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2018 New Mexico Bowl Preview: North Texas vs Utah State

Ladies and Gentlemen of the green, we have a bowl game to think about.

The New Mexico Bowl pits our North Texas Mean Green against the Aggies of Utah State. Some of you older alumni remember when this was a conference opponent.

The skinny is this: This team is good and it is ranked in the coaches poll (23rd). They have been really good under departed coach Matt Wells and this is reflected in their steller win-loss record and their nice S&P+ ranking (21st). They are a good team.

Game

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 15 at 1pm Central
Where: Dreamstyle Stadium (Albuquerque, N.M.)
TV: ESPN

UTAH State Schedule

  • L @ Michigan State 31-38
  • W New Mexico State 60-13
  • W Tennesse Tech 73-12
  • W Air Force 42-32
  • W @ BYU 45-20
  • W UNLV 59-20
  • W @ Wyoming 24-16
  • W New Mexico 61-19
  • W @ Hawaii 56-17
  • W San Jose St 62-24
  • W @ Colorado St 29-24
  • L @ Boise st 24-33

What stands out from above? They played a relatively easy schedule with five teams ranked in the S&P+ 100 level. The mid-tier teams like BYU, Wyoming, Boise, and Michigan St gave them a bit more trouble. Against Boise St to end the year, the defense was roasted. Even against Colorado St, the offense struggled. It was not a romp through the league like Boise States of old, but a nice season from Utah St.

For comparison’s sake, North Texas is ranked 31st in S&P+, just above Michigan State’s final ranking (35) and just under Boise State’s (29). S&P+ has this game close but gives Utah State a win by 2.7 points and a probability of 56%. ESPN is a little more certain, thinking the Aggies win with a probability of 78%. Vegas calls North Texas 11-point dogs.

The offense is explosive, with both aspects of the offense doing damage. QB Jordan Love is a 6’4″ 225 lbs sophomore who threw for 3208 yards and 28 TDs against only 5 picks so far at a 65% clip. Those are good QB numbers even for this modern age.

The run game is led by Darwin Thompson, a 5’8″ JR who racked up 951 yards on 7.2 yards per tote and 14 scores. His teammate Gerold Bright is 5’9″ 195, a JR and totalled 785 on 6.3 yard per tote and 8 scores. Two guys with the same build rushing for big yards. That is what you need to know.

Out wide, Ron’QUavion Tarver is 6’3″ 215, a senior who grabbed 62 balls on 89 targets for 676 yards and 7 scores. Jalen Greene a 6’2″ 205 lbs senior grabbed 38 on 60 targets for 538 and five scores.

There are a lot of upper-classmen on the offensive side of the ball and that means they know what they are doing, how to execute it, and have experience doing so.

Defensively, Utah State lines up in a base 3-4 but it is your typical multiple spread-stopping defense. The OLB Jontrell Rocquemore is 6’1″ 210 lbs, and can run. They call him a linebacker but he is a safety in size. He’s a senior nd has 8.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and a forced fumble on the year. Tipa Galeai, the 6’5″ 230 lb rush OLB — he’s basically in the JACK role in North Texas terminology — has 8.5 sacks on the season. He also has two interceptions lest you think he can’t drop in coverage occasionally.

Utah State likes to throw the ball, and they do it well. They are successful at it. They also move the ball quickly — they are 17th in adjusted pace. The linebackers and DBs get into the backfield and get tackles for loss.

North Texas Schedule

  • W SMU 46-23
  • W Incarnate Word 58-16
  • W @ Arkansas 44-17
  • W @ Liberty 47-7
  • L Louisiana Tech 27-29
  • W @ UTEP 27-24
  • W Southern Miss 30-7
  • L @ UAB 21-29
  • W Rice 41-17
  • L @ ODU 31-34
  • W FAU 41-38
  • W @ UTSA 24-21

North Texas played four teams in the 100 level of S&P+ (Liberty, UTEP, Rice, and UTSA) and won them all but not nearly as convincingly as Utah State did. The three losses came to the 95th, 53rd, and 99th ranked teams in S&P+. This Aggie team will be the best team faced by North Texas by far.

This NT team is obviously led by Mason Fine and his offense. Fine has 3734 yards passing, 27 TDs against 5 INTs on 64.6% throwing. DeAndre Torrey has emerged as the number one back midway through the season and has scored an incredible 14 scores in that time — on the ground. He has two more receiving. Torrey is at 942 yards on 5.9 per tote.

Rico Bussey, Jr. is the leading pass-catcher at 68 grabs on 107 targets and 1017 receiving for 12 scores. Jalen Guyton is second with 50 catches on 89 targets, 702 yards and 5 scores.

Defensively, EJ EJiya is leading the team with 23 tackles for loss including 9 sacks. EJ plays ILB, so this is telling on how much NT blitzes with him.

Putting It All Together

It is really difficult to determine how good these teams are. Both played in leagues where the competition was below-par nationally, and both struggled with some good teams when they faced them. Utah State has the higher profile right now and the higher ranking. Both had their coaches become targets in the latest coaching carousel, but only Utah State lost theirs.

The location makes this more of a home game for Utah State than for North Texas. The Aggies have already travelled to ABQ this year, and everything will be a little familiar, while the furthest west NT has gone was to El Paso, where they struggled.

The question here will be the same one we have asked all season: Can North Texas’s offense be consistent enough to get the big points we know are there? That means, can they convert those troublesome 3rd and medium and 3rd and shorts?

Defensively, both squads are aggressive. NT has been burned of late, with teams targeting Tyreke Davis in the slot. Will the staff turnover mean less prep for that kind of thing? That is to say, will North Texas get a little luck in that department? The most explosive and talented offense NT has faced scored 38 – FAU in November. The defense managed to get some takeaways and generate some negative plays.

Utah State has a good QB that will not make freshman mistakes in this one, and that might be a challenge. NT’s defense has usually played up — and down — to the competition and this is the senior-laden defense’s final go-’round. I imagine they will be up for it.

Prediction Time

On the podcast I was feeling generous and think North Texas wins in a shoot out. The league opponents all know NT well, and that contributed to some of the slower finishes.

North Texas Wins 41 – 40

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Football

North Texas at UTSA Preview

We do not have much time, so let us be straightforward: North Texas should blow the doors off this UTSA Roadrunner team tonight.

North Texas is slightly ahead of their record-setting pace for yards and points last season, and UTSA is nowhere near the tough team that nearly won in Denton back in October 2017.

The last few weeks, we have posited that mustering the motivation would be the biggest issue for the Mean Green after losing to UAB and all-but-closing the door on the league title chances.

