North Texas won 29-26 on a miracle 98-yard, 7-play drive that included a 49-yard bomb to Mike Lawrence in double coverage.
4th Quarter. 1:07 left. 98 yards. No timeouts.@ESPN Win Probability: 1.7%
— Conference USA (@ConferenceUSA) October 15, 2017
Mason Fine had Mesh and found Rico Bussey on the crossing route as UTSA brought everyone on 3rd and 1 from the UTSA 22. He waited for the absolute last second to fire the pass just beyond the dropping defensive Tackle Banks, into the hands of Rico Bussey on the move.
Bussey got a block, found the edge, evaded Devron Davis and tightroped the line sideline for the score.
I jumped for joy and ran accross my living room. My wife screamed.
This was hyped as the biggest game in Apogee history with 3-2 (2-0) North Texas taking on 3-1 (0-1) UTSA in a battle that UNT President called “the CUSA West championship”. North Texas jumped out quickly faded in the middle quarters, and finished strong. UTSA and UNT were evenly matched teams, but NT had the rest and the home field advantage.
North Texas came out and scored on the first three drives — two TDs and a FG. They started 6/6 on 3rd down conversion and then failed on 3rd and goal and kicked a FG. That, in case you hadn’t realized, is how you want your offense to produce.
By the end of the first NT had a 16-7 lead and had dominated time of possession approximately 12 minutes to 3. Mason Fine found Jalen Guyton for 77 yards and a score and things looked great for the green (and black). The explosive offense so talked about was producing as expected and UTSA’s secondary did not have the footspeed. The NT offensive line was holding off the pass rush long enough to allow Mason Fine time to make plays on the ground and through the air.
Still, UTSA managed to hit Fine often, even on the 77-yarder. Mason was able to complete passes in the face of pressure and keep things moving. That would prove to be the difference later.
The second quarter and third quarter were all UTSA as they played their game and found a way to shutter the explosive NT offense by hitting Fine. NT helped things by two poor snaps. One came on the extra point to keep things at 13 instead of 14. The other came with the offense in a groove. The snap flew over Mason Fine’s head for a loss of 17. The drive was stalled and NT would punt.
UTSA had found success getting into the backfield. The next drive was awful for NT as Marcus Davenport sacked Fine twice. Meanwhile UTSA was controlling the ball and moving it enough to manage field goal attempts. By the end of the quarter the score was 17-16 but two TDs and a FG for both sides.
The third quarter was ugly if you were looking for offense. UTSA had 63 yards on 18 plays and NT had 19 yards on 11.
Still, NT came up with two big stops after 1) a Mason Fine INT and 2) a short punt. After everything UTSA was only up 20-16 and NT had the ball near the end of the quarter.
Then came another huge drive were NT finally got unstuck. Guyton got free after a couple of 3rd down conversions and scored his second TD of the game — a 32-yard TD to cap a 10-play 80 yard scoring drive over 4:25.
NT was up. I dont know what happened with the conversion attempt but it was intercepted. NT was up 22-20 and things were not looking so dire. NT finally found running and passing room.
The defense put up yet another great stop on the UTSA offense, helped by the crowd (whatt??) for a couple of penalties — a delay and a false start.
Then NT got stuck again. A three-and-out with a chance to take control of the game was costly. UTSA scored on the next possession.
NT had to that point put up a good fight defensively and the touchdown was terrible but the previous work meant that NT did not have an insurmountable deficit in front of them.
On the next possession, NT went four-and-out and had the worst couple of play-call combinations. NT tried the QB run that worked successfully in the first quarter and was stuff. They followed that with a read with Jeff Wilson that lost two. The majority of the fandom considered this to be poor play calling.
That, my friends, was an awful play call https://t.co/h0EfNFqiv3
— Mean Green Nation (@meangreennation) October 15, 2017
Generally speaking, getting the ball to Jeff Wilson on third down would have been the preferred option.
UTSA took over with 1:29 left at the NT 45. Three rush plays — three, four, no gain — brought up 4th and 3. Rod Young stopped UTSA RB Jalen Rhodes on 3rd and 3 for no gain in a huge stop that saved the game. While most thought UTSA would go for it and try to seal the game, they instead punted and seemingly got a perfect scenario: North Texas pinned at the 2 with no timeouts and just over a minute left.
Then came the drive.
NT had two completions for a first down. Then Mason Fine rolled left — Jeff Wilson got a huge chip block on Marcus Davenport that saved a sack — and fired out of bounds to Rico Bussey. On the next play Fine escaped a rush, set up and found Mike Lawrence for 49-yards. The play looked similar to the INT except Fine managed to get enough air under the ball.
There was some question as to whether Lawrence pushed the defender but the replay showed it was just a great play. Then Fine found Darden for 9 yards and spiked it.
Then came the score.
Mason Fine stood tall and completed the play, allowing Rico Bussey to catch the ball in stride and score. By then there was just :10 left on the clock and a miracle greater than the one we just saw would have been required.
Let’s go through some groups:
The first and fourth quarter NT offenses were great. The middle two quarters were less good.
Mason Fine ended the day with 354 passing on 20/34 for 3 TDs and 1 Int. Good stuff. Jalen Guyton had 8 receptions for 182 and 2 scores in his second straight dominant game. He torched Devron Davis for the 77-yarder where he was open by about 15-yards. We speculated he would really dominate this league and it that has been the case.
Guyton also added 12 yards rushing including a long of 9. Jeff Wilson was good in spots but was bottled up by the play-calling and second and third quarter slumps. He finished with 16 for 83 including a long of 35. He was outstanding in pass protection, which is an underrated part of his game. The team finished with 87 yards rushing total, but that includes -17 on the bad snap.
NT did well to use misdirection against UTSA’s aggression and jump out to an early 13-0 lead. The middle quarters had more frustration as NT could not deal with Marcus Davenport adequately. He was a handful and UTSA’s DC moved him all over.
NT converted 9/16 3rd downs (56.3 %) in part because of the success on standard downs (3/6 on 3rd and shorts). During NT’s lull they went 0/5 on thirds.
In the opening quarter NT had 6 chunk plays (passes over 15 and runs over 10). They finished the game with 12 (8 passes, 4 runs).
Ultimately the luck on the final drive was earned. NT is an explosive offense and has made big plays all season. While the circumstances were unlikely, the team battled through and executed. That was just great offense down the stretch. Execution and calm. No holding calls and blocks down the field and in the backfield. That’s a dream scenario.
The defense was outstanding.
NT came in averaging 400 yards allowed per game and held UTSA to 389, and 5.9 per play. UTSA came in averaging 6.84 per play. UTSA managed only 4.2 yard per carry, and while good, that did not establish enough of a run game to really control the game. Instead, UTSA resorted to long conversions at best. Even then NT held UTSA to 4/14 on third down conversions and forced 6 3rd and longs.
UTSA managed nine chunk plays (5 15+ passes, 4 10+ runs). The two TDs were on 40+ yard passes to RBs off of play action.
Dalton Sturm’s 19 yard rush on 3rd and 17 was both the longest and most frustrating. UTSA did exert their will on NT in the middle quarters but still managed only a four point lead. Credit the defense for the effort.
Reffett’s group gave Mason Fine one more chance to win the thing and were rewarded.
Andy Flusche had two TFLs, McClain, Muhammad, Ejiya, TJ Tauaalo, Wheeler, Preston, Hamilton, Tillman Johnson all had part in others. NT totalled 9 TFLs for the game. This all without Sid Moore and Bryce English.
The defense hurried Sturm 3 times and nearly were rewarded with big plays. Instead Ashton Preston was called for interference (questionable) on one, and the other fell to Josh Steward for a big gain instead of an INT.
Eric Jenkins again put up 2 pass deflections including an incredible break on the ball early in the game to shut down a drive. This defense that has been much maligned held an offense that averaged 35 a game to only 26 points. They gave their offense a chance to win.
Great job by this group.
Seth Littrell has changed the culture of this team. So many tweets ambled through the timeline with some version of “This is the same old North Texas” and they ultimately were wrong.
While some luck played a part — that toss to Lawrence! — luck is made. The defense is improving week to week, and the offense remains explosive and the league’s best. Littrell came in saying that he will find players and develop them. Now his guys — Fine, Guyton, Darden, Jenkins — are all rapidly developing and big parts of the success.
Mason Fine went from an undersized freshman who made too many turnovers in this game last year to the hero showing flashes of Aaron Rodgers. That’s development.
Graham Harrell had a good game but a glaring question mark. Reffett squeezed everything from a defense that is now missing two defensive line players against an offense that outweighs them and wants to run the ball down the middle. Late in last year’s game UTSA ran the ball down the throat of the defense to seal the game in a similar situation. This season they were forced to punt.
That kind of effort wins games.
Darden and Johnson did not have much to work with returning. The bad snap on the PAT nearly cost the game. Trevor Moore was money on his one kick. North Texas
What It Means
North Texas won the most thrilling game in recent memory (ever?) and leads the division with a 3-0 record. UAB won against MTSU, while USM did the same against UTEP which means NT does have a bit of room for error but not much. FAU and Lane Kiffin’s powerful run game away in Boca Raton, fresh off a bye week and ready to take advantage of NT’s beat-up Defensive line.
