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Football

North Texas at California Preview

BERKELEY, Ca. — The Mean Green had a bad week down the road on the Hilltop. SMU came out hot and dominated the first quarter. There has been much self-reflection by everyone. Read this gem from the head man:


There were definitely some positives that we’ve got to continue to build on. But there was also some negatives.

Seth Litrell

Mason Fine was harassed into one of his poorest games since his first year as a freshman starter. He threw into coverage, he was sacked, pressured, missed a read, and his pass-catchers let him down by either not getting open or simply dropping the ball.

All that said, Tre Siggers was a revelation and he brought a level of aggression that briefly ignited something like a comeback. NT was within 11 points in the second half and in the modern era that is practically tied.

The NT defense has about two or three stops in them per game and they used that up in the second quarter when NT was getting that 14 on the board. That is a mighty cynical thing to say but then you watch this:

Overaggression

That encapsulates the issue here. NT made these types of mistakes when they last had a bunch of new and young players on the defensive unit in 2017. NT needed everything it could get from the offense to pull out wins back then and that is what we expect to need this year.

Getting beat in one-on-one situations is part of the game. I can live with opponents grabbing these kinds of passes:

Jameel Moore getting beat by a superior pass

I cannot live with some of the pass-interference calls. Sure, the refs were a little forgiving to the home team (SMU) but by the 4th time you get called for an interference it is time to reevaluate your own play and not complain about the calls.

Fighting against some home-cooking is part of the Adversity that comes with playing on the road. That is in proper noun case because in football it is an entire concept.

In every football play there are 22-men executing an action that was planned by something like 15 other experienced coaches, analysts, and associated hangers-on. That is to say there are many things that can go wrong and many influences on an outcome.

Broadly speaking, SMU looked more prepared for the first quarter than did North Texas but what does that mean? Were they playing “harder”? Did Sonny Dykes out-scheme the Mean Green? It is all more subtle than that. Overall NT did a good job and were not blown off the field. They got SMU into third-down situations but were beat in crucial situations that would have forced a punt and put the offense in a difference situation.

NT’s offense did not capitalize on their own do-or-die moments. 4th and 2, third-and-long, etc. Sometimes the game comes down to those moments and it all can seem so simple. All that prep. All that planing and execution and it all comes down to whether this one guy can beat that other guy.

That is one of the great and wonderful things about the game.

So, yes. If the referee does not call pass interference (obvious) NT gets the ball back early. If Tyreke Davis does not leave his assignment, NT maybe forces a FG. If, if, if.

The only thing NT can do is learn from the experience so this next game against a good opponent does not have the same type of mistakes.

Seth Littrell said they had a great week practicing, that everyone was excited and motivated. That is good stuff to hear.

Let us discuss this week’s game.

California Golden Bears

Cal is one of the Pac-12’s famous teams. You may know them for the big Cal-Stanford game and the occasional offensive star. Aaron Rogers played for Jeff Tedford in the early 2000s there. Marshawn Lynch and a handful of NFLers went through the program. Sonny Dykes — current SMU head man — coached Jeff Goff and lorded over a powerful offense that did not have a complimentary defense.

Jeff Wilcox is the current head coach and he is quite the opposite. He has this Bear defense solid and great against the pass but lacking in quality offensive firepower. This game will be strength-against-weakness on both sides of the ball and will be won on whose strength is stronger.

The game will be played at historic California Memorial Stadium, capacity 63,000. It memorializes WWI Californians. It was renovated in 2010 to close it up — it was separating because of a fault line.

The team just finished up a big win over No 14/12 Washington. While foreboding, Cal has beaten a ranked team each of the last 4 seasons while also disappointing. They are the team that can jump up and bite you but otherwise harmless in the Pac-12, apparently.

The offense is lacking, but they have managed more explosives this season. There is reason to think that the offense is getting a little even with its defense but the defense is still the best unit.

Attacking Cal

Justin Wilcox is a DC-turned-HC and it is no surprise he has this unit solid. Evan Weaver, LB; Luc Bequette, DE; Camryn Bynum, CB; Ashtyn Davis, S; are all all-conference returnees.

Cal plays in the three-or-four line front that nearly all defenses adopt now. Bequette is joined by Toaloa, Zeandae Johnson and a handful of others in the tree-deep. All are the same 6’2-4″ 290-ish range. Expect a wave of quality defensive lineman getting into the backfield making things rough for Mason Fine.

The linebackers are Weaver, Kuony Deng (6′-6″ 220) and Cameron Goode . They have good size and can fly around the field. The most heralded group are the secondary. Bynum, and Elijah Hicks are some of the league’s best. They are joined by Jaylinn Hawkins. There is quality and even senior backups behind the starters.

