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2018 New Mexico Bowl: Utah State Routs North Texas 52-13

North Texas took a beating in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

It was ugly in most ways and the most important optics are ugly. The national columnists and national writers that peek in and take a scan through of the scoreboard and a box score or two will say “NT flopped because of their bad defense.”

This is a two-edged blade, so we cannot be upset about that characterization. Those same columnists took the good things about NT and spun those into useful stories that got Fine and Littrell in the NY Times, Jim Rome’s radio show etc.

Utah State finished with 556 yards including 359 passing and Jordan Love put up 4 scores against only 1 interception. The run game was explosive, as Thompson and Bright put up 196 yards and two scores.

The quick and easy story is this: Utah State is a good team and much better than CUSA’s second-or-third best team and it showed.

The truth is somewhere short of that. Sure, Utah St has a good team but NT was in this game in the first quarter. We expected a shootout and there was a little evidence of that unfolding until Mason Fine was hurt and everything fell apart.

The defense was eviscerated for big yards and plenty of scores in the 2nd quarter but that was exacerbated by the offense’s struggles. There was a little bit of the defense pressing to make a play because the offense could not.

The defense had two nice stops in the first quarter when it ended 14-7. After that, there was a Nate Brooks interception that only slightly stemmed the onslaught but for the most part NT’s defense was beaten down.

We can chalk up some blame to the altitude. A good portion of blame can be assigned to the offense, for putting the defense in bad positions quickly. The rest we can assign to the Utah State offense, which was good and as advertised.

The Aggie line was blocking up well, forcing NT’s run fits to be perfect, which was not the case. NT could not gang-tackle because they could not get off their blocks. As USU went up-tempo, it was even tougher to muster the energy to tackle.

As NT tired that all was exacerbated. There were shades of FAU 2017 in this one combined with UTEP 2016.

Offense

The real lesson is that Mason Fine is too important to lose. This was nothing new, but a reinforcement of an old truism. Each preview from the last two seasons said that if Mason Fine were to go down or out it would spell disaster for the team.

One measure of a program truly and well built as in as close to a completed thing as any college football program can be is the ability to lose a player and not miss much of a beat.

Quinn Shanbour has stepped in for Fine previously — Iowa 2017 and FAU 2018 — and done well in short shift duty. He finished this game 2/8 for 24 yards and 3 INTs. Some of those throws were just very unlucky, but that is the way of things.

The fan base called for Kason Martin, the viral freshman sensation and that was rewarded by his throwing 7/12 for 110 and a score — that score was a 75-yard toss to open the second half to Jalen Guyton. He looked like a young freshman with talent in his time.

Lso making an appearance was Jason Bean, the mobile QB with some arm talent. He threw incomplete on two passes including one that was picked.

All told it was a nightmare on offense. The team could not run and looked discombobulated without Mason Fine throwing. He made some game attempts to play but was pulled when an errant snap went over his head and he limped ineffectively after it.

Numbers: 313 yards | 4.2 yards per play | 75 plays | 4 turnovers | 19 first downs | 2/15 3rd %

Defense

This squad got smoked. Sure, we are making excuses for their 2nd quarter implosion allowing 24 points and 31 straight overall, but that was not all of the bad.

The first Utah State touchdown from Jordan Love was on a wheel route into gobs of space as Khairi Muhammad and Kemon Hall were left covering no one as the Utah state man ran into the endzone.

Big plays from Utah State: 72 yard TD, 37 yard TD, 67 yard TD. NT looked lost, and Love was throwing passes to wide-open guys running free. It was bad.

The brightest spots came early when NT forced two straight punts after that long score. After a 5-play 41-yard drive allowed NT picked off the first pass after turning it over themselves.

Then the first of three straight back-breaking TDs — 10-plays 78-yards, 2-52, 3-67.

Numbers: 2nd quarter only by USU: 24 points | 223 yards | 8/15 passing for 165 yards | 10 first downs | 6/8 3rd % | 7.4 yards per play

Coaching

Utah State only had four coaches this game and yes David Yost returned to call plays. Seth Littrell’s boys looked lost defensively and impotent offensively.

While each circumstance was different, Seth Littrell now has a 0-3 record in bowl games thus far. This was by far his best team and yes, Mason Fine was lost early when it was still a game and NT had designs on being in a shoot out.