This week is not so difficult. North Texas-UTSA is not Ohio State-Michigan, but it has all the ingredients and there have been enough losses on both sides to have hurt feelings about the other team.

Back in 2013, North Texas fans had at best a mild annoyance at the upstart team from San Antonio. Much of the dislike — if it rose to that level — was based in manner in which UTSA Roadrunner fans acted online. “We are going to step in and dominate everyone.”

Mean Green people, stuck watching NT Football spin their wheels in the mud after the Todd Dodge fiasco, were all too aware of the difficulties of life in lower-FBS football and did not appreciate those comments.

On November 23, 2013 North Texas was playing for a perfect Apogee season while UTSA had a solid team led by a senior QB. The Roadrunners were good, hoping for an NCAA ruling to get bowl-eligible in their second-season in FBS, but finishing 7-5 including a 6-win conference season.

I note all of the above to highlight how good the team North Texas lost to was. Most NT fans thought NT was the far-better team (they were), but on that extremely cold day they could not put a drive together and ultimately fell, losing the chance for a conference title appearance and a perfect season.

That NT team still went on to win a bowl game — the last NT team to do so. Between you and I, if that game were played two days before or after there would have been a more raucous crowd and a better NT team. It wasn’t, so that loss hurt like hell.

I wrote after the game that to begin a rivalry, there needed to be some hurt feelings. North Texas, being the established program with stakes — UTSA was playing with house money for a while there — had to be the first to lose. If NT wins that game UTSA — fans and players alike — simply shrug and say “we are only a 3-year old team!”

On the podcast after, a guest said “I hate UTSA. It just happened yesterday.” This is how a rivalry begins.

The next season, both squads had awful teams in the Alamodome. Zach Whitfield touched a punt return ball that UTSA recovered, nixing a chance for Andrew McNulty to lead a game-tying drive. Andrew McNulty had one of his best games ever that day — NT had not passed for more than 107 yards in a month’s time leading up to that game. It was a bad year. UTSA had a bad run game that powered through and sliced through the NT defense. It was a bad year.

The year after NT and UTSA played in Apogee and Mike Canales led that Mean Green team to the only win of the season and it came at UTSA’s expense. Again, both teams were bad but NT was historically so.

In Mason Fine’s freshman season, UTSA beat NT in the Alamodome again, this time taking advantage of the young QB’s turnovers to pull away late. This was the only game of the series to not come down to the final drive or finish within one possession.

Last year, obviously, was special. Mason Fine led North Texas to a miracle win in what the UNT president dubbed “The division championship game.”

To recap:

  • 2013: UTSA 21 – UNT 13 | Derek Thompson is intercepted in the final seconds after a desperation drive to tie. At Apogee.
  • 2014: UTSA 34 – UNT 27 | Zach Whitfield muffs the punt that would have given NT possession and a chance to tie. At the Alamodome.
  • 2015: UNT 30 – UTSA 23 | Jeff Wilson and Damarcus Smith ran for 270+ yards between them and the defense held UTSA on their final drive. At Apogee.
  • 2016: UTSA
  • 2017: UNT 29 – UTSA 26 | Mason Fine leads NT ona 98-yard drive with no timeouts and under a minute left. At Apogee

That brings us to this season. There has not been a more mismatched game between the two. In the past five years of this game, both teams have been up or down at the same time. The previous exception was in 2016, when UTSA had the stronger team by some margin. Still, UNT had come in to that Haloween weekend having beat Army and felt like they had some chance. Were it not for the turnovers — including one at the goal line by Jeff Wilson — the game could have been closer.

This Year’s UTSA:

The Runners are ranked 130 of 130 in scoring, at a meager 13.5 points per game. Since their last win against Rice on October 6th, where they won 20-3 on the strength of their defense (and bad Owl play) their point totals (all losses) — 3, 17 (aided by a pick-six), 3, 7, 0.

Beyond this, the defense that was the strength of the team has fallen apart. Louisiana Tech scored 31, USM 27, then UAB 52, FIU 45, and last week offensively-challenged Marshall had 23 in a game that should have been worse.

This UTSA team is one of the worst NT has faced in some time. If we go down the list of this season’s bad teams we get this: Arkansas, UTEP, Rice.

Arkansas is loaded with talent that cannot be said of UTSA. UTEP is improving, and played close games with Tech and UAB. Rice is also improving and NT eventually showed why they are the better team.

In fact, at worst, I think UNT plays UTSA like they did Rice last season in Houston. In that one, NT came out a little rusty, threw a pick-six, and then eventually pulled away without the nice blowout win that we all wanted.

This North Texas team is frustratingly good — so much talent on offense and the defense aggressively playmaking. These collapses throughout the season have meant big early leads wasting away before crushing losses — save for the FAU game.

The takeaway probably should be that this is team is an evolution of the gunslinging one that was involved in so many shootouts last season. NT is still scoring, but doing it inconsistently. NT is still winning but doing so with some tough losses.

North Texas is very good, and has not lost to teams it “should” have beaten since the ODU game — and even then, that weird Monarch team is an under-performing, talented team with upper classmen. A good number of that team finished 10-3 just two seasons ago.

Where ODU found a QB that could get passes to their talented WRs Jonathan “He Spit On Me” Duhart, and Travis “Just Toss it Up to Me” Fulgham, UTSA has no such luck.

The rotating class of pass throwers is the classic “There but for the grace of Mason Fine go we” situation. We remember it well, as NT coaches rifled through the roster looking for anyone that could stand in there and complete a pass.

At this level of competition, having the best QB on the field does a lot for moving the gambling line. Yes, that is the case all across football generally but even great QBs need help. Just last night we saw Will Grier and Gardner Minshew both lose in games where they could have been called the better QB. Yes, Kyler Murray is good, but you see my point.

UTSA has rolled out Cordale Grundy, Jordan Weeks, DJ Gillins, and Bryce Rivers. Each has had a shining moment or two, but only Grudny had completed more than 50% of his passes (50.5 to be exact) and he also is the only QB to throw more TDs than INTs — 5 to 3.

We saw Mason Fine struggle in his first year and the potent offense we see weekly was a struggle-fest that first season. We could be kind and say UTSA is simply going through growing pains, but it is difficult to see how or what UTSA is trying to do every week.

The run game cannot run. The pass game is struggling with young (and not good?) QBs. There is no evident rhyme or reason to the play calls or the QB rotation. When the head coach — in late October — is saying “Maybe we should pare back the offense a bit” that is a bad sign.