North Texas has faced some very talented defenses in the Littrell era and have not really overly-impressed. Against Iowa, and Florida there were some real question-marks. While Mason Fine is still quality, the line and the receivers have not matched up well with bigger and stronger talent in front of them.

This is one of the reasons why OC Bodie Reeder was so well-received. NT may have needed a shot in the arm for Fine’s final season — Littrell said “there were going to be some changes anyway” before Harrell left for USC.

Rico Bussey was shut out vs SMU and Littrell mentioned he expected the “other playmakers” to step up and play. That is something we noted last week and on the podcast. There were opportunities for others and only Siggers overly impressed.

Best case scenario: North Texas gets some big plays from Siggers, and NT gets a couple of big plays to help the cause. Short fields provided by the defense and a special teams score make it easy and take the pressure off.

Worst case scenario: Mason Fine is sacked a ton, throws a pick or two, and the run game is the only bright spot as Cal lets Siggers run for a scoreless 100 yards.

Defending Cal

Sophomore QB Chase Garbers leads the Cal attack.

NT will start Tualau Sa’afi at DE along with Hamilton and Dion Novil up front. There are no changes anywhere else so expect more of the same from this unit. There was good in the game vs SMU but one or two crucial mistakes let the Pony attack score. Sonny Dykes is one of the game’s best offensive minds and so is his OC Lashee.

Cal does not have the same type of offensive brain-trust leading the charge but there is talent and good football coaching. Cal’s line is big and Pac-12 quality, but they have youth (73 Cindric, 72 Mettauer) and that may be a weak spot.

The wideouts are Duncan and Crawford, and Remigio. RB Christopher Brown (230 lbs) is big and talented.

Cal has something like five or six TEs on the roster and like to go in big formations to run the ball and grind it out. NT’s defense is not big, but has speed. Getting to Garbers quicker than they did against SMU’s Buechele is the key.

SMU’s Proche and Roberson are quality WRs and they were put in great positions by their quarterback. NT is hoping that Garbers cannot make those same type of throws in this one. Cal knows they will be getting one-on-one coverage and has likely been looking forward to the opportunity.

It is a bold defense that can get some psychological gains if it works — against Arkansas last season the Hogs were clearly flustered that they could not win those outside battles and it rattled the entire fanbase.

Cal’s fans know the offense is struggling and any weakness shown early can get everyone on edge and turn the home crowd into source of nerves instead of enthusiasm.

Expect Cal to lean on the run game early, mixing it in with an occasional max-protect shot against Nick Harvey.

Best case scenario: North Texas is able to rattle Garbers and keep the run game from being effective, creating short fields. A turnover keeps the pressure off the offense.

Worst case scenario: Something like the Iowa game a few years ago where the run game tears threw the defense. The defensive backs are beaten regularly or give up big interference calls keeping the Cal drive alive.

Special Teams

North Texas needs big returns. Deion Hair -Griffin has been a no-show on offense but has shone bright on special teams. DeAndre Torrey can take it to the house and so can Jaelon Darden. This unit needs to get big returns and perhaps a score to help the cause.

Biagi’s group has impressed and a key blocked kick would be wonderful right about now. No huge mistakes would be baseline.

Overall

North Texas was always going to be the underdog here. Cal is a good team coached by a good staff but is by no means a monster that cannot be slain. Their offense is something akin to the Arkansas offense last season — talented, but with questions and some weaknesses in execution.

Against Arkansas and others, the defense made the key plays — interceptions! — and the offense did not have to do much beyond be solid. Here, the offense will likely have to do something beyond the ordinary and that could make all the difference.

MGN ebook Preview Prediction: 24-21 NT
MGN Prediction today: 27-17 Cal

Categories
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

Categories
Football

2018: North Texas vs Louisiana Tech Preview

North Texas opens conference play on a day celebrating the past and the future. The Mean Green will honor Mean Joe with a statue and break ground on the new indoor practice facility.

It is only fitting that fans of football are treated to an important matchup as the evening’s primary entertainment.

Louisiana Tech comes to Denton boasting a 2-1 record. While NT was beat writer media pick to win the division, Tech were betting favorites to win the West. This was with good reason. In preseason, the Mean Green had a very large question to answer: will that defense be good enough to allow Mason Fine and company some help?

Thus far through four games, they have answered that with a resounding ‘yes’. The defense is not only good enough, but they have been near one of the best in the nation. Sure, the competition is lacking, but it is no small feat what these guys have done, especially considering last year’s rankings.