North Texas has looked bad offensively with any QB not named Fine since the Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2016.

The depth is lacking, sure, and that was evident as NT looked poor without Fine and Bussey Jr.

Overall

This was very ugly and Seth Littrell will be asked some pointed questions soon. This is part of the deal. While each bowl loss has been understandable and perhaps even expected, getting hammered in the last two with his better teams (and this, his best team) is a bad look no matter how it is sliced.

North Texas was not better on paper than Utah State but was not 39-points worse. Going into next season the need for developing a QB behind Mason Fine is paramount. Kason Martin impressed in a short stint, but NT simply cannot afford to have such a drop off behind their starter again.

NT finished 9-4, just one loss from last year’s 9-5 record. The 10-win season still eludes the program, but a nice 9-win streak is ongoing.

Unfortunately, given the talent lost after this one, there is good reason to think that NT will be a worse overall team even if Fine and much of the offense are returning next season.

This was not a fun day in an otherwise good season.

Numbers: DeAndre Torrey finished with 18 TDs on the year, finishing just behind Patrick Cobbs 2003 season at 21, and Lance Dunbar’s 2009 season’s 19. | Mason Fine finished with 3793 yards passing | Jalen Guyton is at 15 career TD catches, putting him at 8th all time in NT history

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Gutsy Revenge Win: North Texas 41 FAU 38

There is always something to play for.

North Texas and Florida Atlantic met up for the first time since last December when FAU completed the two-game sweep that saw Lane Kiffin’s Owls put up 1436 yards and 110 points. At the very least there was revenge to be had.

North Texas jumped out to a 17-0 lead that felt precarious only because of recent history. The Mean Green lost three games this season when leading big — 21-6 after one quarter vs LA Tech only to lose 29-27, 21-10 at halftime vs UAB only to lose 29-21, and last week up 28-0 vs ODU before losing 34-31.

That fear was realized again as FAU stormed back to take a 21-20 halftime lead. Mason Fine had 280 passing yards at the half, but the entire Mean Green team managed only 3 yards rushing by then. Sure that included -9 rushing/sack yards on Fine, but DeAndre Torry had only 10 on 7 carries and Nic Smith was at 2 on 1 tote.

To make matters worse, Mason Fine threw two interceptions by the 14:51 mark of the third quarter. He threw his third on the year in the first half to a line backer — all three to that point were to LBs sitting in a zone (UIW, UAB, FAU). The third quarter interception came on yet-another dropped pass.

FAU had begun to stymie Mason Fine by dropping back 8 men in a zone. The run game was stagnant and NT had no answer. That is, until, a couple of QB draws and a nice 46-yard run from Torrey got NT into position to score. Then what looked like a disaster: Mason Fine took a big hit and immediately called for the training staff. He left the game clutching his wrist and the FAU defender was assessed a 15-yard penalty for roughing.

Player-of-the-Game and Spring Game HOFer Quinn Shanbour stepped in and ran for a score. His next possestion he did the same again. He finished with 34 yards rushing on four carries and 2 TDs. Way to be clutch.

In between series NT got a Nate Brooks interception, his fifth on the season. He was incredible all night, flying around to deflect passes and firing in for big tackles.

Khairi Muhammad sealed the game with an interception of his own on the final FAU drive. You might recall that he was ejected in the first half of last week’s game against ODU for allegedly spitting in ODU WR Jonathan Duhart’s face. Muhammad denies this.

He played incredibly all night — flying in for at least one big third down stop on a WR. He finished with 9 total tackles one behind fellow safety Taylor Robinson.

The entire defense was clutch.

While Devin Singletary had a solid game that included a couple of scores added to his ridiculous career tally, he did not manage over 100 yards and had to work for his night. He finished with 93 on 23 carries — 4 pards per tote. North Texas racked up 11 tackles for loss in this one led by Brandon Garner’s 2.5.

The defense came up big when it mattered and that is how winning is done.

Offense

Mason Fine was great again. He showed the entire package: accuracy, toughness, cleverness, and judgement.

He made the right play most of the time even though he was intercepted twice — once through his own poor read. He finished with 295 yards on 22 of 33 passing and 2 scores to go with the 2 picks.