That UTSA defense — once so praised and still boasting some quality players — is bad now. They give up big plays in the run game and the pass game and in pretty much any situation you can think of, they will allow you to move the ball and probably score on it.

There is confusion in the secondary, and even more on the sidelines it seems. North Texas should eat well, like I did just two games ago.

North Texas are 24.5 point favorites in this one and it should not be even that close.

North Texas 55 UTSA 6

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Football

The Re-Rematch: North Texas vs FAU

This game does not have the stakes we anticipated in preseason. Both squads have gone through some soul-searching in the weeks before this game. FAU found that they missed the departed Driskel a bit more than they perhaps thought they would. The very talented Chris Robison is still very talented, but he is very much a young college football player and has displayed that in all of the losses thus far. Still, he is showing signs of improvement and FAU still has the talented roster that can do damage to even the most prepared of CUSA squads. They have shown recently what could have been, dispatching an overmatched WKU in the second half of that game and destroying FIU in the Shula Bowl. FIU will likely win the East division.

North Texas is 3-3 in league play, just like FAU, and all three losses came in heartbreaking fashion. The Mean Green led each of their losses by scores of 21-6, 21-10, and 28-0 to Tech, UAB, and ODU respectively. The good: getting big leads is hard and NT can do that. The bad: losing big leads is very bad and NT has done that. There is plenty of blame to share and Seth Littrell spent time this week doing the public relations version of that story. He said the team did not take success well. That is one way of deciphering things. I do not know how much that has to do with getting a first down on 3rd-and-1 or 4th-and-1 but sure.

What Is There To Play For?

As Littrell mentioned this week — and we mentioned on the podcast last week — NT has not won 10 games in the history of the program and only has four 9-win seasons, last year included. This is one of the more talented teams in NT history, and winning nine goes a long way toward demonstrating that fact.

There is also the matter of revenge, as much as can be had. North Texas was frankly embarrassed twice by FAU in two meetings in Florida last season. The first in October, saw FAU light up the scoreboard and the record books. We knew this team would be talented but have some challenges. That has proved to be the case this season. Here is what we wrote this summer:

The Owls were the only CUSA team to beat the Mean Green and did so by a combined 110–48 on a combined 1436 yards. That said, they lost both coordinators along with a couple of position coaches. There will be challenges in Boca Raton, Heisman campaign notwithstanding.”

—“2018 MGN Season Preview.”

Athletes are proud and everyone knows that FAU kicked some behind last season. At the very least, that should be the primary motivating factor outside of the usual “going 1-0 each week” stuff.

FAU, Who Are They?

Well, if you are completely unfamiliar, they are the defending CUSA champions coached by former coaching wunderkind Lane Kiffin. Kiffin is known for his twitter account, tendency to be a great quote, and for his controversial exits at the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Volunteers, and USC. He can coach, and has produced capable, solid offenses wherever he has been. His FAU team last year set program and league records for offense.

Devin Singletary is shooting up the all-time college football charts and is a Doak Walker semifinalist (a running back award). He is a bit off the pace of his 2017 137 ypg mark to go with 32 TDs. This season sees him at 116 ypg and 20 TDs. So while he has struggled relative to the previous year, he has been great again. His backup Kerrith Whyte Jr is talented and has produced 700+ yards and 7 TDs himself, many of the very long variety.

The entire roster has talent — again, something Lane Kiffin is good at finding — and while they’ve struggled, it has had more to do with the coordinator changes, untimely injuries (star LB Azeez Al-Shaair is out for the season), and inexperience at QB.

They lost a game at Middle Tennessee in September (same day as NT’s Tech loss) where Middle converted multiple 4th downs on the final drive to seemingly tie, only to go for 2 and steal the victory at home. They turned the ball over a ton of times against Marshall — QB stuff — and then lost at home to Tech in late October thanks to a couple of poor decisions down the stretch.

They still have all the talent to be dangerous, even if they are not as polished and not as much of a well-oiled machine as the 2017 version.

Our Squad, How We Looking?

Well, not great. Again, this is relatively speaking. Last year we were super excited to see North Texas average 35.5 a game and produce 6.14 yards per play on the way to an historic offensive season.

This season North Texas is averaging 37.2 per game and putting up 6.20 yards per play and everyone is a bit upset with the offense. Of course it is all contextual. North Texas won four close games last season that could have easily gone a different way: UTSA, UAB, Army, and ODU. This season they lost three games that could have gone differently. If you squint, there is progress. That would require being a bit reasonable, however.

Mason Fine is having an incredible year — again. Last season he threw for 4052 yards on 289.4 per game, 31 scores against 15 interceptions all on 36.5 attempts per game at a 63.4 completion rate.

This season he is at 3119 yards with three to play (311.9 per game), 23 scores against only 2 interceptions on 38.8 attempts per game at a 63.7 completion rate. Pretty good stuff, y’all.

Rico Bussey, Jr. has been great, averaging 90 yards per game and leading the team in receptions by some margin (61 grabs to Jalen Guyton’s 41). He has 12 scores on the season, tying Casey Fitzgerald for scores in a year.

If you are box-score watching, you see DeAndre Torrey’s 12 rushing TDs and 5.03 yards per carry average and think that the run game is doing well. It has been for the most part, but in short-yardage it has struggled, which has brought down the entire offense.

Last year North Texas converted 47% of third downs in conference play, including 56% in the month of November last year. This season the number is down to 39.5%, and 35% this month.

Similarly, 4th down conversions are down. NT was at 55% conversion rate in league play in 2017, and is down to 40% this season. Simply put, when NT has to make a play offensively, they have struggled.

Defensively, things are much improved. Those same 3rd down numbers are flipped, essentially. The Mean Green are only allowing 45% conversion in conference play against a 50% rate last year. A slight improvement to be sure. Overall, however NT improved from 56% allowed overall to 36% this season. There were some bad plays in the ODU game but the defense has for the most part been impressive.

What is the Line?

North Texas is a -4.5 favorite and opened as a -2.5 favorite. FAU has not played well on the road, and that is typical of young QBs. De’Andre Johnson has played recently in place of Robison and brought another dimension to the Owls. Still, FAU struggled for a while against WKU, a terrible team, and that should bode well.

Really, North Texas has to get out of their own way and things will be fine. NT has the better QB by some margin, and that should make all the difference.

Line: NT -4.5, OU: 63.5
Pick: North Texas 34 FAU 28

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Football

2018 North Texas at ODU Preview

This is a much abridged preview. MGN has been otherwise occupied with life and its concerns. Apologies all around.

Last game we discussed the challenges of finding new goals after the main goals become unreachable. The Mean Green’s best season in some time will go without a conference championship after two losses to Louisiana Tech and UAB.