Tech, by contrast, felt they had lost close games through a combination of bad luck, injury, and questionable coaching — that is Skip Holtz himself saying that. Holtz was beaming at CUSA Media Days when he brought up his favorite talking point: the return of his starting QB. “We have not had a returning starter in a while.”

J’Mar Smith is good, and while he gets unfairly criticized for some mistakes — part of the gig — he is a talent with a good arm and good mobility.

He also is helped by good receivers. WRs Adrian Hardy and Teddy Veal have talent to win one-on-one matchups that can ruin a team playing man-to-man. As good as NT has been in these scenarios thus far — NT has won each matchup and lead the nation in interceptions — you might recall when Tech brought in Carlos Henderson in 2016 and grabbed 8 passes for 133 and 4 scores.

Playing aggressively is fun until you get burned.

The point of bringing up that old game is to remind you that Tech gets talented players into Ruston and last year’s win was against an injured, reloading version 1.

DE Jaylon Ferguson is a problem, he is the nation’s career active sack leader and got himself a strip-sack against LSU last week. CB Amik Robertson is one of the league’s best, and LB Dae’von Washington is good.

Last Week

LA Tech lost 38-21 to LSU after falling behind 24-0 because of some unfortunate mistakes. There were some unlucky turnovers that LSU capitalized on, partly due to some early jitters in such a big game. J’Mar Smith led the comeback attempt mostly by tossing passes to Adrian Hardy — he had 10 grabs for for 181 and 2 scores.

Hardy is 6’2″ 193, a sophomore out of Houston and a former 3-star WR. He originally signed with Oklahoma, but asked for his release the summer after signing day.

Tech had trouble running the ball against LSU’s stout defense, averaging only 3.3 yards per tote, but managed to get yards through the arm of Smith. He had 350 through the air.

After Smith hit Hardy for 42 yards and a score to close within 24-21, LSU then scored two more and shutdown the Bulldogs to win going away.

Louisiana Tech on Offense

J’Mar Smith, the aforementioned quality QB is good. He did not shine particularly brightly last year in Ruston, but he was able to make enough plays to get Tech the lead for a good portion of the game. The main complaint about him was his missed passes that seemingly turned TDs into FGs.

This season, he still has the mobility, and still has the arm. Instead of watching Liberty’s Buckshot Calvert throw wobbly corner routes short of his targets, Smith will toss it up and let his man make a play.

Here are two examples from last week.

and

Liberty tried to hit those one-on-one go routes along the sideline but failed.

North Texas likes to bring pressure, and has done an excellent job putting down QBs who have relatively limited running ability. As you saw above, he can avoid a rusher or two and get the ball downfield. With good receivers who come open, coverage sacks like below are less likely.

On this one, Taylor Robinson gets to Calvert right as he threw, which helped the pass fall incomplete.

Tech will attack much in the same way that Liberty, SMU, and Incarnate Word tried. The Flames had some success running outside zone, but had some bad snaps blow up their drives. They also were uncharacteristically sloppy passing the ball and did not even give their receivers the chance to catch the ball.

If we played that game again in nicer conditions, NT probably allows 20-25 points. Again — being lucky is part of the game, especially when you help yourself be more fortunate.

Some of Liberty’s better runs came on some mistakes. Check this out. The backside tackle wins his block, and essentially blocks two NT defenders. Jamie King probably should have stayed in his gap and ran “down” the line of scrimmage. Instead he tried to fill the gap that Saafi left and got caught. Liberty’s Matthews took the cutback lane and got big yards.

That kind of stuff will not fly against Tech.

RB Jaqwis Dancy is good. He famously overcame stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is the team’s leading back with 242 yards on 27 touches. He shares time with Israel Tucker, the nominal starter, who is at 120 yards on 34 carries. Either can catch the ball and Tech will shift them out wide in the slot.

Redshirt sophomore C Kody Russey, 6’1″ 285 lbs, leads an experienced line. He is flanked by redshirt JR RG Ethan Reed, redshirt SR RT Michael Rodriguez on the right. He has redshirt freshman LG Joshua Mote, and O’Shea Dugas, SR LT, on the left.

The run game did not produce much early, and after Tech got down, there was a focus on passing. 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.

Above, we see Calvert hit his man Stubbs against NICK Jameel Moore. This is a tough route to defend. Liberty had some success moving the pocket and hitting comeback routes this way. It is a good way to change the angles and get away from pressure.

Last year we saw plenty of this from Tech, including one where Smith just scampered in for six when he saw no passing options.

Overall, however, NT was able to blow up a lot of the plays Tech had last year. Veal and Hardy are good, and they will win their share of battles, but so will the NT corners.