NT had the first 3-game win stream since 2013 and 4-2 for the first time in forever. FAU is a really good and impressive squad and a win in Boca would be huge. The best thing about winning is that it brings bigger and more important games.
The attendance was something like 23K and a little short of the goal. Considering the circumstances, it was understandable. Texas-OU is a 100-year old rivalry and will draw the bulk of the attention of the Metroplex for a long time. Marketing at NT is much harder than anyone wants to realize. The efforts of the administration were amazing, and that kind of work and this kind of game will produce bigger better crowds in future years — and maybe even this year.
North Texas went into Hattiesburg and handled Southern Miss 43-28 in a game that looked precarious early. Southern Miss ended the game with the advantage on turnover margin, held a 14-0 lead, and for a large part of the game: third down conversions.
Mason Fine struggled but put up 366 yards regardless. He found a friend in Jalen Guyton — to the tune of 14 catches for 211 yards and a score. Guyton was targeted an incredible 18 times. Southern Miss respected his speed early and allowed him all of the underneath space. NT took advantage of that early and later hit the big stuff over the top. In between Jeff Wilson was his typical amazing self, adding 148 yards on 30 totes and three scores. A series of smaller, drive saving runs by Wilson were key and just as important as the bigger highlight-worthy ones.
NT’s defense made enough plays to allow the offense some breathing room and NT won relatively comfortably — unlike last week. North Texas got a week-better and made a case as dark horse division challenger here. Southern Miss came into tonight boasting the league’s best statistical defense but were sliced apart by NT’s Power Air Raid.
Southern Miss came out the blocks hot, and found their best playmaer Ito Smith for 45 big yards to set up the first score. NT missed a tackle, having Colton McDonald on Smith and things looked bad.
First two drives included a mishandled snap, a loss of dive, and a sack in the six plays. Total plays: 6, total yards: -3.
Ater a punt, USM scored again, thanks to a deep toss up to Allenzae Staggers for 33. NT looked like the defense that was giving up big plays to UAB but without the scorching offense.
USM looked like they were recreating the SMU game
Finally, after trading three-and-outs (S/O to Ejiya for an early drive-killing sack) NT converted a 4th and 1 as Jeff Wilson scampered down the left sideline for 46 yards and a score. He did the classic Jeff run where he stiff armed the inital tackler, turned it up field, and then made a move. NT 7 USM 14.
NT’s defense continued the strong play but this time Kwadra Griggs could not find anyone on bail-out 3rd and long plays. Another punt.
NT threw away a good drive on a Rico Bussey fumble — it came on the snag play we saw against SMU
The Golden Eagles capitalized and everyone was thinking this thing was a typical NT game. Ito Smith outran everyone for 65-yards and a score, matching Jeff’s run and making Kemon Hall look silly.
Bad turned to worse and Mason Fine threw a terrible pick over the middle. USM looked like they were recreating the SMU game: capitalize on early NT mistakes to take a big lead.
Instead the defence forced a punt after three plays and NT took over from the five.
Then the game turned.
Last year NT was down 17 to Rice and had come off five straight quarters of terrible offense. Then Mason Fine tossed up a prayer to O’Keeron Rutherford for a miracle first down and everything changed.
Here, NT was backed up at the 5 yard line and nearly was tackled for a loss and a safety. Jeff Wilson made a hugely underrated play and battled forward for only a two yard loss. Mason finds Mike Lawrence for 11. Then Jeff converts a huge third down run with a 2-yard gain. This was when NT was having trouble converting already. The Mean Green have struggled (on both sides) on 3rd. They struggled especially on 3rd and short on offense which is very strange. I cannot stress enough how important and unlikely that conversion was.
Suddenly this is a game.
The very next play Mason Fine hooked up with Smiley for 41-yards. Southern Miss was sitting deep early, then started creeping up. Fine found him streaking on a skinny post and hit him perfectly. NT was down to the USM 43 and cooking. Fine found Guyton for 8, Jeff ran for a no-gain and there was an incompletion on third down. Then another huge conversion on 4th and 2. NT came out in a bunch look and Fine rolled out — just like he did on the previous interception — and found Kelvin Smith just past the marker for a first down. He caught it along the sideline and fell forward.
That was Smith’s only catch of the game.
Southern Miss had a flag on the play that added 15 yards. NT now getting some luck. Jeff runs for 12 down to the five yard line. Then again for 3 up the middle. Finally Mason Fine rolles left and hits Guyton for 3 yards and the score. It is 21-14 and suddenly this is not a blowout loss, choke job. Suddenly NT is the team the stats say they were. Suddenly this is a game.
NT’s defense, hyped and rested after NT’s 12-play 95-yard drive over 5:11 quickly forces a USM punt. Griggs had found Staggers for a miracle 31-yard gain but that proved to be more luck than anything. Two Ito Smith rushes were bottled up and then Griggs threw incomplete to Isaiah Jones.
NT was now at the 20 yard line, 54 seconds on the clock and down four. Instead of packing it in and heading into the locker room, NT gets aggressive (love it) and Mason Fine drops a beauty to Caleb Chumley for 43 yards on 2nd-and-16. He hit him in stride, in between the safety and trailing backer. Beautiful. Who says he can’t throw deep?
After a couple of incompletions and a Guyton six-yarder, NT faced 4th-and-4 with :20 left on the clock from the USM 37. NT lines up in a tight formation and Mason Fine floats a pass to Nic Smith for six yards and a first down. Trevor Moore bent in the FG and NT was down 21-17 at the half. What an amazing turn of events.
Second Half Destruction
After Fine’s interception the NT drive chart looks like this:
TD, FG, FG, TD, TD, TD, FG, Punt, END OF GAME.
North Texas outscored USM in the third 16-7, and it was 16-0 much of the quarter. For the second half, NT outgained USM 302 to 162 and outscored them 26-7. After only converting 2/10 on third down in the first half, NT converted an incredible 7/11 (64%) in the second half.
The defense was scorched by USM for 253 in the first but held them to 162 in the second, including only 4.8 yards per play on 34 plays and 1/6 on third down.
For the game USM only converted 33% of 3rd downs, including 1/5 on 3rd and 9+, and 1/2 on 3rd and less than 4. Kwadra Griggs came into tonight at 58% completion and finished 19/42 (45.5%) passing for 270 and only 1 score (that was mostly a sweep).
Whoo boy that was fun to watch. Last week I wrote that NT officially has a good offense. We had seen too many good things — even and maybe especially in losses — that suggested that NT could continue this pace the rest of the way. There is plenty to improve upon but there was plenty of great tonight.
Let us quickly complain:
Mason Fine missed throws, missed open guys, looked hurried, and did not take care of the ball. The line did not get enough push on short yardage and NT did not convert goal-to-go situations easily.
Okay I am done.
Mason Fine-to-Jalen Guyton is fun to watch. Number 9 absolutely owned the secondary all night to the tune of 14 catches for 211 on 18 targets and 1 score. He feasted on the shorter and intermediate routes after seeing soft coverage all night. His reputation as a burner has preceded him and USM played him accordingly. Fine and Guyton took that space and after USM decided to play straight, they went over the top.
Jeff Wilson was JEFF WILSON all night. I’ve repeatedly called him the best player on the offense and he repeatedly shows that is not an exaggeration. He was the offense early and the closer late. He put up 148 yards on 30 carries (workhorse?)
He also added a big 18-yard catch early. He’s lessened his role in the pass game as he’s increased it in the run game. He’s been spectacular all season and is inching up the all-time charts here.
The little things he did tonight were noticed and appreciated and worth every bit as much as the highlight worthy ones.
Incredible: Smiley, Chumley, Wilson, Lawrence, Nic and Kelvin Smith all had one catch and each catch was either clutch and/or an important point in a scoring drive.
The offense put up 540 yards on 87 plays, 366 passing, 174 rushing, had 24 first downs. This offense is good and is stil improving.
USM had a great first half but was stunted in the second. North Texas learned from the UAB debacle and found a way to turn 3rd and longs into an advantage. USM had talent in Ito Smith and outside and took advantage. Getting worked by Ito in the open field is part of the game and you learn from it and move on. Staggers, Robertson, and Jones are big and strong and can move in the open field. The key was making Kwadra Griggs beat them and he could not do what AJ Erdely was able to do: Complete big 3rd down passes.
Khairi Muhammad had 10 tackels (6 solo) and played solid coverage. EJ Ejiya continued his strong play and picked up a sack along with 10 tackles. Kemon Hall was good and had a pass break up. So did KiShawn McClain — who showed a little of his ability to fly in for big tackles. Colton McDonald had a big third down pass break up early in the game.
TJ Tauaalo was hurt late but had a QB hurry. Tyreke Davis has bee making plays as a true freshman. I am excited about his future here in this defense. Sid Moore, Andy Flusche, Rod Young continued to dominate the line of scrimmage. They did a good job of wrangling a talented back and one big 65-yard run is very understandable. There was also a Tony Krasniqi sighting.
The big question was at corner and yes, Eric Jenkins started. He had another pass break up and played his usual solid corner work. Withe Kemon Hall and Jenkins playing like this, this defense is shaping up to be the one we hoped would compliment a good offense.
The special teams was solid today and Trevor Moore was his clutch reliable self. That end-of-half kick was incredible.