North Texas still has a 7-2 record and program milestones to reach for, but from this perch — with conference title aspirations and a taste of the title game last season — those goals seem unimportant.

Old Dominion beat Virginia Tech in Norfolk early this season. They’ve been a mixed bag of good and bad. They have a veteran team that has underperformed but unsurprisingly jumps up and has a good game.

North Texas, in the mean time, has the best team in years filled with upperclassmen supported by young up-and-comers in all positions on offense. The defense is good and aggressive.

The offense has been suspect inasmuch as it has struggled to score points in both halves. North Texas can score in one half and look like a Pat Mahomes Texas Tech squad and then implode and look like North Texas circa 2016, where it was Air Raid in name only and not in execution.

The book on our Mean Green is that you bring pressure on Fine and make the run game get yards. That is easier and better said than done, of course. The best teams NT has faced — the two losses — were equipped to get pressure with the defensive line and cover with lots of secondary defenders.

Old Dominion has some of that in Oshane Ximenes, but overall the Monarchs are a sieve on defense. Offensively they’ve been much better with Blake LaRussa, of beating-VT fame, at QB. He’s undersized but throws an accurate deep ball. This is fine, considering his two WRs Josh Duhart and Travis Fulgham are big playmaking WRs that can go up and grab the ball.

They’ve been unlucky — the refs stole a game from them against ECU — but they also have been plain bad. The coaching staff is good, and the roster has talent but nothing is going ODU’s way this season.

Prediction: North Texas 41 – ODU 21

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2018: North Texas vs Rice

This game is less of contest against the Rice Owls and more of a test of wil and self-discipline. We are often told that football teaches sacrifice, discipline, and some of the hard lessons that best prepare you for life. This is a knowledge check.

It is much easier to prepare for games where everything is on the line. It is easy to work hard when you are up for promotion, or a raise, or a bonus. What about when you are told in no uncertain terms that there is no greater reward coming?

What about when the absolute best job you can do from this point on will be compared to the job you could have done, forever? These questions will be asked and answered in this game and in the games to come for the rest of the season.

North Texas football is the same team it was on September 28th, and October 19th that it is today. That is to say that the two tough losses on the resume took the Mean Green out of the division title race but do not reveal a bad or awful team. They simply reflect a good team with some bad luck. Or a good team that met up with another good team. Or a good team that was not as good on one or two plays.

That is, in case you were unaware, football. To paraphrase Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own: “The hard is what makes it great.”

Depending on the team that makes its way out of the tunnel on Homecoming, this should be a blowout.

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2018: North Texas at UAB Preview

North Texas travels to Birmingham for the biggest game of the season. Be not alarmed, you have heard that phrase before. One aspect of being a fan of a good team is that there are usually more than one Big Game of the season, ultimately culminating in the Biggest.

So will it be this season, if North Texas can overcome a very tough, very physically challenging game against UAB this Saturday. After the loss to Louisiana Tech on the 29th of September, NT fell behind in the race for the division and does not control their own fate alone. That is, NT can win this game and every other game and the slightest chance exists that the Mean Green would be left at home.

As previously discussed, this game is for the division championship inasmuch as it puts Louisiana Tech, North Texas, and UAB in a three-way-tie if NT wins. It is a real possibility that the final tiebreaker, well, breaks the tie: the most recent team to compete in the title game loses. That is to say, NT could lose the 8th and final tie breaker and be eliminated even if they win the rest of the games.

That might get you upset, but if North Texas were to lose? Well, that would be worse. NT would need UAB to lose three of the next four — against marginal competition — to win this division. Oh, and NT would still need LA Tech to lose twice more, also.

The good news is that LA Tech is likely to drop one more — a road trip to FAU still looms for them — and so this division might come down to NT vs UAB this weekend.

Now you understand the stakes. Let us discuss the game and the team. The Blazers have NT in town for Homecoming, and while that can sometimes be interpreted as an insult, this was just the way the schedule broke. Also, having the biggest crowd for a big game might be a good strategy. This weekend is also Children’s Harbor Day, where UAB plays for the “name on the back” by putting the name of a patient on the name of a jersey. It is a really cool thing.

North Texas will be walking into a super tough environment. UAB has been playing well since they returned to the game after a brief absence. Head coach Bill Clark is on the Bear Bryant Coach of the Year Award watch list, along with Seth Littrell, and has stocked his roster with JUCO guys. As we saw last season, taking the Blazers lightly is a mistake. North Texas had a good lead evaporate as QB AJ Erdely threw them back into things, meaning that NT had to fight for a win late, and needed every yard of Jeff Wilson’s 211 to win.

Last year UAB were known for their tough defense and good run game. That is true this year, but they are simply better at things. They come into this season averaging over 200 yard per game on the ground, and sacked J’Mar Smith into a horrible game on the road.

These two teams come in with good arguments as the two best in the league based on their play. Others may be more talented or have a little bit more history, but there are no teams in this league playing like these two are.

Last Week and the Season

UAB destroyed a bad Rice team in Houston, 42-0. WR Xavier Ubosi had four grabs for 196 yards and 2 TDs. One of those scores was a 96-yarder where he overpowered and outran the Rice secondary. While both Charlotte and Rice are bad, two of the worst teams in the league, LA Tech is good. Let us discuss that game instead.

Two weeks ago, UAB went into Ruston and outlasted LA Tech for most of the game, before pulling away with two late TDs to win 28-7. Tech QB J’Mar Smith managed only 9/23 for 107 and 1 INT. He was sacked five times by a ferocious UAB defensive line.

QB AJ Erdely, the man that threw for 300+ against NT last year, managed a measly 136 against the Tech defense, and misfired on his own quite a bit. He started 0-12 passing against the Bulldogs. Eventually, the Blazers were able to establish the run, hit some play-action passes, and pull away.

UAB has beaten Savannah St, Tulane, Charlotte, Tech, and Rice. They lost on the road to Coastal Carolina 47-24 in an awful game that had many questioning their season early.

UAB on Offense

This team is built around the run game. They come into this game averaging 232 a game, just four yards per game behind conference leader FAU and about 80 yard more than NT does. They run for about 5 yards per pop, and have 18 rushing TDs on the season. They average just under 46 running attempts per game. They run on first and second downs about 75% of the time. They want to run.

The offensive line is good, does not allow sacks, and does not allow many tackles for loss. Four of five are seniors and all are at least fourth year players — center (72) Lee Dufour, 6’4″ 310 lbs is a redshirt junior. They like to bring in TE/H-Back 44 Logan Scott 6’5″, 250 lbs senior to help out, and that can cause problems.