Reffett’s defense is designed to put a tremendous amount of pressure on the offense to be perfect every time, and to withstand and absorb negative plays while moving the ball. This can mean the occasional big play allowed, but overall it has been tremendously successful thus far.

LSU is the most talented team Tech has faced, but they have a tendency to let off the gas a bit. LSU were coming off a big win, and it is a little understandable if they let up after going up so big so quickly.

The Bulldogs have struggled a bit — at South Alabama — and have shown some good things. We still do not know too much.

Louisiana Tech on Defense

Mason Fine walked his offense down the field early, and then handed off to victory late. That is the classic approach. Pass to win, run to seal the deal. There are the occasional drops that are frustrating, but it is awesome to see a consistent Rico Bussey, Jr. put up numbers.

He is the team’s leading pass catcher and TD maker. He scored against Tech on a little deep fade route and did something similar last week against Liberty.

The short version is that Bussey and Guyton can win matchups against Amik Robertson and L’Jarius Sneed. Given the similarities — Tech runs the same kind of defense NT does, but relies more on redshirt SR DE Jaylon Ferguson, 6’5″ 262, to get their pressure.

The whole defensive line is stout — DT Jordan Bradford, DE Matthew Ydarraga, DT Keonatye Garner — are good and experienced. North Texas’s Jeff Wilson ran for 165 on that defense last season, breaking tackles and running away from guys. He was helped by the NT offensive line, which had a great day blocking.

The reappearance of the run game comes at a perfect time. We may be in for a repeat of the UTSA game from last year — a potential NFL lineman hitting Fine repeatedly as NT tries to hit the defense over the top.

North Texas wants to get Tech out of their zones, get them in man coverage and look to WR Jaelon Darden on their nickel corner. Darden has been electric, and has beaten every team deep this season.

As usual, this football game will come down to the linemen. NT’s linemen are good, and playing better football than last year. NT does a lot of zone blocking and even with the same players returning, it can take some time to get the right feel of when to leave your block, when stay and combination block, etc.

Last week North Texas sealed things by relying on the run game. On one drive OC Graham Harrell ran outside zone and a counter play excessively. NT lined up in the same look but just took advantage of the smaller Liberty line.

Liberty’s DE 11 tried to shoot the gap — a typical reaction against teams killing you on stretch zones — and NT countered that by pulling a lineman into his gap, sealing him, and getting yards. The next time (very next play) that NT ran the stretch zone, he was not so eager.

This is how constraint plays work.

Tech has decidedly better defensive linemen than Liberty, but are comparable to Arkansas’. South Alabama, a good rushing team, put up 217 yards on 5.05 yards a pop with 3 scores. North Texas has been good in short-yardage regardless, and that bodes well. That was an issue last season.

If North Texas can pass the ball like they have thus far, they should be good. If the run game is even average, NT should put up lots of points. If not, Tech has enough talent to turn mistakes into turnovers.

Special Teams

Tech has kicked only 12.5% of kickoffs for touchbacks. NT has kicked 41% and none out of bounds. Tech has done so once. Tech’s kicker has missed one, while NT is 10/10. Hedlund has not had a pressure kick like Trevor Moore’s clutch stuff from last season.

NT’s ST coach Marty Biagi has his group playing extremely well, and is ranked 6h in S&P+ ratings for special teams.

Numbers, Advanced and Otherwise

Regular Numbers

NT (FBS Rank) Category LA Tech (FBS Rank)
48.8 (12) Points 35.0 (45)
510.8 (17) Total Off 490.0 (27)
166.0 (81) Rush Off 168.0 (76)
345.3 (12) Pass Off 322.0 (14)
15.8 (12) Scoring Def 27.0 (78)
308.0 (19) Total Def 334.3 (37)
209.0 (61) Pass Def 166.0 (21)
99.0 (14) Rush Def 168.33 (78)

Advanced, and Odds

Vegas:

NT -7 OU: 64

S&P+:

NT overall 44, offense 62, defense 43, st 6
LT overall 80, offense, 37, defense 105, st, 119

Massey:

NT 74, LT 82. Predicts 35-31 NT win with 62% probability

FEI:

NT 59, LT 42

Sagarin:

NT: 50, LT: 84. Predicts NT by 11.

SRS:

NT overall 14, off 23, def 29
LT overall 73, off 61, def 82

North Texas is getting a little more efficient. A few more big passing plays and North Texas will get back up to the 40s where the team finished last year. The defense has been incredible. As more film is watched, we should see some different approaches to attacking the NT defense.

Tech is still an unknown. The offense looks good because of the big days, but there were two hit-and-miss games in the three played.