Much has been made of the adjustments from half-to-half. This was not without good reason. I have liked what Harrell has done here and the bones of this offense were set last season. The missing piece was well, talent. NT thought it had this kind of talent in Goree, Wilson, Robinson and Smiley last season but has found it in Guyton, Bussey, Smiley this season. Add to that combination the maturation and growth of Mason Fine and this offense is clicking like no other Mean Green team in recent memory.
This pass game is on pace to be the most explosive in NT history while the run game is comparable with some of the better ones in Denton (and that is saying something). Credit the staff for the improvement. They boasted of their ability to identify talent and develop it. The last recruiting class was mid-conference in ranking but has produced Darden, Guyton, Evan Johnson, and Tyreke Davis. Not bad at all.
What It Means
I had North Texas at 3-2 heading into the bye but I thought SMU was going to be the win not USM. (I must have transposed those letters) NT is better than expected offensively and slightly worse defensively. Still, this league is very winnable. UTSA is the consensus best team in the league but the have yet to play anyone of note — Baylor is terrible, Southern is bad and hurt, and Texas State is not better than UAB. UTSA supporters are pointing to stats … but so did Southern Miss fans.
We will learn a lot next week as UTSA hosts this same Southern Miss squad. As it is, North Texas is atop the West standings for now at 2-0 and 3-2 on the season. The Mean Green are halfway toward bowl eligibility and positioned nicely to compete for a division title. That is a good place to be.
The bye week not only allows rest and recuperation but a return for Bryce English to bolster the defensive line that has been a strength. While it is disappointing to have a bye right when the offense is clicking so nicely, the rest is well deserved and much needed.
Adam and Aldo sit down to review quotes from media day.
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Folks, your third favorite NT blogger was out in Irving today talking with Seth Littrell, Jeff Wilson, and KiShawn McClain.
I have some quotes of varying quality. By the end of the day players from every team were visibly beaten down by the barrage of questions touching on the same thing.
Other media jumped in with taco talk, “if your coach was a sandwich” type things, and the like. There were video guys, a Louisiana radio guys, some internet radio types, and a couple of beat guys for the major sites.
I kept it on subject though I did jump in on taco talk. I’ve been tweeting the major stuff throughout the day but here are some here:
Litrell On LaTech
“[That’s] a team that has been consistent and solid and had opportunities to compete for championships, along with Western Kentucky. Great players, great coaching staffs, obviously the two at the top at this point, if you look from top-to-bottom there is a lot of solid teams. Great players and great coaches and we got to do a great job of refocusing every week.”
Littrell on his motivation style
“I keep it internal. They know who the guys are at the top of the conference, but at the end of the day it truly doesn’t matter because we focus on how much better we can get ourselves. The more consistent we can get, the better competition we can have, the better we get, the closer we’ll get.”
Have they closed the gap on LaTech
“We’ll see. I feel like I would hope we have. There’s been a lot of hard work and the players have done a great job reestablishing that chemistry.”
Difference from 2016’s Program
“Consistency. At the end of the day that’s something that we struggled with at times. When the highs are high I think we are pretty good. Some of that is consistency and some of that being mentally tough.”
On Good From Last Year
“We were able to overcome adversity. We had good chemistry. We may not have been the best team week in and week out, but it doesn’t matter what game it is, game one, who you are going to play there is always going to be some adversity that is going to hit. The team that can overcome that the quickest is usually the one that wins the game.” “This team really likes each other. I’ve been on some teams that have pointed fingers. Chemistry is important.”
Jeff Wilson On If He Feels Pressure Being The Star on Offense
“No, because if the team does well, the team will do well. I’m nothing without my team, my lineman, my receivers blocking downfield, the quarterback calling the right play. It’s more than me and you have to realize that as a player.”
On Injuries and Prevention
“24/7 Grind. Nothing in particular just not taking any days off.”
On Place In the Conference
“I do [consider himself one of the best RBs in the league]. The reason why I can say that is that I have confidence in the guys around me and when you have that, you have confidence in yourself.”
“We look at the entire conference. The conference is so intense, anyone can have a break out at any time, in any game. It’s no ‘okay this is a team, okay they got it, okay we are going to sit down’. Everyone is going to have to bring their A game every game.”
“The whole team is licking their chops for them, obviously they gave us a heartbreak in our home town and took a ring away from us — a trophy, a championship, and a lot of memories. You know? I feel like we will be able to get some back when we play them on Nov 18. Watching them celebrate left a real bad taste in our mouths not only for them (Army) but for everyone on our schedule.”
On Role In The Offense
“You are going to see me getting in open space. Going to be running but also catching the ball. It’s another part of my game I would like to flourish in and that I can help my team if I caught the ball more.”
Kishawn Mclain On New Coordinator Situation
“The scheme changed a little bit. We have a lot of guys moving around from every position. That’s only the really big difference. We have one guy calling the shots now, so it will be a little different but not as much change.
“I have a lot of freedom, roaming around, coming from off the edge, covering, tackling, filling the gaps, whatever. Lot of versatility going on.”
“I circle everybody [on the schedule]. Whoever we line up against is going to get the best of me and the best of my team. So everyone.”
On Award Watch List And Recognition
Also asked him when he felt he was worthy of that recognition:
“Ever since I stepped on the field. I kept that in my head, and wasn’t really too showboat about it. Now that everyone is starting to realize it, I just stay humble about and keep humble, keep working, and do more.”
Preparing with recognition:
“I”m still the same guy. I have confidence in myself, just lead by example and show everybody that I can compete on that level — on the Power 5 level on on the next level — I want that.
On What A Successful Season Looks Like
“Competed. Competed each and every game.”
“It happened the way it did. I played in the moment. But that game left a bad taste in our mouths. We took that into Spring ball and into practice. We are hungry and hungrier than ever.”
On Motivation From Last Year
“A big play that sticks out to me is from the Army game when the QB burst for about 60 yards. I just felt I could have read it better, got off my block faster.”
On Difference From 2016
“We are going to have swagger and confidence.”
“Chrome with the white.”
More to come from Irving.
Ladies and gentleman your North Texas Mean Green went into West Point as 18 point underdogs and came out with a 17 point win over Army. Spurred by a ridiculous 2nd half run game featuring North Texas’ best offensive player Jeff Wilson rushing for three TDs and a defense that forced SEVEN turnovers!
By my rough count, there are three miracle passes this season. The first came against Rice when Mason Fine floated a fade pass to O’Keeron Rutherford into double coverage. Both defenders fell down, and Rutherford made the catch.
The second was today against Army to Tee Goree for the opening touchdown of the game for NT. The ball was a bit under thrown, the defender slipped, Goree grabbed it for the score.
The third and most recent was again against Army. Mason Fine floated a pass to Willie Robinson along the sideline. The corner — eyeing a sure interception — slipped and fell. Willie Robinson got down to the one-yard line.
Given the choice, I would rather be lucky than good. Army came into this game as favorites because they are good. They move the ball and defend well. On another day when Army better protects the ball, maybe it turns out like it “should” have. This is why coaches obsess about details and possibilities, however. It is cliché to say any given Saturday anything can happen but it is cliché because it is true.
Last week North Texas were 10 point underdogs at home and 18 point underdogs on the road this week. They won both games convincingly through the strength of the defense. That and running the ball with Jeffrey Wilson. He was quiet in the first half as North Texas struggled but managed to end the game with 160 yards. In the last two games he has totalled 348 yards and 5 TDs on 41 carries. That is a little under 8.5 per tote. He has been ridiculous.
In the second half of this game NT totalled 197 yards on 26 carries including a blistering third quarter with 10 rushes for 110 yards. Most of that was Jeffrey Wilson.
All Hail Jeff Wilson.
As usual, let us go through this game in detail for posterity.
Once again this unit was led by the run game. North Texas debuted a slightly different look — a Pistol set with the FB offset to the left and Jeff Wilson directly behind the QB. The Pistol set was ‘invented’ by Chris Ault at Nevada precicesly so he could get better angles in the run game. It seems NT’s move was to do exactly this. The first play came on an outside zone stretch play that sprung Jeff Wilson for six from 41 yards out.
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) October 22, 2016
The run game gained most of the yardage from this look, as Graham Harrell mixed in the inside zone after scorching Army with the outside variety. It was great play calling and exactly what is required from the offensive coordinator.
One of these days both the pass and the run game will click. Today was not that day. Despite Mason Fine’s two long throws to Goree and Robinson, there was little else to be excited about. Fine was uncharacteristically over throwing his targets who were running free. The front five were not especially poor in pass protection, but again put Fine in danger often. Still, they allowed only 2 sacks, down from te 4.5 season average. That is helped by Mason Fine’s ability to scramble and he was able to make some clutch plays. Late in the game he had a 3rd down conversion that was reminiscent of the Rice run on the Miracle Drive that kickstarted that comeback. In this case it allowed NT to keep hold of the lead for just a little bit longer.
Seth Littrell talks often about consistency between plays let alone games. This game was a great example of that inconsistency as the first half NT squad was the one oddsmakers thought of when they created the spread. The second half version was the one that is blowing up those predictions.