Running back 28 Spencer Brown is also big — 6’0″ 220 lbs — he is the sophomore back who had a breakout season last year. Lucious Stanley (2), 6’0″, 215 lbs, is the young freshman who spells him. The WRs you might remember from last season: 3 Andre Wilson, 5’10” 180 redshirt senior, and 13 Collin Lisa, 5’10” 175, redshirt senior. Xavier Ubosi (7), is big and tall at 6’3″ 215. He is also a redshirt senior and had his big breakout game last week.

UAB will do a lot of things to keep the defense from loading up on the run. A good portion of these things are fairly common — a jet sweep motion to keep the defense honest, some counter-trey reads, bubble screens to keep the safeties looking — but it is all built on their ability to block well.

Here are a couple of examples of how good the run game is. In the first, LA Tech had their run fits correct, but the safety takes a bad angle and it means we have a Spencer Brown pay dirt trip. This is well-blocked, and no Tech player gets into the backfield. That puts their talented back in space against a safety. North Texas has had the occasional mistake in the run game, and has allowed a good run or two. Against a Spencer Brown, that is not good.

In this one, we see how Tech was selling out to stop the running back, but forgot — or chose not — to account for Erdely and paid for it. These plays were consecutive. The first gained five and the third-and-one was for the TD.

This season NT has been terrific against the run but this team will challenge their ability by sheer force of will and dedication to the cause. They want to run, believe in the run, and will do it.

The good news is that last year’s NT defense was not as good overall, but shutdown the run game for a good portion. It struggled against the pass game through mental mistakes and those have largely been addressed this season.

AJ Erdely is dangerous when he is on, but he does make mistakes and he is prone to throwing an interception against this NT defense. If it all comes down to stopping the Blazers from getting into the end zone, NT can win. If it comes down to stopping UAB from getting a first down I am less. confident.

UAB on Defense

The front four is good, y’all. The defensive front got to J’Mar Smith a ton, and they get good pressure by themselves. Everyone is big, strong, and experienced. Garret Marino (2), 6’2″ 290, redshirt junior and 41 Quindarius Thargood, 6’4″ 290, redshirt senior are really good.

Nose tackle Andrew Rush, 6’5″ 350 (!!!), senior is a load and allows the linebackers to make plays. Chris Woolbright lead the team in tackles along with Fitzgerald Mofar.

UAB is getting to QBs 3.83 times per game.

North Texas has thrown on everyone this season and when they keep Mason Fine upright, this should be the case again. Last year, Jalen Guyton MOSSED a corner and scored in a highlight play. Jeff Wilson ran for 211.

UAB can be run against. Tech had some success with Kam McKnight, and Coastal Carolina ran for 296 on just 38 carries. We know that DeAndre Torrey is a home-run hitter, and getting good, physical runs from him will be key.

North Texas does not need a Jeff Wilson type of game from any of the backs, but it needs them to run hard and get some yards to keep the pass rush off of Mason Fine and the chains moving.

Seth Littrell has talked a lot about staying ahead of the chains, and the run game is a huge part of this. The offense has had miscues, dropped passes and some poor routes.

If this were in Apogee, we could feel a little better about the ability of this team to overcome some mistakes. UAB will be hyped up at the occasion and if North Texas does not match that energy, it could be a long day offensively.

Mason Fine did well to avoid Southern Miss’ pass rush — and their blitzers — and find the right play even if that play was only a short pass. UAB likely knows it cannot sit in a soft zone forever — they’ll bring pressure and mix it up. Still, they probably liked what Jaylon Ferguson showed against North Texas, and will try to win some of those same matchups.

NT, too, has learned from that game at the end of September.

North Texas can be consistent, but they have not been all season. NT has been explosive, but only in spots. This would be a great time for Mason Fine to throw for 400 and for Jalen Guyton to go off.

As it is, NT tried to get the pass game started by throwing a ton early last game. Some of that was because of the numbers they were shown by USM, and the matchups presented.

The big completion to Mike Lawrence came on a 5-wide set that NT has not shown much at all. That could be the key to getting Lawrence going again, although it will require Mason Fine to take more hits.

Special Teams

North Texas is ranked 4th in S&P+ special teams rating, and that is a good summary of how well the team has played in this area. The two misses (one blocked) by Hedlund against Tech are the only two major mistakes NT has made.

Given the stakes in this one and how close it will be, this could turn on a special teams play by either team.

Numbers

In this space we usually post the regular and advanced rankings. Instead, we’ll just post this:

North Texas and UAB are at the top of all of the advanced numbers here. These two are the best teams in the league (right now) by some margin. The Vegas line has moved from somewhere between 0 and 1. That is to say, it is a push.

UAB is at home and should be good. North Texas did not travel well to UTEP, but dominated a bad Arkansas.

I can see this game going a lot of different ways. I do, however, bleed green. North Texas has the best QB in the league, a good defense, two of the best coordinators in the game, and the momentum of a special season.

Before the season I had this as a loss, but I think NT has already goten their bad luck game — Tech — and their bad road game — UTEP — out of their system.

Terrible Prediction:

North Texas 31 UAB 21.

Categories
Football

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

Categories
Football

2018: North Texas at UTEP Preview

Sometimes the hardest game to play is the one after a big game. Coaches are paid lots of money to motivate players to get over the natural desire to let down after a big effort. The game against Louisiana Tech was a heartbreaker. By most measurements North Texas had that won. Lining up for a make-able kick with just seconds left all but won the game for the Mean Green.

It was blocked.

Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Cliché? Why yes. But very true.

Depending on the situation, a good salve for a loss is a woeful opponent. Other times it can be an impediment. North Texas is still a good team and last week’s loss was not one that came from overlooking an opponent, but self-caused mistakes. So a UTEP team that is “trying to instill their culture”, as Seth Littrell put it, is a good next opponent for a cathartic win.

Barring a complete no-show, UTEP should not be a match for this North Texas squad that played very well in the loss. The Miners’ primary offense — new QB Kai Locksley — is hurt with an ankle sprain suffered last week in the contest against UTSA.

He is everything they do.

He’s young, and turnover-prone. He has talent but there is more on the Mean Green side on both sides of the ball. NT should be mad and angry, even if they try to ‘reset’ every week.

Littrell blamed himself — in part — for the loss, saying he let his emotions get out of hand. There was too much good in the Tech game to be overly upset, although losses do motivate. Littrell said at halftime that having some adversity is good, and LB Brandon Garner did also. The defense stepped up and held the Bulldogs to just three points in the second half. This was with an undisclosed injury to CB Kemon Hall’s shoulder.