The run game was abysmal until it was sublime. Sparked by some quality second-half runs, NT finished with 208 on the game, helped in large part thanks to DeAndre Torrey’s incredible 92-yard run late in the fourth quarter.

Torrey followed his 145-yard effort last week with a 184 yard game in this one. He added 38 yards and a receiving TD, also. He is creeping up the single-season TD list.

Rico Bussey Jr. had his usual 86 — he averages 90 – on 5 catches (7 targets). Jalen Guyton had 4 grabs for 62 yards and a TD on 7 targest. He started out hot but late he dropped some.

Despite the good feelings NT was just 2 of 12 on third down. NT also found themselves in two 3rd and 18s. Mason Fine was hit too much — again — and this time he left the game with a gashed wrist.

Defense

This side of the ball impressed again. There were some big plays allowed, but FAU has the kind of talent that does that to teams. Kiffin had his guys playing well. Two weeks ago FAU beat the presumptive East representative FIU on the road handily.

The entire defensive line was active and got into the backfield often. Motor Singletary had his moments, but they were confined and he had to work. He was hit in the backfield by two-or-more NT defenders often enough and when he got into positive territory, he was met with a gang of Mean Green.

The secondary was impressive even though Chris Robison had a nice night. The FAU plays came on big plays via play-action, which is understandable given the calibre of the run game faced.

NT plays aggressivley, and while that will allow the occasional big play, it is supposed to create negative plays and turnovers. That was the case again in this one.

Everyone was flying around with energy on a cold night in front of a relatively sparse crowd (compared to the Tech game).

The defense forced stops and got clutch tackles and huge turnovers. That’s all we can ask for.

Coaching

Much has been made of the collapses in recent weeks with good reason. Overall it is important to realize that Seth Littrell and Graham Harrell are relatively inexperienced and are learning.

North Texas is a well-motivated team that executes for most of the game. Putting all that into timely production is a work in progress.

What Does It All Mean? and What Is Next?

North Texas is 8-3 with a chance to even up the all-time series against UTSA at 3 a piece. NT is 0-2 in the Alamodome, and can grab the 9th win of the season next Saturday.

UTSA is awful, and are enduring one of the worst offensive seasons in the nation.

NT needs a win in that one and a bowl win to get to 10 wins, which would be a program first.

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Another Collapse: North Texas 31 ODU 34, Mean Green Blow a 28-0 Lead

North Texas was up 28-0, and if you have been paying close attention all season you know this was a bad sign. For some mysterious reason, North Texas has been unable put together a full game. Everyone on the internet has their own reason to offer for this situation, but no one has the answer for unlocking it.

Were NT not 7-3, one of the better records in NT history at this point in a season, there would be more than a little bit of concern. As it is, there is frustration.

Coming into this game North Texas had to find some kind of motivation after dropping the Division Championship game to UAB in Birmingham. NT followed that up with a nice win over Rice that took a fourth quarter explosion to make the scoreboard look nice. In this one, NT jumped out to an easy 28-0 lead where the offense looked explosive and the run game powerful. The defense intercepted Blake LaRussa on the first possession and went down and scored a TD.

NT got their first two TDs from Rico Bussey on a 23-yard score and the second from DeAndre Torrey ran in from 37-yards out. Torrey finished with 145 yard on 25 carries. He also added 34 yards on five receptions. Unfortunately, he also fumbled early in the fourth quarter.

NT moved the ball easily and often early. NT went 7 plays and 54 yards for the third score, Torrey’s second TD of the game without seeing a third down. On their fourth TD that made it 28-0, Rico Bussey took a 4th and five pass for a 26-yard TD. That would all the TDs for NT this day. Cole Hedlund added a third quarter FG but NT was otherwise shutout.

ODU would go on to score 34 points beginning with the late-second quarter TD from LaLa Davis.

This would be the third time NT has failed to show up in the second half after going up big. They led Tech 21-6 (after one quarter), UAB 21-10 at half, and ODU 28-0 at half. All three ended as losses. The fans think it is play-calling. Littrell has credited the opponents and blamed his team for poor execution and his own staff (himself included) for preparation and coaching.