Each TD run from Jeff Wilson is a glimpse into what this offense can be when it is not in its own way. Each confident throw from Fine is a glimpse at the future. Each penalty, sack, and fluttered pass is a reminder that NT is not quite there yet.
Littrell mentions getting a week better. Can we say the offense did that today? Yes. They did. The weeks ahead will involve more inclement weather games and the confidence gained by beating a good Army team on the road in poor conditions is huge. Bigly.
Stars of the show: Eric Jenkins, Brandon Garner, Kishawn McClain. Really the list can and should include every member of the defense. Before the game this blog mentioned the importance of being disciplined. As a whole the defense was not gashed. Army, being a good offense this season, was able to score and move the ball on occasion. North Texas took away the FB dive and force Army QB Bradshaw to make a living on edges. There, Kishawn McClain flew up to make tackles. The NT linebacking corps were able to set the edges and force the action inside.
Yes, Army helped out by being loose with the ball. It was gift-wrapped but NT was ready to pounce. This defense hits hard — that causes fumbles. This defense has active hands — Jenkins stripped a receiver after he caught a pass for a long gain. This defense swarms to the ball — recovering fumbles is random, but NT improves those chances by being around the ball.
Oh yeah and the interceptions. INTs are not random, and somewhat a function of getting to the QB, and putting the opposition in obvious passing downs. North Texas’ streak of games with an interception this season was at six — every game — looked to be in danger as Army does not pass. The stout defense against the option, and the lead the offense provided, forced Army to put the ball in the air. NT capitalized.
The first was fortune. Bradshaw threw the ball too high and Army’s WR only managed to tip it. Eric Jenkins jumped on it and took it to the house. Sure, it was a gift, but Jenkins did the rest.
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) October 22, 2016
That aggression and confidence in the scheme is infectious. North Texas is playing with the confidence of a team that has seen Florida, Army, and MTSU and come away with solid performances against them all.
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) October 22, 2016
If you have not paid attention to North Texas football since last season’s debacle against Portland State (I do not blame you) you may not appreciate how awesome it has been to see the defense not get pushed off the ball on run plays this season. Last year Iowa, Louisiana Tech, UTSA, Portland State, Southern Miss, Marshall and really anyone else all ran with success right through the A gaps. This season the defense boasts some of the same names on the line and has looked light-years better. While somewhat expected — again, the team had zero belief in the coaching staff — it is nonetheless amazing to watch. Army boasted a good offense with a scheme that is difficult to prepare for mentally and physically.
The defense handled it beautifully.
Without the benefit of a second watch, here is a quick list of things I liked:
- Defensive line stuffing the dive
- Linebackers, DL getting off blocks — Josh Wheeler, Garner, E.J. Ejiya
- Defensive backs making tackles — everyone — Dee Baulkman, Nate Brooks, Eric Jenkins, James Gray
- Staying disciplined with trust in teammates to make the plays
- Teammates making plays
I mentioned Graham Harrell’s switch to the pistol look. We can praise Ekeler for days for his staff’s preparation for this triple option. The MGN Slack took issue with the play calling right before the missed field goals. The rationale there was questionable. Trevor Moore was not put in a good position to succeed.
The pass game struggled again. While I appreciate the desire to hit 15-17 yard gains, the screen game is absent. We see more swing passes than anything and even those are poorly executed. More quick pass game to Buyers, et al would help Mason Fine get a better rhythm. Whatever the rationale I am not seeing it. It very well could be that this squad is so poor at this in practice that they scrap it altogether. It also could be that Army took those looks away. Going forward, something else besides the boom or bust nature would help things some.
Defensively, the penalties hurt. Offside calls are still a problem although they have not been as bad as they were against Rice. The defense does not have to be quite perfect for this team to manage wins in the coming weeks, but it would help a ton.
North Texas travels to UTSA, where the Runners play well. Last time these teams played at the Alamodome Andy McNulty had himself a great game passing but North Texas lost the game on a muffed punt in the closing minutes. NT managed its lone win against this UTSA squad last season and there is no doubt the UTSA guys want a measure of revenge. Depending on how UTSA-UTEP shakes out, UTSA and NT could be playing for a fifth win.
Are you surprised at the performance thus far? I am. I thought NT would be 4-2 at this point, but with a more effective offense and a solid defense. Instead, the offense is led by the freshman instead of the highly touted graduate transfer.
Perhaps we should have known that Alec Morris would underwhelm, but we could not know that Mason Fine would be the starter.
Those who closely follow the program had an inkling that the run game would be the most potent aspect of the offense, that the attacking defense would bring improvement but give up some big plays, and that the offensive line would be thin.
Seth Littrell’s pragmatism has been refreshing. Instead of sticking with Alec Morris early, a player much discussed throughout the offseason, he made the boldest of choices and went with youth. Mason Fine’s performance has been worth of the praise he had on signing day and beyond.
I recognize that we often overreact and want the exact opposite personality or coaching style after firing a coach. So I tried to temper my enthusiasm at the quick benching of Morris in favor of Fine. Danny Mac famously stuck with his QBs until after they imploded. Alec Morris was not awful against SMU. The three interceptions could be excused away easily and there were other (more stupid) reasons for sticking with Morris to consider.
Instead of that, he made the switch. He said the right things in the press conferences that followed so as to not embarrass anyone. Littrell’s rationale — that you always need two quarterbacks — was always iffy. I mostly did not believe it.
Do we take that as a sign that he is willing to make bold decisions against conventional wisdom? I do. There is very little pressure at NT from the media, and the local stuff was going through the motions of praising the new guy because he was from ALABAMA. One piece went so far as to question the rationale of starting Morris because of the damage it would do to local recruiting. Awful.
Let us review the games thus far and some of the decisions:
North Texas hosted a poor team overly reliant on Matt Davis to generate points. The defense showed some signs of being potent, but ultimately broke down. The 3rd-and-45 converstion, 70+ yard TD, and long runs up the middle all were results of the kinds of mistakes teams in transition make. The defense got TFLs and chased Matt Davis around even if they did not catch him very often. Courtland Sutton had himself a day — which is not unusual in the grand scheme.
A win at home vs an FCS team usually does not move the fanbase very much. This game was the first against an FCS opponent after being obliterated last season agianst Portland State so we had more interest in this game than we otherwise would. Unfortunately, this is the game where we learned the front five was questionable in pass protection and so the pass game was going to struggle. The fade routes into the endzone that frustrated fans were For The Future. They have yet to pay off in actual touchdowns (on those routes).
The annual body-bag game was a moral victory. Casuals saw NT pull off a couple of goal line stands and most importantly, not get obliterated on defense. While you and I were concerned about the offense, this showing was a positive one all around. The Luke Del Rio injury created a mini-buzz around the program also. Is that terrible? Yes it is.
Coming into this game MGN readers knew we did not think very highly of Rice and for good reason. They are bad. They are not 2015 NT level, but the other kind where they lose close games. Rice Stadium would be a great home venue if the Owls could get more fans in there but a road win is a road win. NT came back from down 17 here, highlighted by a Kenny Buyers catch-and-run, a O’Keeron Rutherford catch in double covverage, and a 75-yard Jeff Wilson scamper. Oh yeah, and the NT defense stuffed Rice on their 100th play of the night in double OT on 4th and 1. The defense committed penalties (offside, offside, offfside) but managed to grab a couple of huge turnovers and pressure a desperate Rice squad. Seth Littrell and Graham Harrell learned from the Florida game and called plays that got the ball to play makers, and shuffled the front a bit. Elex Woodworth came in for Jordan Murray at LT and NT looked more solid there.
The Blue Raiders came in as 17 point favorites in Denton. They run the same offense, and have more talent on defense. North Texas came out with an 18-play drive on the first possession, overcoming their own penalties and sacks. Jeff Wilson scored yet another touchdown. The defense harrassed Brett Stockstill all game and the Blue Raiders only led 20-7 entering the 4th quarter but North Texas could not run. MTSU basically dared the Mean Green to throw the ball. While Mason Fine managed 300 yards, a nice chunk of that was in the final, desperate two drives. We could take away some good feelings that North Texas’ defense played well against one of the conference’s best offenses but there were more questions about the offense.
Marshall had not played well up to this point and they looked at this game as a way to bounce back. Head coach Doc Holliday said the right things in the press conference and Marshall did not look like they were slacking, but the NT defense harassed Chase Litton and the Marshall run game all night. The Special Teams played their worst game, allowing a TD, but the NT offense managed to unleash Jeff Wilson at the right time. He is good.
In lieu of grades or ratings we’ll just dole out meaningless awards:
Best QB: Mason Fine. Totally though Alec Baldwin Morris would have been here, continuing my 0-for-everything streak on picking QBs that would lead the team in passing.
Best QB Nickname: Finedozer.
Best Offensive Player: Jeff Wilson. When he is hurt: Thad Thompson?
Best Defensive Player: Kishawn McClain.
Most Surprising Off Player: Thadd Thompson. Had him 5th on my list of guys that would be leading pass catchers this season.
Most Surprising Def Player: Josh Wheeler. Brandon Garner had a hell of a game against Marshall, but I had him on my mini-watch list. I thought he showed some good things in 2015.
Best Tweet: any of mine.
Best article: any of mine
Best Administrator: Neal
Best AD: Wren
Write in: S/O to whoever is running the coaches’ twitter accounts. They are less boring than the last regime.