Leaders

Passing
– NT Mason Fine 105 of 162 for 1328 10 TDs and 1 INT
– LT J’Mar Smith 70 of 116 for 919 yards 7 TDs and 4 INT

Rushing
– NT Loren Easly 52 attempts 276 yards 3 scores
– NT DeAndre Torrey 30 attempts 114 yards 4 scores
– LT Jaqwis Dancy 27 attempts 242 yards 4 TDs
– LT Israle Tucker 34 attempts 120 yards 1 score

Receiving
– NT Rico Bussey, Jr. 24 grabs 303 yards 5 scores
– NT Jalen Guyton 18 grabs 282 yards 3 scores
– NT Jaelon Darden 17 grabs 243 yards 1 score
– LT Adrian Hardy 19 grabs 365 yards 3 scores
– LT Rhashid Bonnette 14 catches 171 yards 1 score
– LT Teddy Veal 11 grabs 165 yards

Predictions

North Texas is playing really well right now and even the worst version of NT we saw thus far — a mash-up of the middle of the second quarter of the Arkansas and Liberty games — still looked dangerous and quality on both sides of the ball.

Tech fans are rightly saying that the Mean Green have not played anyone. But North Texas has destroyed everyone they have played and that is a fair enough measure to tell us that this team is very good. As always, however, it does not matter what you did last week, you can be beaten this week.

Tech is good enough to beat North Texas for a number of reasons. There are still enough questions about the Bulldogs that we may find out that they have another level to them, one that is far superior to Littrell’s guys.

Right now, I’ll believe my eyes and say NT wins this one.

Prediction:

NT 38
LT 24


  1. Tech has a league-leading 11 players drafted since 2013. WKU has 10. NT has 0. 
Categories
Football

North Texas at Liberty Preview

It may not be SEC, but Lynchburg, VA will be loud. Seth Littrell talks often of competing each week in and of itself, going “1-0” each week. Last week’s challenge against Arkansas was a good team looking to make the transition from underdog to favorite.

Now? This is about staying humble and sticking to the good habits that creating this position, while the whole world is asking for media time.

It is a subtle thing, but lots of teams can win when they have no one asking them questions outside of the school paper and the long time beat reporter. What about when national media is beating your door down or filling up your schedule?

That is quite another feat. If this program is to become nationally relevant, this is the new normal. If Seth Littrell truly has an eye on a P5 gig, these challenges are weekly stressors.

It is all part of growing up.

Liberty

Lynchburg, VA is at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a population of about 75K. The land had been owned by native peoples for centuries prior to it coming into possession of the Virginia colony in the 1700s. It takes its name from founder John Lynch, who owned a ferry business (through his father), and who at the age of 17 petitioned Virginia for a charter to establish a town.

Liberty University was founded in 1971 and is a private Christian school that is one of the world’s largest. While only 15K are on campus, there are apparently over 110K taking online courses.

It was originally a Baptist college called Lynchburg Baptist until changing its name to the present form. Famously founded by Jerry Falwell, the school has a reputation for being very conservative, which has drawn both criticism and praise.

The Coach

Turner Gill is from Fort Worth (born 1962), played at Nebraska and coached at NT in 1990. After time as an assistant he took the head job at Buffalo where he made a name for himself by winning 8 games in 2008 and taking the Bulls to a bowl (loss) . He turned that momentum into a job at Kansas that proved too much for him (and lots of folks). Since 2012 he has led Liberty U.

In his six years in Lynchburg he has compiled a 42-30 record. Most notably the Flames beat Baylor at the Bears’ nadir last season in Waco.

So far this year Liberty jumped all over Old Dominion 52-10 and then lost to Army. This is the Flames’ FBS transition year but the school has had 12 consecutive winning seasons.

Last Week

Army controlled the game and dominated possession on the way to a dominating 38-14 win. In the short time that Liberty had the ball they moved it quite well. The Flames amassed 417 yards on just 60 plays. A good portion of it came late, when Army had already put up a 24-0 lead.

Liberty pressed a bit, and the long gaps without possession threw off the rhythm. North Texas fans have seen what Army can do, having played the Black Knights three times in the recent past.

The Flames are ranked 59th in S&P+ for offense and 111th in defense. Let’s look closer.

Liberty of Offense

Liberty plays fast and likes to go up-tempo. The quarterback is named Stephen Calvert but goes by “Buckshot” which is quite possibly the best QB name. He’s 6’2″ and 180lbs and likes to sling the ball.

Buckshot Calvert threw for 3300 yards and 29 TDs last season against only 6 interceptions. He can sling the ball. The Liberty offense is a spread offense. They play fast and put players in conflict — having to defend a seam route and a run — in the way that a lot of teams do now.