Whatever the reason, NT has failed to execute in short yardage in crucial situations and also turned the ball over. In the third quarter of this game NT went 1-5 on third down and 0-1 on fourth. The fourth-down attempt came at 4th and 7 from the ODU 9 on a fake field goal attempt. It was a curious move, but ultimately somewhat understandable. When being aggressive, you risk failure. NT still led 28-17 at that point. NT ultimately forced a three-and-out and then got their lone points — the field goal — to make it 31-17 with a little over a quarter remaining.

In the fourth quarter of this game, after ODU scored to end the third and make it 31-24, DeAndre Torrey fumbled on 1st and 10 on the ODU 36. NT had moved 33 yards in 6 plays, had overcome a 1st down sack. Torrey had just picked up 16 yards on a pass on 3rd and 6. This was the last good drive NT had.

In the fourth quarter NT was 1-3 on third downs and 0-1 on fourth.

ODU kicked a FG. NT turned it over on downs. This was a six play drive that ended with a failed Torrey 4th-and-1 attempt. Of the 19 yards NT gained that drive 14 of them were rushes. That is what makes the whole thing frustrating. The run game can run but also fails when it counts.

NT forced an ODU punt on a three-and-out and then followed with their own. Fine lined up to throw three times but scrambled for a yard, and completed two to Torrey for only five yards. NT punted on 4th and 4. Then ODU went on their 14-play 71-yard game-winning drive.

What Does It All Mean

Look, none of this is new now. NT has had trouble with efficiency. This blog thinks the lack of a Jeff Wilson type runner has meant NT is without a go-to play or series of plays. Jeff Wilson was a reliable source of grinding yards and explosive plays. NT could build their entire offensive game plan on the threat of Wilson and the counters built on that. This season Mason Fine is the threat — but in what context?

Sure if Mason Fine has the time to throw he can be dangerous but increasingly teams are flooding the field with defenders and getting pressure with their front-four. Jalen Guyton has been off the pace he set for himself last year when he was the Newcomer of the year. He has had the dropsies all season and that happened again in this one. Mike Lawrence has been schemed out of the game. Bussey and Darden are the only consistent performers.

The run game has been boom and bust and mostly bust when it comes to crucial conversions. The team has been able to convert early in games, but late against UAB and here in the fourth quarter when NT needed a 4th down conversion, it came up short.

Contrast that with Old Dominion’s 4th and 6 conversion (and the 4th and three earlier that drive). QB Blake LaRussa threw a 36-yard pass to Jonathan Duhart, who made the grab over Tyreke Davis. When it came time to make a play that wins or loses the game, ODU made it and North Texas did not. That, is this season in a nutshell.

Other

Everyone wants someone to blame and I do not know where to lay it. Sure, it is easy to blame the coaching staff but what exactly is the problem? What did the staff do to make Guyton the newcomer of the year and then let him develop the dropsies?

“Adjustments” need to be made, but failing to get a 4th and 1 is just a failure of execution. Most of the focus is on the offense, for failing in the same way for the third time (they have also done this inconsistent thing for longer than that) but the defense deserves a little attention. Allowing 34 points is not good. Sure, ODU is good and has talent, but some of the plays were silly. Big plays to their wide receivers and allowing a second-effort on 4th and 3 on ODU’s final drive.

Tyreke Davis getting burned on 4th and 6 is just one bad play, but the series of poor defensive plays before that set that up to hurt much more than it should have.

It takes a village to blow a 28-0 lead, y’all.

Next Up

North Texas hosts a renewed and reinvigorated FAU squad on Thursday night. This was supposed to be a marquee game. Now? Well, it will just be a game.

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BHAM Bust: North Texas 21 UAB 29, North Texas All But Eliminated from CUSA Race

When Mason Fine fumbled at the six yard line early in the 4th quarter, it was only fortunate that the referees — already hated by both sides of the internet fandom — blew the whistle way to early because it prevented a sure UAB touchdown return.

As it was, UAB’s QB AJ Erdely completed a 36-yard bomb to Xavier Ubosi — his only grab on the night — to get them out of the shadow of their own end zone. That set up a long UAB drive that ate up 6:14 and went 87 yards in 13 plays. It resulted in a Nick Vogel field goal that put the Blazers up by the winning score margin.

Mason Fine’s final pass to Jalen Guyton on 4th down was a yard short — clearly — and the potential game-tying drive ended at the UAB 18.

