the game as underdogs and played like it to begin the game on a warm but nice California afternoon. Down 20-0 at the end of the first quarter, the contingent of Mean Green fans were antsy and thinking of the SMU game the week prior.

California was able to do the same type of things that the Mustangs did the week before: capitalize on single coverage on third downs, take advantage of penalties, and well, score.

Mason Fine and the offense were unable to muster much early, and things weren’t helped after Rico Bussey went down after nearly catching a ball thrown his way near the Cal sideline.

Tre Siggers still looks like a good option in the run game, powering through tackles and getting “should not” yards. In the end the comeback fell short. The defense got the stops it needed late — forcing a punt with just under 2 minutes left in the game after holding Cal to only 3-points in the final three quarters.

The offense did manage to get a touchdown when it needed one — a 4th-and–7 strike from Fine to Shorter to cut the lead to six. The Mean Green scored three in the first half and 14 in the second. Fine also hit Jaelon Darden on a bubble route that he took 68-yards for a score.

This was a missed opportunity as California was and is vulnerable but one that ultimately did not matter as much. The conference season begins next week against UTSA.

Offense

The much-maligned offense began slowly but with some new attacks. Adjusting to Cal’s 1-v-1 coverage (because of their quality secondary) the Mean Green tried to get the ball on the edge to their backs and to playmakers in space. Fine was hit and sacked too much and after Bussey went out there was no one that obviously stepped up to make plays in the pass game.

In the second half, there were seemingly some opportunities for up-temp action but NT moved a little slowly — even when trying to get the first of two needed touchdowns. Ultimately they scored when they needed one, but came up short on the other.

Mason Fine threw some questionable balls and also threw a terrible interception. Still, he is the best offensive player and he is in a tough position.

Defense

The defense had a different sort of challenge here. Cal’s RB Brown is 230 lbs and the Bears leaned on him throughout the game — especially after taking a lead. NT had Chase Garbers scramble, but he did manage to pick up a ton of first downs. Cal was able to take advantage of single-coverage and later, zone-backed three man fronts to pick up first downs.

This was going to be a test of physicality and not scheme. SMU’s Dykes and his staff are proven offensive schemers. Cal’s staff? Not so much that. There were fewer adjustments and NT’s lapses came because they were inexperienced and then the aggression did not pay off.

Hamilton, Johnson, LeBlanc played well, among others.

Coaching

Someone somewhere needs to stop the first quarter issue. Both Cal and SMU came out to 20+ point leads and while there were adjustments made, they made it harder on everyone.

Biagi’s group allowed a big return, but managed a FG and did not miss any kicks. Kenworthy pinned them back deep a couple of times.

Seth Littrell and Bodie Reeder have some questions to answer. On the podcast we speculated that it could be just a roster imbalance — young receivers and an 4th QB.

There is talent on the roster — Darden, Bussey, Siggers, Torrey, Easly et al. The idea that league play will bring some more even games is probable, but there are still good players in CUSA.

Next up:

UTSA at Apogee. The Roadrunners played NT well at the Alamodome to close out last season. The new offensive coordinator is bringing them out of the dark ages a bit, and they have some talent at QB now, but that has only shown twice in four games — NT last year, UIW this year. Against two good teams — Baylor and Army — they struggled to do much.

It is always difficult to gauge a team coming off a game against Army, but we know NT cannot take this game for granted. The record stands at 1-2 and this is a league game at home.

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2018: North Texas vs Southern Miss Preview

It is easy to get excited for games like Louisiana Tech or UTSA. It is much more difficult to get excited for the worst team in the nation — UTEP — especially on the road. What of USM, a good team with little sizzle at the moment? Well, after a disappointing outing in El Paso (but still a win!) North Texas returns home to Apogee for a game against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles.

Last year, this matchup brought out the debut of Jalen Guyton, destroyer of secondaries. If you ask the average NT follower, they are wondering aloud if this NT team is headed for a disappointing conference schedule after going undefeated in the non-conference portion.

I suppose we should begin this preview with a few words about the last game. North Texas struggled, yes, but that can mean so much. UTEP came into the game playing awful football but if you looked closer you saw a team that was improving ever so slightly. Meanwhile, North Texas had issues even if the play of the defense was hiding a lot of those things. With the defense missing Kemon Hall at corner, there was the slightest drop off in play. Cam Johnson struggled against LA Tech and allowed a 67-yard TD against UTEP when he fell late in the fourth quarter.