Best confirmation of a point I have made: Defense making playyyyyys. I thought the defense would be stout. They have been so (relatively speaking)
Last year North Texas traveled to Knoxville to take on Tennessee. I wrote about the time here. It was good times. This game seemed like it was well on its way to being a ho-hum game like that one was until Josh Wheeler hit Jake Del Rio on his plant leg, knocking him out for the game and probably longer.
That incident caused Florida coach Jim McElwain to walk out to midfield and scream at the NT sideline. Seth Littrell yelled back. From then on the game was chippy, the fans were furious, and Florida piled it on a bit.
“It got a little gritty after that went down,” Florida left tackle David Sharpe said.
In between there were some good things. The defense, much maligned after giving up 574 yards to SMU in the opener, including ridiculous chunks of yardage that seemingly portended more of worst of 2015 would bleed into Littrell’s 2016. Instead Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett’s defense was stout. Two fourth down stops, an interception, and getting stops against a talented Florida is nice work.
The offense was terrible. For all the praise of Littrell’s side of the ball in the first two weeks — 300 yards passing in the first and 300 in the second — the offense was anemic. In no universe is anyone impressed with 53 total yards, -12 rushing, seven sacks, and only converting 2-13 on third down from an FBS squad.
When you put it all in context the 471 yards Florida gained do not look so impressive. The pass game’s anemic production is slightly more understandable when you consider the circumstances: a freshman QB, a line that is not suited to 1v1 pass blocking, a young receiver corps, and an entirely new offense.
I realize that like children and puppies, fans want a comfortable routine. They want something they can know. Our little football team has swung wildly in these last three weeks from pass-heavy, to run-first, to anemic. The defense was The Problem, then pretty good, then Amazing.
The good news is that the team is going to face more similar competition, and outside of one or two teams, there are glaring weaknesses on each squad that even out any strengths. Before we look ahead in later posts, let’s get overly detailed.
*Taps Mic*: Seth Littrell is an offensive coach right? Fifty-three yards of offense is terrible. The worst of it might have been the aggression in play calling. Never have I been the fan wanting a more conservative play call list. Thanks Graham Harrell, you made me wish for Dickey-ball however briefly.
Seriously, I appreciate the fact that Harrell encouraged his offense at half, made some adjustments to the protections –bringing in a H-back to block– and attempted to make plays.
His play calling from inside his own ten put Mason Fine in a tough position early, and at no time in the first handful of possessions did he give him many easy throws.
The offensive line was completely destroyed, with four guys pushed into Fine’s lap repeatedly. Florida shed their blockers repeatedly on runs and passes. When Mason Fine managed to escape pressure and attempt a pass, there were penalties, drops, and bad luck.
The run game was similarly anemic, but did manage to find some space on occasion. There was not much there, so we cannot and should not play Why Did They Not Run More?. Wilson, Ivery, Tucker, and Wyche found some creases, but more often were stuffed at the line or right about it.
Football is a simple game, folks. The five dudes up front are the key to everything. Our OL were the biggest question coming into the season. It was patchwork and the new scheme required new skills that were as yet unproven. In three games thus far, NT has a serious problem pass-blocking for any length of time. It obviously does not stand up to national top-20 defense on the road, but maybe it will be enough for the sieves that comprise CUSA.
We shall see.
*Taps Mic*: Wait, a North Texas defense plays well while the offense *Derps* its way through? What year is this?
I feel slightly vindicated. Last year the hopeful start to the season — defensively — devolved quickly in the Iowa match up and NT was getting blown off the ball with regularity. It was nice to see the defensive line play well. Demonte Hood and Rod Young made plays at the DT position. After last year, that is very encouraging even though Florida is not a high powered offense. They do like to try to run between the tackles, however, and have speed at the edges.
The scary thing is that NT’s defense played relatively well against Tennessee last season. I am encouraged by what I saw. After three games the offense has more question marks but the defense has steadily improved. Florida likes power football with play-action, and NT will see something like that against both Louisiana Tech and UTEP.
The defensive backs played really well, particularly Nate Brooks. He was gifted an INT but played well in coverage. Kishawn McClain, Dee Baulkman, Ashton Preston all played well. While the group was beat over the top in play-action, they were step-for-step and made the Florida WRs make a play.
There were no blocked punts and no long returns. The coverage units played well, but nothing outstanding. In the pregame we said this would be where we could hope for some game-changing plays and that did not happen. Expected
If Seth Littrell sat down and told me that he wanted to see Mason Fine in the fire against a tough opponent on the road and that would do more for his development than running Alec Morris out there and maybe improving the odds for making the scoreboard look decent, I would buy it.
It would have to be convincing. I may be giving the coach too much credit, but I am talking myself into that argument. Else, why would you run the true freshman out there with an offensive line that cannot win 1v1 battles in pass protection? Littrell said the line was dominated, but surely we did not need the entire game to determine this.
Coming into the year I figured the combination of a first-time offensive coordinator with an experienced play-caller would smooth out the problems that happen with the former. Last night — even considering the circumstances — Harrell did not help his team with his game plan.
That said, if this little trail by Swamp helps develop this team into a CUSA contender? Well, we would learn exactly why they are paid to do what they do and I am just sitting at my computer.
Rice, who has not impressed in three weeks of football hosts North Texas in the first CUSA matchup for both teams. Rice was blown apart by WKU, manhandled by Army, and overpowered by Baylor. While I do not think NT would have fared much better against that schedule, Rice has not looked very good at all where North Texas has shown flashes of competence.
I have no doubt the Rice staff is looking at this game as a chance to turn their season around in their most winnable game before playing Prairie View A&M in Week 8. Yes, the 2013 CUSA champs could be 0-7 to start 2016 if they drop one to our guys in green.
Seth Littrell on the hit:
“He was trying to make a play and didn’t mean to do it,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. “We are not trying to take cheap shots here.”
On the offense:
“We have to do much better on offense,” Littrell said. “We got dominated up front. There is a reason they are one of the best defenses in the country. Overall, we just didn’t execute and get through the adversity on offense.”
The play of the game — the one that encapsulated the night — was Matt Davis rolling left on 3rd and 45 from the NT 46 and chucking up a bomb toward Courtland Sutton in the end zone. He was guarded by SR corner Chad Davis and he out-leaped Davis and the safeties that came over and caught it. That made the score 21-7.
It was a frustratingly familiar sight for long-time North Texas fans. Right when the Mean Green had something good they blew it.
After making up for the previous lengthy pass play that beat Nate Brooks, the defense battled Matt Davis and forced him into scrambles, forced a couple of holding calls and pushed SMU back further. Then they gave it all back.
That said, I came away from this game disappointed but not demoralized. Sure, any new coach gets a measure of slack before the criticism reigns down upon him. Section 109 was relatively forgiving. “At least they are competing”, said a guy.
MGN will have a more intensive recap thing as we all get nerdy and overanalyze this opening college football game. Right now, let us just jot down some thoughts about the game as we settle in for the night.
In no particular order:
- Alec Morris still has a lot of rust on him. He threw wobbly interceptions and missed wide open receivers.
- Mason Fine had his redshirt burned. While it was a possibility, it was a bit unexpected at the point in the game it occurred – when the game was long decided.
- Jeffery Wilson is still the best player on the squad.
- Kelvin Smith did pretty much exactly what he did in the spring game – take short passes and run.
- Six guys caught passes and none of them were Kenny Buyers. He wasn’t obviously open often from what I could see, but Morris did miss him a few times before getting sacked. Buyers also was running deeper routes that I expected him to.
- The defense was able to get to Davis but Davis was able to dance away. It was exactly as we feared.
- In the first half the defense gave up 369 yards of offense. But three of those plays totaled about 150. It is encouraging to see the defense not get blasted off the ball and give up chunks of 15 yards at a time. Still, you don’t like to see so many huge plays –especially in the pass game.
- It was hot.
- Mason Fine had his shirt burned. I’m intrigued as he was way more decisive than Morris was — especially after AM got hit hard a few times. Fine is well-thought of and mobile. He led a TD drive that made the score more respectable but was ineffective on the next.
- That O-Line was exposed late, when the pass was obvious. This is where we expected them to struggle. More screens/short stuff to take advantage of the rush is absolutely necessary. Wilson got loads of yardage on these things.
- The line nearly killed Morris.
I went back to my hotel, ate pizza and slept the sleep of a guy who spent a lot of time in the North Texas late afternoon summer sun. I am awake, making plans to see friends today before heading back to MGN HQ, and so I have a clearish head.1
I absolutely do not want a Mason Fine / Alex Morris controversy. Littrell and Harrell did not help matters by pulling the latter for the former. They were not happy with Morris’ play, and made mention of Fine getting playing time early helping his development. I also believe his development is important, but I also know how important this season is going to be for the development of the program.
That said, I cannot defend three first half interceptions, of the type that reminded the Apogee faithful of the terrible past (last season). What is that? A QB wearing #5 tossing wobbly interceptions?! Holy 2015 Batman!
Let us break out the organizing HTML elements:
It was hyped. It had a slogan. It was supposed to be fast and aggressive and score points. It sputtered. It accumulated 394 yards. That was the most since DaMarcus Smith’s breakout game against WKU last October. The 311 passing was the most since McNulty’s 303 against Rice last September. The 32 completions were more than any game last season and the 50 attempts were the most since 45 against La Tech.