The Mean Green started well, scoring an electric 21 points in the first half. Rico Bussy Jr. had a 57-yard TD score on a quick slant that saw him out run everyone on the way to the end zone. Jaelon Darden pulled off some highlight-reel moves on the way to accumulating a career-best 10 catches and 143 yards to go with his 2 first half scores.

Those three touchdowns — all in the first half — were all of Mason Fine’s scores, as he put up 336 on 29/40 passing. He out-dueled Erdely, who had 189 on 14/22. Both QBs were sacked four times — Brandon Garner, EJ Ejiya, Joe Ozougwu, and Rod Young combined — but the run game for UAB did the most damage.

UAB’s big offensive line and powerful back Spencer Brown were able to lean on the Mean Green in the third and fourth quarters, extending drives and killing the clock long enough to keep the Mean Green off the field.

Echoing the performance against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs back in September, the Mean Green only had the ball for 4 minutes of the third quarter. A failed 4th down attempt gave the ball to UAB at midfield. The Blazers drove 3:53 before fumbling at the six. Mason Fine was forced into an intentional grounding by Garrett Marino that caused a safety. Then UAB drove for another three-and-a-half minutes for a TD. It was 21-10 and NT had not had the ball in ages.

The offensive rhythm gone, and the defense unable to get off the field thanks to 3rd down penalties, NT struggled to find the form of the first half. The adjustments the Blazers made were along the lines of hitting Mason Fine more. The possession after the TD, Mason Fine hit Kelvin Smith for five yards, then was harassed into two incomplete passes while taking big hits from the defensive line.

In the fourth, after going down 26-21, yet another 4th down conversion failed when Mason Fine threw incomplete when Jack LB Stacy Keely knocked down Mason Fine’s pass.

The defense did enough to get the ball back once more, but the drive ended on the six when Mason Fine clearly fumbled. After UAB drove, NT had one last gasp in them but could not convert. A mishandled snap cost NT a third down and on fourth down, Fine avoided pressure and found Guyton for 9-yards, just a yard shy of the first down that could have extended things.

Offense

The offense came out, well, blazing. Mason Fine was accurate, quick with his passes and finding playmakers in space. North Texas has 222 total yards to UAB’s 140 at the half, and 212 passing. The run game was a concern, and that never improved. DeAndre Torrey and Nic Smith ran hard, but could not find much space against the huge UAB defense.

In the second half, NT simply could not execute. Misfiring on 4th and 2 (run game) gave the ball away. A sack in their own end zone ended another drive. A misfire on 3rd and 2 (run game) and the failed subsequent 4th and 1 (pass game) killed another.

Finally, the fumble by Mason Fine ended yet another possible scoring drive. North Texas was good enough to win this game — much like they were in the Louisiana Tech game — but mistakes against good teams — like against Tech — will cost you wins.

This was unsurprising — both aspects — as North Texas has been playing this inconsistently all season. Every post-game review has remarked on how the offense struggles for a quarter or two, but also puts together a remarkable run of points where it looks like the team we expect it to be.

In this game, the total numbers mask the fact that NT had an awful third and fourth quarter. NT went scoreless in the second half and largely through their own doing. Credit UAB for making things difficult — the defensive line was good — but there were too many mistakes in short yardage to think that NT was simply overpowered. They just did not execute when it mattered.

Defense

The defense has been the most consistent and best unit this season. They held this UAB defense and gave the offense more than a few opportunities to win things. Nate Brooks ripped the ball away from a UAB running back that saved a scoring drive — shades of last week when Khairi Muhammad did the same against Southern Miss. EJ Ejiya racked up 10 tackles and flew all over the field. AJ Erdely was sacked four times and the run game was held in check until late, when the defense played way too much.

Even then, they held UAB to a FG in their final drive, giving Mason Fine one more shot to tie things with a TD+two point conversion.

Special

UAB had a huge return that set up a short field. That drive resulted in a TD for UAB. Outside of that, NT did not have any return chances. No one muffed a return. Kentworthy punted four times and had one over 50 and two inside the 20.

What It Means

Well, as we explained earlier this week, it is all but over for NT. This UAB team — a very good one — would have to drop three of their next four to the likes of UTEP, UTSA, Southern Miss, and Middle Tennessee.

NT falls to third in the division behind UAB (4-0), and LT (3-1).