Junior WR Antonio Gandy-Golden is 6’4″ 220. He’s a handful, if NT is not careful. Look for CB Kemon Hall to take this assignment.

Gandy-Golden finished 2017 with 1066 yards and 10 scores on 69 grabs. When you are focused on this big target, Liberty likes to hit you with DJ Stubbs, and that was Old Dominion’s problem. Stubbs had a career high 7 grabs and 155 yards against the Monarchs, who simply could not tackle him in space. He has speed and NT will have to make tackles in space.

Buckshot has set school records and he should be respected. This is the best passing team and offense that NT will have faced all season. Arkansas had more talent but had poor execution. SMU had talent and poor execution. Incarnate Word had young guys with a good system that were not ready.

North Texas has been great at creating pressure on the QBs, and forcing poor throws. Army was able to force turnovers against Liberty.

Here is a sack from the first quarter of their game.

Buckshot does make the odd poor throw.

The NT defensive line and the linebacking duo behind them have been phenomenal. They chased the Arkansas QBs into six interceptions. Sure, some of those were just terrible mistakes, but the line has been stingy and the defense ferocious.

While this is a challenge, it is not an overly difficult one.

Liberty on Defense

The Flames were pushed around by the Army rush attack and that is something we can empathize with. Liberty have yet to face a truly terrifying pass attack, having only gone up against self-harmers ODU and anti-passers Army.

The Mean Green should have a field day against the Flames defense. Liberty lines up juniors and seniors along the front-four, with Ralfs Rusins at a monstrous 6’5″ 315 inside at Nose. Tolen Avery is 6’3″ 295 lbs at the other DT spot.

The 4-2-5 defense is something NT has seen often, and should not present any problems schematically.

Forgive me if this comes off as flippant, but there is no one on the defense that can run with Darden or Guyton, or that can handle Rico Bussey.

The Flames will likely try one of two things to disrupt the NT pass game: Bring pressure or flood the secondary.

NT has seen both of these methods and the latter is probably the most frustrating. Incarnate Word began to drop defenders into the passing lanes and that was the one INT that Mason Fine threw.

Arkansas tried bringing pressure and going man-to-man and was killed for it. Flooding the zone is good against young quarterbacks, but Fine can and will go through his progressions to find Darden and mike Lawrence in space.

The Razorbacks tried this also, and were lit up. The rush game may be bottled up again, but that is a work in progress and not where NT makes a living at the moment.

If it is Loren Easly leading the charge, he will be a battering ram that will wear out the Flame defense.

Regular Numbers

NT (FBS Rank) Category Liberty (FBS Rank)
49.3 (11) Points 33.0 (60)
504.0 (22) Total Off 504.0 (22)
109.3 (119) Rushing Off 1740 (72)
398.7 (3) Passing Off 330.0 (14)
18.7 (36) Scoring Def 24.0 (69)
296.0 (20) Total D 405.5 (92)
204.7 (63) Pass Def 116.5 (3)
91.3 (18) Rush Def 289.0 (128)

Odds and Advanced Numbers


Vegas: North Texas -13. O/U: 69.5 S&P+ North Texas 74% win probability. NT ranked 53, Liberty ranked 98. Massey: NT 83% win probability. Projected 41-28 win. FEI: NT 29-23 winners. Sagarin: NT 16.31 points better than Liberty

Leaders

Passing
– LIB Buckshot Calvert 44 of 73 for 652 yards, 6TDs 1 INT
– NT Mason Fine 89 of 135 for 1143, 8TDs 1 INT

Rushing
– LIB Kentory Matthews 26 att for 182 yards 1 TD
– LIB Peytton Picket 18 att for 133 yards 2 TD
– NT Loren Easly 25 attempts for 99 yards 1 TD
– NT DeAndre Torrey 2 attempts for 63 yards and 3 TDs

Rushing
– LIB DJ Stubbs 8 receptions for 174 yards 1 TD
– LIB Damien King 8 receptions for 172 yards 1 TD
– NT Rico Busssey, Jr. 22 receptions for 264 yards 4 TDs
– NT Jalen Guyton 14 receptions 248 yards 3 TDs

Predictions

This is a 13-point game, according to Vegas, and it seems the oddsmakers think the North Texas defense will revert to 2017 levels and allow big yards and big plays.

It is true, NT has played so much better than last year defensively that it seems a little too good to be true, and the opponents have been poor. The truth is that Liberty is good enough to put points up on the first team defense.

It is also true that the NT defense showed signs of this quality last year but just fell apart in key situations. That is the thing about defense: one mistake makes the entire possession look poor.