The real issue, as we will detail later here, is the defensive line. Ryan Metz was able to force the defense into some zone looks, and that meant NT brought only four. EJ Ejiya, in his post-game comments after the Tech game bemoaned the time given to J’Mar Smith, remember. That was top-of-mind as NT gave Metz lots of time to throw and then a huge lane to run through as he scampered for 23 on 3rd-and-14.

Meanwhile in Ruston, UAB’s ferocious defensive line got to Smith five times. When Hall and Nate Brooks were locking things down out wide, DC Troy Reffett could bring pressure with LBs Ejiya and Brandon Garner.

UTEP OC Mike Canales saw some weaknesses in the defense in the match up zone and Ryan Metz was accurate enough to exploit those. For the most part, the defense played well, only allowing 24 points and intercepting two passes. The offense is the concern. Where was the 40-burger NT was supposed to put up with regularity? Before we discuss that further, let us look at the opponent.

Southern Miss

Jay Hopson has his team fighting against the momentum of roster turnover. He lost Kwadra Griggs, presumed returning starter, to an undisclosed university suspension, but was fortunate to get Jack Abraham in. The young transfer has had a rocky career thus far but has found a nice niche at USM where he has completed 70% of his passes.

If there is a trend with this team it is that it has been able to find capable replacements and remain a good team. This is not quite the talent level that Nick Mullens/Ito Smith/Allanze Staggers/Korey Robertson was, but it is still dangerous.

North Texas benefitted from poor QB play the last two years (both wins) with Keon Howard (now transferring) prone to fumbles and Kwadra Griggs prone to incompletions.

Abraham is going to complete passes and that is something NT has not faced thus far. Hopson is the lowest paid coach in this league and that is a disservice to him, as he has managed to keep USM solid with savvy recruiting and good schemes. His DC last year, Tony Pecoraro, was poached by Lane Kiffin and given a little raise.

USM has a good footballing history but little financial support as of late. They desperately need to make a little more noise in this league. Beating a resurgent NT will help them nicely.

Last Week

Well, last week USM had a bye, so they rested and presumably used that time to recruit and get a little extra film study of NT. Before that they took on a weak Auburn team that has terrible offensive issues at the moment. USM’s sports information department will use that close loss to sell a few more donors on the possibilities, but we can be less than impressed. Before that, USM beat Rice 40-22 on 9/22 and has a loss to Louisiana-Monroe 21-20 on the résumé.

Highlights from Rice Game

Back when Rice was a little better and running the ball well, they gave the Golden Eagles something of a scare. Abraham’s ability to move and throw ultimately was too much for the Owls ast they weren’t built for a shootout. Still, Bloomgren’s crew gave them a scare at the Rock for a good half.

Southern Miss on Offense

New QB Jack Abraham can throw the ball. He’s completing 70% of his passes thus far, which may make all the difference for the Golden Eagles.

  • 2017 Kwadra Griggs 10 games 148 of 265 55.8% 1879 yards 7.1/attempt 16 TDs 2 INTs
  • 2018 Jack Abraham 4 games 107 of 151 70.9% 1263 yards 8.4/attempts 11 TDs 5 INTs

Sure, against FBS competition, he has not been as good. He has thrown all five of his pick against teams not named Jackson St. The two against ULM were hugely important in the loss, and he threw two against Auburn also. He still is averaging 8.2 yards per attempt and that is telling.

The good news is that Southern Miss runs a very similar offense to the Mean Green, so there will be very little that is different to prepare for.

Out wide, sophomore 16 Quez Watkins, 6’2″ 190, leads the team in receptions. He is explosive and has scored in each game thus far. He has good size, and good speed. He ran a kick back against Jackson St. Southern Miss likes to get him the ball from a variety of starting spots — in screens, from a tighter split where he is almost a TE.

UTEP found some success — to the chagrin of many a NT fan — with some play-action. Kid Dimel found room on QB play-action and out wide, Warren Redix got yards. If you recall the Louisiana Tech review, we mentioned this.

NT likes to stop the run with numbers in the box and dare teams to throw.

Teams often try to play-action, max-protect, and try to win a matchup outside. Thus far NT has been great at defending this.

There have been mistakes, however.

Calvert ignored his TE down the middle and stared down his man, throwing incomplete.

LA Tech did not take advantage of this, but UTEP did. It helps that this kind of thing is part of their playbook.

Here is the video — that is just a nice play.

Skip Holtz mentioned how North Texas’ defenders play downhill and are really aggressive. This is the kind of thing that happens to over-aggressive defenses. North Texas knows this, and figures they can give up the occasional 33-yard pass to the full back as long as they are picking off a pass or two per game. So far, this has worked.

As teams get more film on the NT defense, there will be more exploits taken advantage of. Moreover, as the quality of the teams faced improves, the room for error decreases.