Next Up

Rice. The Owls played better this week but are still struggling.

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Defense Dominant as North Texas Beats Southern Miss 30-7

North Texas moved to 6-1 and 2-1 in C-USA play after a nice, business-handling win over Southern Miss.

Perhaps you wanted some kind of 44-26 win where Mason Fine shows off his arm and his weapons? This blog wanted that but is more than happy to sit here with a 30-7 victory in which the defense held an opponent to under 10.

This was an old-school dominant victory. The Golden Eagles came in looking to exploit the NT secondary — ahem, young Cam Johnson — and did all that. They forgot to score points.

The defense was greedy and did some thievery again, intercepting Jack Abraham once and Khairi Muhammad ripped the ball away from USM’s Trevensky Mosley for a fumble recovery. Muhammad finished with six tackles — four solo — and one TFL.

The defensive line was ferocious, with L’Darius Hamilton (Hambone) getting two sacks, including a flying, diving one on Jack Abraham early in the first.

The offense came out throwing the ball — looking to stay ahead of the chains and go with the strength. That method was mildy successful, as drops and a good USM pass rush on Mason Fine forced some early scrambles and two early punts.

Fine eventually found Guyton for six — a beauty of a toss that travelled 58 yards in the air — and NT looked like it was beginning to get unstuck. He finished 24/38 for 292 and a TD.

Unfortunately, Jack Abraham had a nice day throwing with 318 n 29/42 and a score to Quez Watkins from 44 yards out in which Quez out ran the entire secondary.

Watkins and fellow wideout Jordan Mitchell each had over 100 yards receiving, the first time NT has allowed that situation since the New Orleans Bowl against Troy.

Jalen Guyton also had himself a day, with 7 grabs for 124 and a score on 10 targets. That puts him at 21 grabs 335 and 2 scores in two seasons against USM. Mason Fine found 9 different pass-catches including Caleb Chumbley, who grabbed one for five.

Fine was greater than the numbers in the box score. He scrambled, spun out of sacks, and did the things that turn negative plays into positive plays. That is the stuff of winning, and a good reason why NT is 6-1 on the year.

All told, this was a nice effort if you look at the box score. DeAndre Torry had another 3 TD game, including the bow on the game in the form of a 34-yard score with under a minute left.

What It Means

North Texas is 2-1 in conference play and 6-1 on the season, bowl eligible in the third season of Seth Littrell’s career. Just a few short years ago NT was advertising the #Hit6 tag, to reach this point. Now? It almost barely registers.

With Tech’s loss last week to UAB, North Texas can claim a portion of the division lead with a win at Birmingham next week.

The offense could use a game with some efficiency. Mason Fine will play tougher defensive lines (next week) and the run game has to improve some if Graham Harrell does not want Fine to take too many hits.

As it is, this was yet another 400+ yard performance and a good outing by the QB. There was winning football played, and 30-points is enough to get wins. Unlike last season when the offense needed 45 points to win, this year, 30 is plenty.

Next Up

At UAB 6-1, 2-0.

It will be tough as UAB looks amazing right now. They dominated a terrible Rice squad and got to play the second and third teamers. That should prove to be the toughest game NT has played this season. Sure, Tech won, but that was at home.

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2018: North Texas vs Southern Miss Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southern Miss

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

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

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

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

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

Last Week

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

Highlights from Rice Game

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

Southern Miss on Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There have been mistakes, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southern Miss on Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes football is a simple game.

Special Teams

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

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

Numbers

Regular Numbers

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

Advanced Numbers

S&P+ Rankings

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

Massey Ratings

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

Sagarin

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

SRS

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

Vegas

Line: NT -9, O/U: 58

Overall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terrible prediction: NT 44 USM 26

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

Mile Marker: North Texas Entering Conference Play

We are four games into the season, with the non-conference slate behind us, and it is time to take stock of things. The most important metric is the W/L column. Your Mean Green Fightin’ Eagles of North Texas are 4-0.

Surprisingly, the defense has been the story of the season. That is not to say the offense and Mason Fine have been bad — far from it — but they have not been at the same level as the 2017 team was in efficiency metrics. Some of that has to do with the situations. NT has played some odd games.

The UIW and Liberty games were played in rain and that contributed to some of the drops and weirdness. The run game made its debut against Liberty last week, and that bodes well for the team as conference play looms.