The obvious weaknesses on NT’s side are in the secondary, not in the play, but the strategy. NT decided to go man-to-man and trust it’s corners to win battles all game. They did so against Arkansas, but what happens against a guy who knows how to place the ball well?

We shall see. I do not expect to see NT go man-to-man as often in this one, but when they do, that will be the opening.

North Texas has enough firepower to win this one going away, but the travel and the hype surrounding the program are unknowns right now. Do they let any of the stuff go to their heads? Does a trip to Lynchburg throw off everyone’s rhythm? Will 21K screaming baptists shake the foundations of NT football?

No.

North Texas 45
Liberty 17

Categories
Football

2017 Season: ODU Preview

In many ways this game is about FAU more than it is about Old Dominion. This is dangerous in the fact that Old Dominion has enough to threaten this North Texas team and misplaced preparation is how teams become vulnerable.

That said, the renewed focus that can only come from an epic, record-setting loss is good and should power this North Texas team this Saturday.

Old Dominion is coached by Bobby Wilder, a fun, smart coach who has built this program and guided it to a 10-win season a year ago. This current team is beset by injuries and youth –relying on 17-year old starting QB Steven Williams– but is ever dangerously playing for pride. The Monarchs have not won in conference play and recently threw away a chance at beating a down WKU at home last week.

For North Texas, this is the perfect palate-cleanser. While a worse team might seem easier, this Old Dominion squad presents the perfect combination of talent and coaching to challenge and yet rebuild the confidence of the Mean Green.

The Monarchs welcomed back RB Ray Lawry (5′ 10″ 204 SR), who amassed 3000+ yards in three years before being injured to begin this one. Old Dominion will look to him to take some of the burden of their young QB. Lawry has good patience, good vision, and enough speed to break long runs. He is tough to bring down and the poor positioning by NT last week will give up big yards if Reffett’s crew is not careful.

Statistically ODU is simply bad. The advanced numbers show a team that struggles to move the chains, is unexplosive, and inefficient at getting points inside the 40. They also turn the ball over. This is all unsurprising considering the QB and injury situation.

Similarly, they do not do much defensively. If the offense could help them any, the defense would not look so bad. The pass rush is dangerous and the returning secondary has talent. Last week they had three sacks and 8 tackles for loss against a WKU team that has slowly been returning to 2016 form (well, shades of that form). They picked off Mike White but also allowed 5 TDs and 304 yards passing.

The North Texas offense we have seen for about 2/3rds-to-a-half of every game should score and move the ball on this defense. After all, if it could put up 13-quick points against UTSA’s defense with NFL talent coming off the edge, ODU should not put up much stronger of a challenge.

Defensively, NT is looking to shed the ‘bad defense’ label. Count this blog among those thinking this defense has shown improvement throughout the season and even over last year. While the turnover-creation has not been at the same level, the run defense has been.

The defense now faces one of the most turnover-prone units in the league and should improve the stats in their favor.

Defending ODU

QB Steven Williams (6’4″ 200lbs FR) is young and will be really good by the time he is done in VA, but for now he has 9 INTs, and three fumbles. He should be the worst QB — it feels wrong to write ‘worst’ but it is the right word — that NT has faced since Lamar in Week one. If last season’s game against Southern Miss’s Keon Howard — then also a turnover-prone freshman — then NT should capitalize on his youth and inexperience.

Old Dominion is further along in the Williams era than was USM then, and they will rely on Ray Lawry to be the offensive producer if not the engine. Pre-FAU, run defense was a strength of this NT team. The Monarchs have been looking for receiving playmakers all season and NT has been better.

The obvious, and much-asked question of the week has been about ‘blueprint’. This as in ‘did FAU lay out the blue print to beat NT’. The answer here, is ‘no’. FAU ran their offense and incorporated their TE more than they had previously, but there was nothing particularly exploitative of the NT defense that an Old Dominion can replicate.

The Monarchs do not play at the same tempo, nor do they have offensive gurus Lane Kiffin and Kid Briles on the sideline — no offense to the ODU staff.

That said, North Texas can and will allow some big plays especially because of the philosophy of man-coverage and attacking defense. Steven Williams is mobile and at least Dalton Sturm was able to manufacture first downs (and a TD) with his feet. He has the ability to skip out of a would-be sack and fire the the ball out of the cannon arm of his for a TD.

RB Jeremy Cox (5’11” 217 JR) is used in the pass game frequently, including being split out wide. He has 16 catches on 19 targets for 139 yards this year, as the fourth leading pass catcher on the team. Travis Fulgham (6’3″ 208 lbs JR) is the leading wideout on the team with 16 catches on 38 targets for 247 and 1 score. He is improving and has good size but is inconsistent.