Expect Southern Miss to move the ball well and score easier than say, UIW did. The Golden Eagle run game leaves something to be desiredThey, like NT, are facing the loss of a program all-timer. Ito Smith is gone and the “deep” group of running backs has dwindled due to defection and injury.

Trivenskey Moseley (22), freshman 5’11” 195, has 116 yards on the year, four more than starting redshirt senior back 8 Tez Parks, 6’1″ 210, on sixteen fewer carries. The run game has been bad. Raw counting numbers have the team ranked 118th in the nation. S&P+ has the advanced rushing numbers in the 120s.

USM will try to run, but likely will have the most success throwing the ball. The game will come down to whether NT can continue to single-cover accross the board and bring pressure with the linebackers EJ Ejiya and Brandon Garner without getting burned by Quez Watkins.

I mentioned Watkins’ ability earlier. This is the kind of thing Jack Abraham and Watkins will be able to do if NT cannot control the yards-after-catch (YAC).

If NT has to drop into a soft zone, it will be a matter of getting to Abraham with four. This was an issue against Ryan Metz last week, and J’Mar Smith the week prior. NT sat in zones and were burned by a QB with time. J’Mar found his pass-catchers and Ryan Metz scooted for first downs. Abraham is accurate enough to find the holes in the zones.

Southern Miss on Defense

Surprisingly, the USM defense is stout again. Rice had some success against this team, but overall, the offense has been the barometer for success. USM lost their entire secondary for the most part. Hopson went the JUCO route to replenish. Starting boundary corner Ty Williams (7) 5’10” 163 JR, is one of those. Rover safety 19 Ky’el Hemby, 6’1″ 195, is another.

For a team with solid rushing numbers, they do not get many tackles for loss. Nose Tackle 43 LaDarius Harris is just 6’1″ 280 (senior), and his backup Delmond Landry (17), senior 6’3″ 308, are not the biggest guys. That helps explain why they have given up so many first downs in short yardage.

Overall, the defense has good raw counting numbers but the advanced stuff suggests there is room for exploit. Auburn, ULM, and Rice are not offensive juggernauts and that is probably all that is preventing USM from getting toasted — the competition was not up to doing so.

That said, UTEP was not very good and NT only scored 27. A good portion of that can be explained by simply not doing the little things.

This is a missed block on the outside zone. If this is sealed up, then Nic Smith gets a first down and probably more. This is a missed block on the power, if this is blocked, Nic Smith probably gets the first down and NT does not have to defend the final UTEP drive. Earlier in the game, this is a missed block on another outside zone run.

In each of those examples, the defender missed was the man who made the tackle. It is not on the running back — Nic Smith and DeAndre Torrey have done well at times. It did help that Loren Easly was able to shake off blockers and continue to run. It made everyone look good.

Beyond that, if Mason Fine connects with Guyton when he was wide open, the explosive numbers look better. Once again, NT should have the advantage on offense here. Short yardage conversion has been good — NT is ranked first in S&P+ in that department. It really is about efficiency and that starts with getting more explosive plays.

Jeff Wilson last year turned a 4th-and-1 into a 43-yard TD. NT has lacked the game-breaking individual effort this season. Sure, there have been some explosives, but a 30-yard gain is not a 57-yard TD score.

To highlight my meaning, let us return to the Tech game. NT was down two and Tech brought everyone up to the line of scrimmage. Either Mason Fine checked to a pass to Bussey, or it was called. Whatever the case, this was 1v1 for the game. Tech’s Sneed made the better play.

Sometimes football is a simple game.

Special Teams

Cole Hedlund has been good outside of the one miss against Tech. North Texas’s special teams has also been very good outside of a couple of muffed kicks. Quez Watkins and Jaylond Adams are good returners. They can change the game.

Jaelon Darden is also good at punt returns but his muffed kick is still on everyone’s mind. Keegan Brewer is a viral star, and he has done well. DeAndre Torrey also dropped a kick off, but he looks likely to break one soon.