NT has more than enough defense to shut down this young UTEP attack.

UTEP

Dana Dimel is in his first year as head coach of the Miners. He is tasked with rebuilding the mess left by Sean Kugler, the last Miner head coach. Kugler did not do a bad job at first, but had trouble restocking the shelves. Dimel is faced with a near-empty cupboard and a poor culture. In many ways it is reminiscent of the 2015 UNT program. The difference here is that there is not a talent reservoir in the nearest Metroplex to draw from.

Complicating things is the fact that UTSA and Texas St started programs (Runners) or moved up (Bobcats) and so UTEP’s comparative advantage is gone. UTEP cannot simply offer San Antonio-area kids a chance to play D-1 football and expect that to be all that is required. Incarnate Word head coach Eric Morris said one reason he took the Cardinals gig was that he recognized the talent in SA.

That is all to make the point that things will be rough for the Miners for the foreseeable future. This challenge is partly why Dimel was hired in the first place. He comes from the Bill Snyder tree at Kansas St, a guy that had been through that rebuild twice. For those of you who do not know, way back K-State wasn’t a spunky challenger in the Big 12, it was a dormat in the Big 8.

The struggling Miners might have just the guy to turn that program around. Dimel has the Miners playing similar to the Wildcats of the Little Apple. That is it, however. The offense looks bad, the defense looks over-tired, and everything just looks about two years away at best.

Last Week

UTEP played at UTSA, losing 30-21 after a spirited comeback from down 21-7 in the second quarter. QB Kai Locksley is everything UTEP has. Again, he is talented but does not quite have the full complimentary pieces to endanger the league’s better teams.

He is prone to mistakes, as all young quarterbacks are. UTSA loaded the box and went man on the edges. Here, Lockley misses his open TE streaking and looks out wide for his WR on a little stop route. UTSA’s corner was sitting on that, and broke for an interception. This set up a short field TD for the Roadrunners.

As with any QB run game, the threat of Locksley changes the run-fits. UTEP had Locksley 1v1 with a UTSA defender a handful of times and the young QB won his share of battles. Here he gets outside on the power-option and beats the safety to the outside. This is where being 6’4″ 220lbs pays off.

Not shown is an earlier run where he stutter-stepped Josiah Tauaefa and beat him for 5-yards between the tackles.

A little comeback failed. There was simply not enough variety from UTEP to overcome the earlier mistakes.

UTEP on Offense

If you stop Kai Locksley, you stop the UTEP Miners. He is most of what they do and if he is full-strength, expect lots of QB-Power, options, zone-reads, power-reads, counter-reads, QB-Isos and various play-action off of these looks. Quadraiz Wadley has talent and he must be accounted for.

The offensive line struggled against the quality of UTSA’s front-four. When your offense is so one-dimensional, executing on every pull, every block is crucial. Too often UTEP’s front five will get pushed back, blowing up some of the more exotic calls.

When it works, it is simply putting talent against your talent. Here, Locksley went against Josiah Tauaefa again and beat him at the point of attack.

UTEP on Defense

It is hard to get a read on how good or bad this defense is, considering the struggles of the offense and the opponents they have played. UTSA has a terrible offense but were gifted short fields. Allowing 30 points is somewhat reasonable. Of the squads faced, Tennessee managed just 24, but that has more to do with the Vols than anything. New Mexico St, UNLV, and NAU just out-talented the Miners.

The Miners lost a few guys from last year’s respectable defense, and while they are not bad they do not look anything like the Tech defense that boasted a monster in 45 Jaylon Ferguson. Junior Nose Tackle Chris Richardson (99), 6’3″ 298 lbs can move in space for such a big man. He made some plays against UTSA chasing down backs and getting his hands up in the pass game.

Corners Nik Needham (5), senior 6’0″ 203, and Kalon Beverly (1), senior 6’1″ 195 are good. They are willing to come up and make a tackle and are solid in coverage. North Texas’ quartet of wideouts should be too much to handle for nearly every team, and UTEP is no exception. After doing well against Tech’s good secondary and succeeding for the most part of the game, NT should have a much easier time throwing in this one.

Special Teams

We are going to focus on the NT group right in this section. North Texas came into last week’s game with a quiet question mark: how would the kicking game respond to adversity? The answer was: ‘not well’. Cole Hedlund finally missed and then got one blocked. The latter was on the protection, but the former was on him. It happens, and is forgivable over the long-term but it severely damaged the team’s chances.

The muff punt allowed Tech to score 7 on a day when the defense was holding the Tech offense to little-to-nothing. So it goes.

Numbers

Leaders

Rushing

  • UTEP Kai Locksley 98 attempts for 363, 4 TDs
  • UTEP Quardraiz Wadley 53 attempts 293, 3 TDs

  • NT Loren Easly 74 attempts 386 yards, 4 TDs

  • NT Nic Smith 27 attempts 146 1 TD

Passing

  • UTEP Kai Locksley 48 of 99 for 527 yards 2 TDs 3 INT
  • NT Mason Fine 127 of 197 1624 yards 13 TDs 1 INT

Receiving

  • UTEP Terry Juniel 7 receptions 141 yards 1 TD
  • UTEP Warren Redix 13 receptions 113 yards
  • UTEP Kenan Foster 6 grabs for 100 yards

  • NT Rico Bussy Jr. 33 receptions 415 yards 7 TDs

  • NT Jalen Guyton 23 receptions 333 yards 3 TDs
  • NT Jaelon Darden 17 receptions 243 yards 1 TD

Advanced Numbers, Odds, Etc

We are going to spare you the tediousness of viewing UTEP be in last place of nearly every metric. They are 130th, the worst in the nation, at most everything.

Vegas has North Texas 27-point favorites and the O/U at 53. That is to say they figure the score is something like 40-13.

Prediction

North Texas is just a whole football generation better right now in most phases of the game. If Locksley cannot got or is limited, UTEP will rely on SR Ryan Metz. Unless he can pull an ODU/Blake LaRussa, this should be a rout from start-to-finish. LA Tech left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and the squad wants to fix that.

NT 50 UTEP 6

Elsewhere

Categories
MGN Podcast

109: LA Tech Preview

Adam and Aldo discuss the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs coming to Denton for a big game.

We are also in the iTunes store.

You can contact the podcast at podcast@meangreennation.com.

Important Links:

Categories
Breakdowns Football

North Texas at Arkansas Preview

This is a big game.