The simple game plan here is stopping the run game — and Lawry especially — and forcing Steven Williams to make the right reads and the right tosses. North Texas should be ready to do just that for most of the game.

Corners Kemon Hall and Eric Jenkins may get some INTs this game. Jenkins has been close in his return to the starting lineup. One part of the game to watch will be MLB Brandon Garner slowing the run game. Lawry is patient and explodes through the gaps. If The front three/four cannot get the kind of penetration they were getting in earlier games (basically outside of FAU) then this could be a long day.

Attacking ODU

The second-leading offense in the league had an awful game in Boca Raton. Mason Fine did not look like the crisp, tough passer that earned the previous week’s CUSA Offensive Player of the Week award. If there is a simple, reductive summation of the FAU offensive performance it was that it seemed NT was waiting around for the next big play to present itself.

Having had much success tossing bombs to Jalen Guyton, NT forgot how to manufacture first downs by running the offense. If not that, it at least forgot how to feed Jeff Wilson early and often. This blog thought Wilson would have a good game against an FAU squad that had allowed big rushes but instead he was limited as the lead grew to ridiculous levels.

ODU has talent on defense but has allowed big numbers — most notably to FAU also. LB Marvin Branch (6’2′ 222 JR) leads the team with 10 run stuffs (tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage), followed by fellow LB Jordan Young (6’3″ 222 FR). DE Tim Ward (6’6″ 243 JR) has great size and also has contributed 7 run stuffs himself. On the other side DE Oshane Ximines (6’3″ 247 JR) has six sacks (and 6 run stuffs). DE Bunmi Rotimi (6’4″ 275 SR) has four sacks on the year and is battling Ximines for the all-time ODU record. Ximines leads at 18.5, while Rotimi has 17.5

ODU plays a 4-2-5 multiple defense. The tackles have good size especially the Noses, as they go three deep at 300+ lbs.

NT has struggled getting good push on short yardage, but has created enough seams for Jeff Wilson to run through and enough time for Mason Fine to throw. The last two games this has been less true. While the ‘blueprint’ FAU found defensively early was simply pressuring Fine and focusing on Wilson, this has been the game plan for nearly every team.

The throws and the running lanes were available for Fine and Wilson even in the poorest stretches of the last two games. Littrell suggested a refocus and a deeper look into getting Wilson the ball is the answer. We will see.

Those same things should be available against ODU also.

Guyton got free against every team but FAU, and that should continue, but look for North Texas to look to involve others early. If there was an easy complaint about the lethargy in the first couple of series, it could be that NT was looking for a big play to bail them out — ones that have recently come from Guyton.

Rico Bussey has not had the kind of impact expected of him after his breakout Bowl Game performance, although he did score the game-winner against UTSA. He did not impress in Boca and look for more from him.

Mike Lawrence had a career game (to this point) and performed the stereotypical A position — lots of catches on the underneath routes.

Mason Fine is expected to have yet another good game but look for him getting up slowly after big hits. Littrell previously noted his slowing down throughout his freshman campaign, and despite his workouts, taking the kinds of hits he takes exact a toll.

RT Riley Mayfield and LT Jordan Murray will have their hands full — yet again — with talented pass rushers. LG Elex Woodworth, C Sosala Mose, and RG TJ Henson have been solid-to-good for the most part. Some of the recent failures in short yardage have been outside of their control. ODU’s line is big and strong and will get stops, but this group should hold their own despite the size differences.

Elsewhere

S&P: 121
NT: 67 (LW 65)
COW: 85%

SRS: 120
NT: 87 (LW 64)

FPI: 117
NT: 97 (LW 91)
COW: 80.6%

Sagarin: 168
NT: 109 (LW 102)
NT 14.88 favorites

FEI: 110
NT: 99 (LW 72)
COW: 70.2%

Massey -- unavailable at this time

COW = Chance of Winning

Overall

People are superstitious. It is a survival mechanism ingrained deeply into every one of us that helped us avoid disaster before we had scientific studies to help us out. It is easy to get caught up in fear of changing innocuous routines in the hope of changing the outcome of a game after the fact. There is no shame in a pool party or even posting pictures of one. There are coaches that go out of their way to integrate more fun into programs in the hopes of winning. There was more to the loss against FAU than pool parties or fun. Sometimes that cannot be corrected with self-flagellation.

ODU has the makings of a good team but is a wounded team. If there is a takeaway from the FAU game that is valuable and useful, it is the merciless taking advantage of a weakness. The Monarchs have a weakness and the North Texas football team should take full advantage of it for 60 minutes. Anything less should be cause for the kind of gnashing of teeth seen this week on the various fan boards.

MGN Prediction: North Texas 51 ODU 24