Let us take a quick look around and check on things.

Category NT FBS Rank
Points 48.8 12
Total Offense 510.8 17
Rush Offense 165.5 81
Passing Offense 345.3 12
Scoring Defense 15.8 18
Total Defense 308.0 20
Passing Defense 209 61
Rushing Defense 99.0 14

The above category are your standard numbers and the quickest glance tells us that NT can score, can defend, and is dominant against the run game while allowing some passing yards. This does not tell us about efficiency or the other kinds of things. We’ll get to the advanced numbers later.

Elsewhere NT is highly ranked in some notable areas.

Category NT FBS Rank
Sacks 14.0 tied 7
Interceptions 10 1
Sacks Allowed 6 46
10+ yard plays 75 10
TFLs 28 35
3rd Down Conversion % 41% 59
3rd Down Conversion % All 30% 23

Let’s look at some advanced numbers.

S&P+

Rank 42nd (of 130), Off Rank 61, Def Rank 41, ST Rank 10

Massey

Rating 72, Off 55, Def 97

FEI

Rating 82 — through 9/17

Sagarin

Rating 50

SRS

Rating 14, Off 23, Def 29

FPI

ESPN projects us to go 11-1 based on the ratings of everyone on the schedule.

NT is ranked 10th overall in team efficiency (84.8), 58 (55.9) on Offense, 6 (88.6) on Defense, 2 (87.9) on Special Teams.

Broadly speaking we can see that NT is more favorably rated in the numbers that look at raw counting totals, and less favorably rated offensively in the ones that look for efficiency. There are more details in each link. Check them out for more.

What It Means

As I wrote on CUSA Report, NT is the best team in the league right now and that is largely thanks to the defense. EJ Ejiya and Brandon Garner have been incredible. The defensive line has been good — about as good or better as they were last season. The improvement in linebacking play is a small thing that makes a big difference. The blitzes and scheme are largely the same, but getting to the QB instead of just after he releases is the difference between winning and losing.

The defensive backfield has been the biggest beneficiaries of the QB pressure. Kemon Hall, Khairi Muhammad, and Nate Brooks all have three interceptions each which puts them in a eight-way tie for 2nd in the nation.

Nate Brooks in particular has improved from his 2017 form, but he played at near this level in 2016, so it is relatively unsurprising. It is a truism that it is much easier to defend hopeful, wobbly passes thrown under duress than not. This is a team game, and it is important to consider context when evaluating the individual units.

Last year, the defense was not good if you simply look at results, but there were some good signs. This season a combination of improvement and poorer quality opposition has translated to one of the best defenses NT has seen in some time — since 2013 at least.

The competition is going to improve. Yes, we write that knowing the SEC team is behind us. La Tech has talent — J’Mar Smith, Teddy Veal, Adrian Hardy, and Jaqwis Dancy all can make plays in 1v1 matchups. They will present more of a challenge not only because Smith is a more mobile QB than has been on the slate thus far.

Beyond that, FAU still has Motor Singletary. Southern Miss has an accurate QB and a handful of talented WRs and RBs. UAB has a focused offense predicated on a power run game that can give anyone in this league some trouble.

Thus far NT has an offense that can score against all of CUSA. The drops from Guyton are concerning, but they can be overcome. The run game was the primary concern. Mason Fine is good, but having to make 57 perfect decisions is a giant burden to place on anyone no matter how good.

Liberty is weak against the run. We saw on Saturday that Army was not just optioning them to death, but overpowering the line. NT was able to get anything it wanted in the ground game.

Tech and the rest of the league slate is much better. RB Loren Easly has been amazing in his two games as the primary back. He bulled some Arkansas defenders, and that bodes well going forward. Nic Smith and DeAndre Torrey have shown some great things as change-of-pace backs.

Meanwhile, Rico Bussey is on pace for 84 grabs this season, which is 26 more than Mike Lawrence’s team-leading 62 last year. Bussey had 7 TD grabs in 2017 and already has 5 thus far.

He has transformed from a hit-and-miss player, to a consistent, prototypical outside WR threat.

Outlook

Everyone is healthy heading into the rest of the season. The schedule sets up nicely, with the remaining tough games at home with the notable exception of UAB on the road in Alabama.