What does it all mean? We knew it was going to happen this way. We thought and hoped it would be a little more effective. The quick game and the screen game were really effective. Morris (and later Fine) were able to get the ball to Goree and Willie Robinson outside quick and for some nice gains. When the pressure came, the screens to Wilson especially were effective. In fact, he had 6 catches for 55 yards.
We saw glimpses of a fully functioning offense. There is reason to believe that it will improve as the season goes on. Goree and Robinson had their men beat deep and Morris simply missed them (throwing picks or did not see them).
The run game was not racking up yards, but that had to do with the pass game not really threatening early. The philosophy is to set up the run with the pass. As the pass was not being really set up, we did not see many effective runs early. This is fine. Jeffery Wilson was the most effective back, as expected. Anthony Wyche looked okay at times, but had a hard time finding the holes Wilson did, was not able to use the blockers in the screen game that Wilson was, and muffed a return. Not the best start for him, but he will improve.
The offensive line was getting destroyed early. The quick and screen games are very important to this offense, as the 3rd and long situations are the weakest for this team. An immobile QB and a shaky offensive line is the worst combination to have. Staying on schedule early is vital. Sure, these are all important to every offense, but this team has an even lower percentage change of success in those situations.
I said on the podcast that we should be okay if we saw a squad that played well but gave up the occasional big play. That was the case against SMU, but man was that ‘feeling okay’ tested. It is hard to feel good about a converted 3rd and 45 with a 46 yard TD. It is hard to feel okay with a 88-yard TD on 3rd and 11.
Still, the attacking scheme was able to get to the QB. Matt Davis was just able to extend plays and get the ball to Courtland Sutton, another all-conference type player.
Scheme is about putting players in position to succeed. Chad Morris had Sutton on Jameel Moore — our freshman corner — on 3rd-and-11 and he will take that match up all day every day. Sutton had his two other scores against Chad Davis (46 yard bomb) and Nate Brooks (lob). Great players make scheming easy sometimes.
Against the lesser lights of the year,2 the defense will gel and play better. Matt Davis has been difficult to tackle for every squad he has faced, and so I do not think we can reasonably hold our squad to different standards.
That said, there was some poor tackling on display. Kishawn McClain nearly allowed another TD when SMU’s running back pulled up lame after dancing past him in the open field. There were a couple of spin moves that led to slightly more yards than we would want.
The poor tackles are easy to spot because there were not many green shirts around the white shirts so often. Chad Morris’ offense is designed to get you going one way, and then hitting you the other. To be fair, so is every offense ever. Still, the dives opened up the sideline passes which opened up the deep stuff which opened up the dives. When an offense works as designed it is beautiful. Unless you are rooting for the defense.
All that sideline-to-sideline running by SMU was what led to the two big runs up the middle.
The punt team punted and covered well enough. The kicking team was only there for extra points and kick offs. Nothing really special to note here. If you are a special teams buff, then feel free to expound in the comments.
One complaint — Anthony Wyche muffed a punt. Something about those who wear #4 and muffing kicks &hellipse;
Implications For The Season
There are games in which the score doesn’t represent how close the game was and vice versa. This was somewhere in between. The score and yardage represented the game by the end. But you had to watch to see it fully for what it was. SMU played about as well as they could hope and really leaned on their talent advantage at QB and WR to win this game. North Texas played poorly — some of that was pressing to impress, some just talent disadvantage — and really suffered from some matchup disadvantages. Alex Morris needs to play better — nearly perfect — for this team to compete better. That isn’t because he is the best player on the field, that is just because he’s the quarterback of a quarterback-heavy system.
Mason Fine’s best quality is his decisiveness. Alec Morris could use a little of that. His poise in the pocket was shaken, once he came under pressure. Quicker, more accurate throws will relieve pressure and make up for his inability to run after the play breaks down. To really back up the QB pressure, he absolutely has to hit the deep stuff. Goree, Robinson were open a few times and the passes were ducks. The good news is that he can make throws on the run. The pass to Kelvin Smith was great.
I predicted a close one. This could have been closer if SMU did not get most of the breaks — that bomb, the Jameel Moore thing, Morris tossing terrible picks but SMU deserved to win. That is how football go.
Bethune Cookman is a good team. They are FCS and we lost to a good FCS squad last year in horrible fashion. In the season preview I said we should win this fairly easily but that it probably will not be by as much as we want it to be. I still stick by that.
Welcome to the MGN 2016 Season Preview
I’ve treated this in years past as an exercise in self-education, never an obligation, nor a cry for page views. While I am certainly obsessive about my interests, I try to keep enough of a balance in my life that no one passion becomes all-consuming or overwhelming. Not being completely up-to-date with every ounce of information means that you can enjoy learning and discovering a bit about a topic once you are ready. So it is with Mean Green Football and you.
Do not feel bad for being unfamiliar with the entire roster, the coaching staff, or the entire history. That is what this season preview is for. Read it, remember a tidbit or two and refer back to it to guide you as you follow your favorite college football team. Or your second favorite college football team if that is the case. It is often the case with NT alumni. I do not judge you. I am your friend.
Click the ☝ to go back to the top as you go through the preview.
- Offensive Line
- Defensive Line
- Special Teams
- Schedule and Predictions
North Texas football program is in a precarious position. Through a series of very unfortunate bouts of mismanagement by a combination of the former athletic director, coaching staff, and players the Mean Green Football team is coming off a one-win season that included a 59-point loss to the FCS-dwelling Portland State Vikings. We were embarrassed, the coach was fired, most of the existing staff was let go and will be forever stained by the experience.
Athletic Director Rick Villarreal “stepped down” but before he left he hired a first-time head coach with a reputation for offensive fireworks, a down-home demeanor, and a no-nonsense public speaking persona. That person is Seth Littrell. The hire was a classic pendulum reaction as Dan McCarney was a long-time head coach, defensive, and good for a quote.
In January 2014, North Texas looked to be on solid ground coming off a bowl win, a new stadium, and a new, richer conference with Texas teams. Here at the start of the 2016 season Seth Littrell has only 68 scholarship players, is in the middle of a facilities arms race with no ammunition (read: donations), the lowest attendance of the Apogee era, and the threat of conference realignment looming.
Here is what I wrote after NT was destroyed by MTSU in November
Whoever [the coach is] will have the blankest of slates. Any progress next year will be met with round of applause. It will be basically like 2011 all over again. And that’s the problem isn’t it? This program went backwards.
Its not an unusual thing. College football by its nature, is unstable. Every four years we get a new crop of players. This fall has been different. It looks more like we didn’t fall from greatness, but more that we had a blip of a great season in the midst of a sea of
North Texas is a tough job. It can be a great job — any program can be — but it will take a unified effort from the administration, the athletic department, and the coaching staff to make it one. And that means winning. It means the cash to pay these guys, it means scheduling a decent football schedule, it means finding and developing the right players, and it means each player working on their game.
While you as a fan will likely want to quickly skip past this season, there are plenty of reasons to watch. Not the least of which will be tracking the growth of a young team grow into what we hope will be a conference champion in three or four years.
The schedule is tough, the future uncertain, and the coaches — and players — inexperienced. There is very little to know about the how but the what has already been predicted. Many losses.
Seth Littrell needs some patience from you. When the season starts the temptation to place weight on the outcome will be great. Resist. Such is the nature of opening day. It would also be foolish to have very high expectations. We will not be able to ascertain his quality as a coach until he makes over the roster to his liking, and subsequently coaches them into the types of players he wants.
Is that in three years? Is that in four? Should we give him the benefit of the doubt considering the situation he inherited and maybe tack on a few more years of qualified demands?
These are nigh-unanswerable questions right now. The task at hand — preparing his team for the rigors of a season with basically zero FBS quality depth is enormous. Even the most skeptical North Texas fan will admit that this roster has talent at positions of note. Jeffery Wilson, Tee Goree, Fred Scott, and Kishawn McClain are capable of good things – maybe even great things. Beyond that, Seth is trying to fill in spots with JUCO guys to hedge against the inevitable injury, suspension, or poor play.1 It is a tough task, but one for which Seth Littrell signed up.
The staff coaching offense is intriguing. Offensive Coordinator Graham Harrell is a college football legend in this state. While the high school recruits he is recruiting are probably too young remember him playing, their coaches and parents likely are not. If nothing else, he and Joel Filani – another in the Air Raid/Mike Leach/Texas Tech line – bring first hand knowledge of the offensive system that is wildly popular throughout the state.
The run-first system of the McCarney era was unfairly derided and misunderstood as a philosophy . It was rightly criticized for its ineffectiveness. 2 The post Derek Thompson years were the two worst offensive displays in at least a decade. If Littrell can simply produce NCAA-average quarterback play from presumptive starter Alec Morris this season we may have reason to proclaim the new staff as better than the old one.
It will be difficult to judge Harrell fairly outside of that. With the depth chart similar to newly-promoted FBS squads, we should probably have the expectations of a new FBS program: somewhat competitive, playing for the future, incremental improvement. We would be doing disservice to ourselves to expect anything beyond that, but even I will be hard-pressed to remember that on September 3rd.