These money games are usually perfunctory for Mean Green fans. While there may be some hope at the start, the goals usually are to remain healthy and come out looking impressive to friends. The coaches usually say the right things, but privately dislike the depressing odds.

Every once in a long while, things align and there is more than a infinitesimal chance for North Texas, even if that chance is mostly because the view is through green-tinted lenses.

Once upon a time I wrote the following:

How does David beat Goliath? That is the annual question in college football’s early months. For the most part it takes some ingenuity on the part of the underdog, a dose of lethargy from the powerhouse side, and a healthy portion of luck.

The question here is, of course, if Arkansas is Goliath or merely just a slightly bigger dog. I am not a Razorback historian, but I know that Arkansas has always felt a little spurned by the Longhorns and have a more than a little fatalism in their sporting bones. We NT fans are familiar with the feeling.

The predictions among the sundry internet outlets have their doubts in them: “North Texas is going to wipe the floor with us.”

Again, we know the feeling.

NT has long operated from a counter position: taking advantage when teams underestimate — Georgia 2013, Texas 2002, for example — but rarely operates from a power position. North Texas is not the favorite, and if you believe the little spiders that talk to me, Seth Littrell thinks NT do not have the greatest shot in this one1 either. Still, I cannot recall a better gambling line than +7 going into an ESS-EE-SEE stay-jum, folks.

For us?!

For little ol’ NT?!

I do declare!

This is a big game.

Most opportunities do not come packaged as expected. I am not sure what I expected the Break Through moment of Mean Green Football to be. If I am honest, I think maybe I thought it could have been that day back in 2014, when UT was breaking in a new coach and North Texas was bringing back a good defense and an experienced offensive line.

Arkansas is not on the top of any heap, and this point in time will be remembered as a nadir for most Hog fans and so toppling the Razorbacks in Fayetteville would not David slaying Goliath, but it still would be an epic tale.

The Opponent: University of Arkansas

History

Arkansas is a famous name in college football because of some of the famous players they’ve had. Jerry Jones went there. Most of the fame comes from association with the University of Texas when in the old Southwest Conference. The same could be said for all of the Big 12 except for Oklahoma (maybe) so that is not much of a knock. The “ESS-EEE-SEE” chant had its origins when SWC foes were mocking Arkansas for leaving the league and then Arkansas mocking Texas with the same chant upon beating them after joining.

Good times.

The current coach is Chad Morris, who left “rival” SMU for this better job. He replaced Bret Bielema whose five-year tenure saw him disappoint. The Hogs have failed to reach 10 or more wins since Bobby Petrino was riding his bike with another woman in 2011. They finished fifth in the AP that season. Petrino was the only coach to have multiple 10-win seasons since Ken Hatfield in 1989 (he had three in six years at the helm).

Hatfield was the last coach to win the Razorbacks a league title.

Last Week

Arkansas gave up an 18-point lead in Fort Collins, Colorado to the Rams. They had that lead in the third quarter with a dominant run game. The Rams sliced up the Hog secondary, making QB JK Carta-Samuels look like Aaron Rogers on the way to his 32/47 289 2 TD (1 INT) performance. Lost in the great story was that a big help was WR Preston Williams, a former 5-star recruit who transfered from Tennessee. He looked too big and strong for the Arkansas secondary and had 12 grabs for 154 yards and both receiving TDs.

He had 188 on 9 grabs and two more scores against Hawai‘i in the opener. He’s good. We can probably say that Arkansas can be forgiven for being unable to cover him. He made some ridiculous grabs, and did just about whatever he wanted. It is perhaps a little poetic justice that Chad Morris was beaten by a guy who was doing what Courtland Sutton was doing to North Texas just last year.

All told, Chad Morris is being vilified for not sticking to the run game. In his weekly press conference, he mentioned the regret he had for not going for it on 4th and short in the final frame, sparking the Ram run.

Outlook

Chad Morris knows this team and we know Chad Morris. His Arkansas offense looks a bit like the early versions of his SMU offense. In short, he likes to run the ball up the middle, max-protect, and hit the big stuff down the field. Against CSU he had trouble as his QBs could not find anything deep and the offensive line that has struggled since Bielma’s last days continued to struggle.

The run game was powerful against CSU at 299 yards on 5.64 yards per carry, but struggled against Eastern Illinois — 80 yards on 2.16 per play.

Arkansas on Defense

Option number one for this North Texas offense is, of course, the pass game. Mason Fine is averaging 400+ yards a game and he will be the main threat to the Razorbacks. The million-dollar question: Can he play well against this team?

Arkansas was lit up by Carta-Samuels, and some of that was Williams, yes, but there were open guys all day.

The above was from the CSU game. NT has run something similar against both SMU and UIW this season. Last year, they did the same. This is a pretty common concept, and NT is one of the best teams at running it. Colorado State has been good passing the ball the last two seasons and we can expect NT to show a lot of the same pass concepts.

Above, the same concept — the quick game — from NT vs SMU 2017. I feel good about this part of the NT pass game against Arkansas. I feel even more excited about the following:

That’s CSU WR Brenden Fulton, walk-on, slipping away from a Arkansas NB D’Vone McClure, the recent recipient of a scholarship and former walk-on for big yards. That is where Jaelon Darden and Mike Lawrence make a living.

There is SEC talent on the Razorback squad, and that means that if Mason Fine holds the ball too long looking for the perfect play he could run into trouble.

Here is Carta-Samuels doing just that:

Fine has not been super accurate despite the big numbers on the stat sheet. Those numbers could have been more impressive if some of his throws hit his guys in stride. He has a tendency to force some things and threw a pass into the chest of a Pony safety. That was dropped, but the one he tossed into the waiting arms of a linebacker playing zone coverage was not.

The Arkansas secondary has been suspect this year, continuing a trend from the Bielema era, where passing downs were not friendly to the defense. This is a familiar problem to we NT followers.

The defensive line is good, and North Texas will use the quick game to counter the threat. As we saw above, that looks like a good matchup but NT should be aware of Arkansas baiting those stick routes. Beyond that, the deep threats duo of Guyton and Bussey should stretch the defense a bit.

NT does not have a Preston Williams but it does have a nice group of WRs that can make plays all over and do one or two of those things that Williams did to beat up the Hogs. Busssey can win jump balls, Guyton can run deep, and both Lawrence and Darden will get open.

I expect Kelvin Smith to make some plays this game as well.

Questions will be asked of the NT line. Both SMU and Incarnate Word bottled up the run game, and Arkansas slowed the CSU rush attack. Fine does not have the height that Carta-Samuels does, nor does he have a guy that can bail him out on bad throws either. That may mean some of those momentum-changing plays that CSU made are not there.