This upcoming week is the toughest game to date, with Tech being the only winning team NT will have faced thus far. The Bulldogs have had success in Denton previously, with that 2014 game looking familiar if only because of the overall similarities between the seasons. Obviously, the major difference is that NT is good with good quarterback play in 2018 and is taking advantage of the opportunities.

This game is the equivalent to the UTSA game and the Tech game from 2017 in importance. Then, UNT President Smatresk called the October UTSA matchup “the division title game” and he was sort of right. It sent UTSA reeling and set up NT for the rest of the year. The Roadrunners were not as good as predicted. We do not know too much about Tech just yet, but they did give LSU a game after spotting them 24 points early.

The advanced numbers like North Texas the rest of the way, and while we can expect some weirdness and a challenge, even one loss (depending on to whom) will still set up NT for another title game appearance.

Things are looking good early.

Categories
Football Football Recaps

Business Trip: North Texas 47 Liberty 7

North Texas went to Lynchburg, VA and took care of business.

Not all handling of business is beautiful or perfect. North Texas had to find a way to dominate without a crisp passing game and they did so. Loren Easly had 177 yards and is the clear number one back after four weeks.

The Mean Green did what good teams do: they lapped the competition when the time demanded it. Let us be clear: there was no point where NT did not look like the better team nor was there a time where they did not control things.

Liberty was always going to give NT its best shot, and they did. The problem for the Flames was that they had nothing else. Yes, North Texas is good enough now that they can have a slightly off game passing the ball and not look like it. They can also turn to a run game and end things.

Liberty is a transitionary FBS school, and in the second half they looked like FCS Lamar of 2017. Then, NT turned to the run game as the pass game struggled and dominated.

Offense

The run game completely dominated the second half and the rain and delay took away some of the passing numbers. Mason Fine tried to force a couple of passes to Mike Lawrence that were off, but NT’s pass game found lots of success early. Rico Bussey, Jr beat his man badly early for the first score. Jaelon Darden made a move on the second.

The run game showed good things early, and as the rain came close and both teams eschewed TV timeouts for the benefit of expediting things, NT relied on the run game to end things to great success.

NT’s offensive efficiency has still been something like an issue but nothing to be overly concerned about. The talent is there, and in every moment approaching importance, NT has responded well.

That is to say, NT got out to a great start in this one and any time Liberty looked like challenging the offense responded with a haymaker TD blow.

Defense

The defense was outstanding yet again. We knew the Flames were going to be the best offensive team faced thus far and they showed as much in the handful of quality drives they put together.

NT showed they were the best defense Buckshot Calvert and company saw also, holding the Flames to 344 yards and only 222 passing. Buckshot struggled in the rain, but more so with the hits and the pressure placed on him by the linebackers and defensive line.

NT bottled up most of everything and the few times Liberty challenged they needed nearly everything to go perfectly.

Khairi Muhammad grabbed another interception and NT leads the nation in the category. This unit is playing outstandingly well.

Early, Liberty tried some of the horizontal attacks that worked so well against ODU and Army and NT’s speed was too much. Eventually the Flames had to try some downfield stuff and had a couple of successful attempts but overall they did not have the kind of consistency that can challenge this group right now.

Special

Fire Biagi.

I’m kidding, of course. NT missed an extra point. The ball was slippery and that likely played some part in it. Liberty’s punter and kicker had a rough go of it, also. Kentworthy punted well, and NT covered the kicks well.

What Does It Mean?

North Texas is 4-0 for the first time since 1966. Non-conference play is over, and NT came out of it perfect and added a whole lot of casual fans. This month could not have been much better.

It is not over yet, and La Tech comes to town for the biggest clash to date.

Next

The Bulldogs of Louisiana Tech. Last year North Texas solidified their hold on the West division by winning on the road in Ruston, beating a favored Bulldog team. Tech has a good squad and the kind of depth that can challenge NT.

The MGN Season Preview circled this game as a bellwether for the rest of the league season. The loser will be chasing the winner for the remainder of the year.

J’Mar Smith has the kind of weapons that can make things tough. WR Teddy Veal and Adrian Hardy can win 1v1 battles and seeing them go man-vs-man against North Texas’ outstanding corners Nate Brooks and Kemon Hall will be fun.

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