Numbers

Regular Numbers

NT (FBS Rank) Category USM (FBS Rank)
41.5 (20) Points 32.0 (53)
483.0 (23) Total Off 429.8 (51)
154.5 (88) Rushing Off 110.8 (118)
328.5 (8) Passing Off 319.0 (13)
19.3 (26) Scoring Def 18.5 (23)
334.7 (27) Total Def 289.0 (8)
229.8 (74) Pass Def 165.8 (11)
104.8 (14) Rush Def 123.2 (20)

Advanced Numbers

S&P+ Rankings

North Texas: Overall 50, Off: 64, Def: 46, ST: 6
Southern Miss: Overall 72: Off: 114, Def: 29, ST: 44
Prediction:

Massey Ratings

North Texas: Overall: 84, Off: 81, Def: 104
Southern Miss: Overall: 126, Off: 126, Def: 116
Prediction: North Texas win 34-27

Sagarin

North Texas: 62
Southern Miss: 113
Prediction: NT by 13

SRS

North Texas: Overall: 55, Off: 86, Def: 75
Southern Miss: Overall: 94, Off: 106, Def: 64

Vegas

Line: NT -9, O/U: 58

Overall

Football season is a long slog through five months. It is very easy to look at any two or three game stretch (let alone one!) and make sweeping pronouncements. That is partly what makes this whole thing fun to follow, but it can also make small things into big issues.

The truth about North Texas right now is that it is not very different that the team that lined up against SMU. The offense then came out and had a hard time scoring easily — Seth Littrell was upset at halftime of that game with the offense. The offense had a similar issue against UTEP and even in the second and third quarters against LA Tech.

Because there was an actual loss to LA Tech, followed up by a poor game against UTEP, it feels like NT is on a two game losing streak. The truth is that the offense and defense did well enough to win against Tech — the offense drove for two game-winning FGs and the defense held Tech to 3 points in the second half.

Even in El Paso, Mason Fine led the team to 400+ yards and more yards per play than the season average. The defense had an off game by season standards, but got a couple of late stops to win the thing. Last year this team got four ugly wins — against UTSA, ODU, UAB, and Army — and went down by two scores on the road to this Southern Miss team before storming back.

Ugly wins are part of the game. It is important to remember that NT is winning those things. It was not that long ago that these previews could be summed up as “If everything goes perfectly, this offense can score 24 points and NT will lose by 3”. Now? Well, NT can have a few mistakes and pull out a three-point win.

With the home crowd behind them, I think NT gets back to feeling good and puts this to bed early.

Terrible prediction: NT 44 USM 26

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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

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Tough Losses Are Tough

Losing by two at home to one of the best teams in the division is not anything to be ashamed of.

North Texas was not “exposed” or revealed to be a fraud. Two good teams played a good game and NT’s previously existing flaws — that up-and-down offense, and the defense reliant on two outstanding corners playing exceptionally well and a fierce pass-rush — was going to be challenged by a team that had tape and talent.

So it goes.

The real loss was losing Loren Easly — officially ruled out for the season — and having QB Mason Fine and CB Kemon Hall still in evaluation mode. UTEP is not good enough to exploit NT’s weaknesses unless North Texas really just comes out a shell of itself — perhaps something like the 2016 game in El Paso.

Keeping Fine upright and healthy all season was always going to be goal 1A for each game. While Seth Littrell has worked on building depth at the QB spot, that ceiling was always going to be lower without number 6 back there. Nothing has been made official just yet, but I would not be absolutely shocked if NT trots out Quinn Shanbour or Cade Pearson out there on Saturday.

The schedule does not let up until November 3, when NT is idle. Four conference games, split home and away, including the very tough UAB game in Alabama, are on the slate. NT with a limited offense is favored in only the UTEP game without Mason Fine. That is the reality of college football especially at this level.

Loren Easly was rounding into the clear number one option and was making individual plays — breaking tackles and punishing the lighter lineups in front of him. The good news is this group has good depth. Nic Smith was expected to be the feature guy, splitting reps with Torrey. DeAndre Torrey has gotten the second team reps, with some explosive results. He looks shifty, but had trouble holding on to the ball. He fumbled and muffed a kick return.

There is also Anthony Wyche, the D. Torrey before D.Torrey made his way to Denton. Oh, also Christian Hosley and last year’s surprise: Evan Johnson.

Name G Att Yards Avg TDs YPG
Loren Easly 4 74 286 5.22 4 96.5
Nic Smith 5 27 146 5.41 1 29.2
DeAndre Torrey 5 31 128 4.13 4 25.6
Anthony Wyche 4 12 59 3.0 0 14.75

Kemon Hall is tough to replace, if that is the situation. Cam Johnson came in and did some nice things, but not enough nice things that Jordan Roberts could stay sitting. Seth Littrell said nice things about Roberts in the post-game press-conference but was never going to say anything negative about CJ.

Between the two, there is talent there but they will be picked on viciously by everyone including UTEP’s questionable pass game. Increased reps at practice should help speed things along but losing Hall is tough.

The reality is that there is plenty to play for for everyone in this division, including La Tech. The Bulldogs have a very tough UAB run game to try to stop in Ruston this Saturday. You should definitely keep an eye on that one.