The marketing points – youth, excitement, scoring – will be quickly forgotten once the games are played, as they are every year. With only limited potential for on-field success likely, qualified success and off-field accomplishments will have to be our gauge. That is to say we will watch closely for moral victories, recruiting wins, and incremental improvement.
Defensively, coordinator Mike Ekeler joins the staff from Georgia, where he was praised for his position coaching. Molding a defense with some talents but that is coming off a season in which it was roasted for gobs of yardage and points will be tough. He is coaching the defense along side Troy Reffett, formerly of ULM fame and together they will bring the squad into a 3-3-5 alignment. 3
While the current defensive roster was recruited to play under both versions of the 4-3 coached by former DCs John Skaladany and Chris Cosh, the lack of depth along the defensive line, and with the relative size disparity of a CUSA roster means the new 3-3-5 is ideal for our roster. The attacking variety was designed by current Texas Longhorn coach Charlie Strong for his outmanned South Carolina defense 16 years ago which had similar issues. Necessity being the mother of invention, etc.
Ekeler and Reffet will spend this season looking for players who can fit the system for the long-haul, while developing and shaping it to suit the talent at hand. There will be lineup changes, and subtle shifts in alignment and scheme along the way. Their progression ideally will look like Skladany’s squads during his time leading up to the vaunted 2013 defense that was the ideal mix of scheme and talent and produced memories that will last for a long time.
Graham Harrell is the coordinator but we know this is Seth Littrell’s offense. He was hired for his capabilities as a coordinator and play caller and while he hired friend and qualified candidate Graham Harrell, all eyes will be on Seth Littrell when senior QB Alec Morris lines up.
The frustrating predictably of the McCarney regime, along with the developmental questions that produced two of the worst seasons in UNT football history. Unfortunately, the cupboard is bare. Alec Morris was brought in to be the starter and is only challenged by a former walk-on.
RB Jeffery Wilson was the lone bright spot last season, and he and Wily Ivery lead a very thin running back stable that still might be the most talented position group through and through. WR Tee Goree can produce a highlight catch, but can he fill the shoes left by Carlos Harris, and before him Brelen Chancellor?
Can the OL stay healthy and pass block?
Yes, there are a lot of questions to be answered this season, and all we can do now is project players who played in a power-spread amalgamation under McCarney/Canales into a spread-and-shred modern Air Raid system. The history shows that such as transition is an ugly one, with some big numbers that look good in the stat sheet, but equally garish sloppy play.4
There will be sloppy play. Not only is the transition a factor, but so too is the depth. Yes, that again. Littrell/Harrell are going to play fast and require their receivers to do a lot of running. That means the fast-dwindling roster of pass-catchers need to be productive or Alec Morris will throw lots of incomplete passes – at best.
The great news is that it cannot possibly be worse than last year, where the only hope for much of the year was that departed QB DaMarcus Smith would scramble for a score.
Given the staff, it is reasonable to expect something approaching the look of Mike Leach/UNC offense we saw. But Harrell and Littrell aren’t the Pirate and this roster, and this conference, and this era make the circumstances ripe for innovation and improvisation. Expect some differences from Washington State / Texas Tech.
Graham Harrell – Offensive Coordinator
Tommy Mainord – Associate HC/Pass Game Coordinator/ Inside WRs
Joel Filani – Wide Receivers
Tommy Perry – Running Backs
Brad Davis – Run Game Coordinator / OL
Alec Morris is the starter, and you should really appreciate it. He can sling the ball around and seems like the best option. Quinn Shanbour is the backup that is quite frankly ridiculous. I do not mean to unnecessarily knock QS, but only to point out that three years after Derek Thompson graduated, the QB situation is such that a walk-on beat out a projected TE. And so Littrell had to bring in a guy that could run the show.
Alec Morris had great highlights in high school, spent most of the last half-decade under the best college football coach we have right now, and learned winning football. We do not know much about his abilities to run the Air Raid, but he at last brings knowledge of a first-class program. That is invaluable now. Thus far he has the accuracy, poise, and confidence of the coaches and the players.
Quinn Shanbour, my snide comments aside, showed some ability in the spring game. He earned a scholarship to play football, which is more than I can say for myself. His running talents were the most impressive thing on display during the Spring ‘scrimmage’. With questions along every roster spot save for the RB position, that may be more useful than knowledge of Saban’s program. That said, we thought the same thing about DaMarcus Smith. Barring injury or blowouts in our favor, Quinn will likely only get repetitions in game situations if Alec Morris is spectacularly awful. In that case, we will see if he can fire TD passes to defenses with more skins on the wall than the Spring version of the NT defense.
|5||Alec Morris||6-3||233||SR||Allen, TX||Alabama|
|19||Quinn Shanbour||6-0||191||RS JR||Oklahoma City, OK||Heritage Hall HS|
|18||Devin O’Hara||6-5||211||JR||Arlington Heights, IL||College of Dupage|
|6||Mason Fine||5-11||170||FR||Locust Grove, OK||Locust Grove HS|
|10||Mitch Cason||6-2||183||FR||Flower Mound||Marcus HS|
Devin O’Hara will probably take Quinn Shanbour’s #2 position by the end of fall practice. He was brought in to “compete” for the starting gig, but that likely means next year. He has good size, decent mobility and put up okay numbers at College of Dupage. He has the most game experience out of anyone on depth chart here and that should factor in to the battle for backup.
Mitch Cason and Mason Fine are the freshmen. Fine is the one whom you know from signing day, Cason the walk-on. Fine is the future as he is the only HS recruit Littrell brought in this last class. If the plan is truly to bring in a new HS quarterback every February, Mason Fine is the first of many to come. His development will be closely monitored. He throws a nice ball, has good accuracy and can use some time in the strength program. He is the shortest of the crew, but that should not hurt him as much as it would have under the previous regime.
Since 2004, North Texas has produced two national rushing champions and three NFL running backs. Post Lance Dunbar, Brandin Byrd, Reggie Pegram, and Antoine Jimmerson have at least shown hints of all-conference ability. And now? Jeffery Wilson, whose Adrian Peterson-like running style was the lone bright spot in a poor offensive season carries the feature back role.
To the layperson the change in offense may portend less carries and a smaller role for Wilson. Depending on how everything fits together, that very well may be the case but the change in offense will not be the reason. In recent seasons North Carolina and Texas Tech, two Air Raid teams, have produced 1000-yard backs. Wide splits and four-wide sets mean there are more spaces for a speedy back like Wilson to rampage through. Against Marshall, one of the best against the run last season, he tore up the Herd with little or no help from the pass game. Here is video evidence.
We have every reason to believe he will do more of the same, given some support and maintenance of health. If not, there is always Willy Ivery.
|26||Jeffrey Wilson||6-0||195||JR||Elkhart, TX||Elkhart HS|
|29||Willy Ivery||5-9||185||JR||Sulphur Springs, TX||Sulphur Springs HS|
|25||Andrew Tucker||6-0||203||RS JR||Tyler, TX||Chapel Hill HS|
|44||Nick (Nic) Smith||5-10||175||FR||Arlington, TX||Martin HS|
|4||Anthony Wyche||5-11||195||JR||Philadelphia, PA||LA Valley College|
|46||Christian Hosley||5-9||175||SO||San Antonio, TX||Howard Payne University|
Ivery is not as powerful a runner, but he is more shifty and has speed. Given the Wilson’s injury history, an argument could be made that Ivery should be the number one back. I will not make it here. Of the top five rushers last season, he finished with the third most yards (290) on the least number of carries (44). The question is can he do it against first team defenses, in a close game.
Behind him are a collection of backs that have potential, and probably one real talent that makes them intriguing. The nature of the half back role — the sport’s oldest ball-handling position — is that it is simple. The oldest tradition in football is running it and avoiding being tackled either through power or speed.
Andrew Tucker might get some time here and there. He’s big and has been around a while. He’ll avoid being brought down by power. Fun fact: he got the start last season against SMU. Wilson’s emergence and Ivery’s shifty play relegated Tucker to also-ran. Pun intended. Aside from injury pressing him into service, he will move up the depth chart through his ability to catch the ball and pass-block.
Nic Smith has a similar path to playing time. He is fast, has some nice agility and probably might get the third most touches out of this backfield. It is hard to say for sure because Anthony Wyche has a similar game. Speed, agility, but with some power and a slightly better resume given his time putting up numbers in JUCO. He was recruited for his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. The newest addition is Christian Hosely out of Howard Payne University. He played QB, RB, and FS in high school and WR at Howard Payne. Smart, reasonably talented utility guys are extremely valuable with a roster so shallow. I am intrigued.
Generally speaking the wideout group will be divided into Outside and Inside subgroups. A quality player will eventually learn all the positions and will move around all four spots to take advantage of match ups. However, typically a player will pick a spot and learn that one. We will see Tee Goree and O’Keeron Rutherford start outside at the X and Z, with their range and height perfect for the go routes and lobs that are part of the package.
Remember Goree’s spectacular catch? Well that is what makes him well suited to the position. His height and speed are perfect for the role and Morris will be looking to him to win one v one battles. In the spring scrimmage he demonstrated his ability to get by the corner
Sometimes this game is as simple as beating the man in front of you.