NT is hoping to efficiently move the ball the way it has against nearly everyone. This is the first game since Troy in New Orleans where the offense will be physically challenged.

DE McTelvin Agim is a JR, 6’3″, 279 lbs and has 4 QB hurries this young season. He’s a threat outside. DT Armon Watts is a SR, 6’5″ 298 lbs and has 2 sacks thanks to Agim’s pressure. The rest of the line and two-deep is filled with three- and four-star talent.

Carta-Samuels played well in spite of being battered around. The Razorbacks broke up nine passes, and hurried him four times. They sacked and intercepted him once each.

It will be tough but NT has faced similar in the past.

Arkansas on Offense

Chad Morris has yet to impose his system on this group of guys. The previous staff liked going slow and Morris is known for his up-tempo style. That change has produced two shaky performances. If Devwah Whaley can get some blocking, he can break some tackles. He has good speed but is not a burner like UIW RB Ra’Quanne Dickens.

Out wide is JR La’Michael Pettway, 6’2″ 219 lbs. He has them most size and is the leading reciever. WR Jordan Jones, 6’1″ 180 SO is actually second, but he caught 5 of his 6 pass receptions against Eastern Illinois. He managed only a two yards against Colorado St.

The idea here is the same as we’ve seen the last three years on the Hilltop. This presents NT with something like an advantage, as the scheme is the same but the players running it are less able to execute it. Morris may know NT, but he cannot run the plays himself.

The line is young along the left side, with 3-starr RSFR Shane Clenin, 6’6″ 302 lbs starting at tackle and 3-star SO Ty Clary, 6’4 288 lbs at guard. Seniors man the rest of the group that has been shaky.

Look at this breakdown on a relatively simple stunt:

This is the same play, but with a better view of the action:

Even with some nice offensive numbers against CSU, there were some poor breakdowns by the offense. Here is just a bad play on 2nd and 6 in the red zone:

NT’s defense has been fantastic thus far. Even considering the competition, they have exceeded expectations. UIW was able to break two big runs, but both were just very great individual talent plays. Arkansas has that ability, see this run from the highlight package, but those are forgivable.

LB EJ Ejiya has played amazingly well, along with fellow ILB Brandon Garner. Both have flown around and made plays. Most importantly, they have gotten to the QB and in the backfield. Ejiya has five tackles for loss (TFLs) while Garner is tied with fellow LB/JACK Jamie King with 2.5.

NT has six sacks, and four came against FBS squad Southern Methodist. NT had 4 QB hurries against the ponies as well.

Colorado State was able to harass both QBs into poor throws and scrambles. That defense hurried Arkansas six times, broke up five passes, got one sack, and two picks. Again, the Rams were lit up in their two previous games.

This was either a complete outlier performance or an indication of the level at which Arkansas is playing.

North Texas’ defense showed that it could be good situationally last year, but struggled mightily in getting off the field in passing downs. Those breakdowns have been either absent or just present when the bench has been playing. That said, SMU did not have Courtland Sutton-level talent to break things open for them again.

Arkansas has a few guys that may be on that level right now, but they did not show it in the last game.

This Mean Green defense has answering all the questions so far, and this will be the best challenge yet in terms of talent, but probably (ironically) at SMU-level in terms of execution.

For the first time in the Morris-Littrell matchup, Littrell has the more experienced, more confident team.

Elsewhere

Cole Hedlund is returning to Arkansas to exorcize a few demons. He is the nations’ leading scorer right now and has looked comfortable kicking the ball. He has not had a pressure kick yet, as NT has led by 20 points at the half time mark of each game so far.

DeAndre Torrey has game-breaking speed at the KR level, and if the NT defense can force a punt, he or Darden can take one back.

Overall

Razorback Stadium will be a comfort for the home team, and that crowd will be hyped up by 3pm. Whatever good feelings North Texas fans have had leading up to this will disappear quickly if Mason Fine gets sacked immediately like he did vs Florida or Troy.

Odds, and Advanced Numbers

Vegas has NT at +7, with the O/U at 70. They feel like this team will be able to move the ball at the very least.

S&P+ has Arkansas at 54, and NT at 56.

Sagarin has Arkansas at about 5 points better.

FEI has Arkansas rated 57 and NT 97th

Massey predicts NT losing 31-41, with 76% chance of losing.

FPI gives NT a 32.9% chance of winning.

SRS has NT at 57 and Arkansas at 71. It likes their offense a little bit better than ours, and our defense more than theirs. Strange times indeed.

Regular numbers

NT (FBS Rank) Category ARK (FBS Rank)
52.0 (11) Points 41.0 (34)
568 (13) Total Off 435 (62)
110.5 (110) Rushing Off 189.5 (53)
457.5 (1) Passing Off 245.5 (57)
19.5 (53) Scoring Def 27.0 (81)
276.0 (20) Total D 417.0 (92)
292.0 (55) Pass Def 333.5 (117)
74.0 (14) Rush Def 83.5 (22)

Leaders

Passing

  • NT Mason Fine 65/90 862 yards, 7 TDs / 1 INT
  • ARK Ty Storey 17/30 297 3/2
  • ARK cole Kelley 15/21 194 3/0

Rushing

  • NT DeAndre Torry 18 att 50 yards 3 TD
  • Ark Devway Whaley 36 att 193 yards 2 TDs

Receiving

  • NT Rico Bussey 17 receptions, 237 yards, 3 TDs
  • NT Jalen Guyton 12 rec. 206 yds, 3 TDs
  • ARK LaMichael Pettway 7 rec. 124 yds, 3 TDs
  • ARK Jordan Jones 6 rec. 134 yds, 1 TD

Prediction Time

Life is short, let us live aggressively.

North Texas is going to win this thing going away. My heart and my mind are pointing at all the signs, and all the history, and some voice in my head is reciting the advanced numbers that indicate that North Texas beat up on weak teams while Arkansas lost to weak teams.

The development curve for this North Texas program has been ahead of where I predicted. Littrell has never had his teams play scared of the ‘bigger’ schools. Florida, and Iowa both saw the Mean Green battle harder than they had any right to. That will be the case again this season. The difference here is that Arkansas is not as good as those teams were on any one side of the ball. Florida had a good defense, and Iowa a good run game.

North Texas is not a perfect team. The defense has yet to be truly tested, and the offensive stats are a little bit inflated while hiding some efficiency concerns. That is not really important right now. This group is improved over the 2017 team and they look hungry and capable.

NT 38 – UA 31


  1. Based on the conversations in summer.