Goree has been hyped since his signing here, as one of the more talented receiving recruits to come to Denton. He certainly has the physical gifts. The leading receivers the last decade have all been 6-0 at best. Johnny Quinn, Brelan Chancellor, Carlos Harris, Casey Fitzgerald, were all 6-0 and under. We would have to look back to 2012 and Ivan Delgado to find a leading wideout (42 catches for 570) who stood 6-2 209. 5 Goree lit up the spring scrimmage for 6 catches 141 yards and a score, the kind of production we want to see weekly from an outside receiver.
O’Keeron Rutherford is taller and bigger than Goree, and is a prototypical outside receiver at 6-5. Thaddeous Thompson is looking to finally fulfill his potential after being tossed errant passes by the last group of quarterbacks. He has plenty of size and length for the position and looks to finally have the QB and coaching staff that can help him put up numbers.
Kenny Buyers and Deion Hair-Griffin will get some time at inside receiver. Buyers was a captain and played tremendously well for the 2013 defense as a cornerback. He will not be making edge sealing tackles this season. Vito reports he is doing well at WR, which is unsurprising. He is a worker, and that’s what a position change requires.
|3||Terian (Tee) Goree||6-3||173||RS SO||Carthage, TX||Carthage HS|
|1||Turner Smiley||6-0||189||JR||Frisco, TX||Wakeland HS|
|11||Thaddeous Thompson||6-2||202||SR||Cibolo, TX||Scottsdale CC|
|83||Tyler Wilson||5-11||170||FR||Arlington, TX||Martin HS|
|2||O’Keeron Rutherford||6-5||190||RS SO||Carthage, TX||Carthage HS|
|89||Willie Robinson||6-0||185||SR||Fort Worth TX||Tyler JC|
|88||Jason Pirtle||6-2||195||FR||Locust Grove, OK||Locust Grove HS|
|32||Michael Lawrence||5-10||165||FR||Sweetwater, TX||Sweetwater HS|
|81||Daniel Khan||5-11||180||RS SO||Sherman Oaks, CA||Notre Dame HS|
|82||Deion Hair-Griffin||5-10||165||FR||Fort Worth, TX||Arlington Heights HS|
|37||Connor Davis||5-10||193||SR||Grapevine, TX||Texas Lutheran|
|31||Kenny Buyers||5-11||185||RS SR||Hurst, TX||L.D. Bell HS|
|8||Rico Bussey, Jr.||6-2||175||FR||Lawton, OK||Eisenhower HS|
|85||Garrett Barton||5-11||185||JR||Diana, TX||Kilgore College|
|80||Will Boyd||6-3||185||FR||Arlington, TX||Pantego Christian Academy|
|27||Kam Duhon||5-11||170||FR||Southlake, TX||Southlake Carroll|
|84||Dennis Smith||5-9||170||RS FR||San Antonio, TX||Sterling College|
|39||Braydon Watson||5-11||175||FR||Waco, TX||Celina HS|
Griffin’s speed is notable and could earn him the PR or KR jobs. He played QB in high school (as most Best Players do) and so this should give him an advantage in playing inside WR. He presumably can see the field well, and knows how to help his QB by settling into the holes. A big part of this offense is reading the defense and basically not running oneself into coverage. In fall camp he is getting time with the first team. Take that as an indication of his talent or the depth chart problem. Either way I expect him to get some time and to produce some good things.
Turner Smiley is suspended for SMU, but is the leading returning receiver. That isn’t saying much considering the output last year, but he is talented. Again, the running theme here is that all the receivers on the roster have a chance to reset whatever their resume says and live up to expectations.
The rest of the receiving roster reflects this notion. The walk-ons, transfers, and what-have-you that make up the depth chart here did not light up the recruiting sites but that does not matter. Like the program, everyone is trying to prove something this year.
Ideally one of the inside guys will turn into “a guy that can score” after a catch. When Goree signed the hope was that he could be the speed guy on the outside that stretches the defense and opens up things for a Carlos Harris type underneath. That wasn’t quite the case in the last few seasons. The staff in place should coach up this group into solid, productive receivers. Anything beyond that will be natural talent shining through and that is all you can ask for. There are some signs that one or two of these players will be really impressive.
The Air Raid does not have traditional Tight Ends. However, there is a place for tweeners, big (relatively) slower guys that can catch but will not start for Alabama. Aside from big targets, they make excellent blockers for the screen game and outside zones. They are not going to flatten an All-American linebacker but they do a great job against a nickel corner. That is the thinking at least.
In this offense, Y was traditionally a TE. The Y-Cross, and Y-Stick were designed for TEs and at the very least require a guy to catch in traffic.
Kelvin Smith, a ‘blocking’ TE according to his MGS bio, was the surprise of the spring scrimmage. He displayed the classic Air Raid TE qualities — the ability to catch and run and be hard to tackle. His two catches both went for scores. The first came on that Air Raid classic Y-Cross. He caught a pass that was beyond him, turned up field, outran a couple of defenders and dragged Schelleci into the end zone. Watch it here.
It was the kind of play we expected to see a lot from Marcus Smith last year. His other TD was a classic tight end catch in traffic over the middle. If this is the norm and not just a spring game performance, we can be excited.
|87||Kelvin Smith||6-2||252||RS FR||Spring, TX||Dekaney HS|
|86||Kevin Dillman||6-4||249||RS FR||Ystad, Sweden||Guyer HS|
|15||Caleb Chumley||6-5||240||RS FR||Longview, TX||Pine Tree HS|
|7||Connor Means||6-4||215||RS SO||Deer Park, TX||Deer Park HS|
Kevin Dillman Here we begin the first of former QBs-turned-TE. Dillman is something of a fan favorite among the GMG message boarders. He has good size and decent speed for a TE. He likely will play more of an H-Back role than a Y like Smith.
Caleb Chumley played QB as recently as spring and was okay. He had his shot at QB, which was unofficially the agreement when he committed. He was seemingly destined to play TE. His size makes him intriguing here, but reports from fall camp are that he is dropping everything.
Connor Means like every backup, had fans calling for his name during the last campaigns. When the former starters were highly praised by the previous staff and produced so little, it casts a poor light on poor Connor, who was a recruit under said staff. So then it is no surprise that he was moved to TE at the beginning of fall practice.
The offensive line has gone through defections and changes. Mike Leach likes wide-splits to allow for better pass-blocking. We shall see what Seth Littrell and company decide to go with. That said, there will be questions. Alec Morris has looked good in camp when he has time, and this unit will need to keep him clean. The offense is designed to get the ball out relatively quickly, but there are enough play designs to get the ball deep that will require quality pass blocking. Overall, this unit was young and gained experience. The poor quarterback play obscured their play, but they kept the QBs clean, and opened creases for Wilson. The graduations and exits will hurt but can be overcome with the talent.
Jordan Murray is huge and a prototypical tackle. He had some starts and is getting time with the first unit in fall practice. Can he own the job or will he just default into it because of his size? Sam Rice is the new center after moving over from guard. Expect some learning mistakes but overall he should be solid. He played well at guard last season.
|74||Chandler Anthony||6-7||280||FR||Tuttle, OK||Tuttle HS|
|54||Creighton Barr||6-3||302||SO||Flower Mound, TX||Marcus HS|
|73||Garrett Gunter||6-4||293||SR||Spring Branch, TX||Trinity Valley CC|
|53||T.J. Henson||6-4||315||JR||Plano, TX||Trinity Valley CC|
|59||Trey Keenan||6-5||272||SR||Argyle, TX||Texas Tech|
|67||Chris Miles||6-4||299||RS SO||Flower Mound, TX||Flower Mound HS|
|68||Chett Munden||6-5||305||RS FR||Marshall, TX||Marshall HS|
|71||Jordan Murray||6-9||360||SO||Coppell, TX||Coppell HS|
|60||Doro Omerhi||6-4||290||FR||Pearland, TX||Pearland HS|
|58||Wylie Reinhardt||6-4||261||JR||Saginaw, TX||Saginaw HS|
|64||Sam Rice||6-4||297||SR||Coppell, TX||SMU|
|57||Bernie Santos||6-3||326||FR||Argyle, TX||Guyer HS|
|78||Jalen Thomas||6-5||295||JR||Detroit, MI||ASA College (Brooklyn)|
|70||R.D. Wegmann||6-3||265||RS FR||Wichita Falls, TX||Rider HS|
|77||Elex Woodworth||6-4||284||RS FR||Mesquite, TX||Horn HS|
Garrett Gunter has spent time with the first unit and has good size. Trey Keenan is a Texas Tech transfer which is nice since he has played in the system. He is a bit undersized which was the reason he made the move. He was not with the first team at the scrimmage.
There is talent throughout this group, the question for fall camp will be who makes and impression. The scheme is different and so players who excelled under Canales might not fit the pass-blocking, inside-zone heavy stuff required here. I expect the starting line up to change a few times before SMU.
North Texas allowed 41.3 points per game last season. There were worse teams — SMU at 45.7, and Texas Tech at 43.6 — but those two squads did not allow 66 to an FCS team 6. During homecoming no less.
A quick look at the recruiting speculation post from December:
A look at the game film will show the DL getting pushed 5 yards back often. The Worst Defense In NT History got that way because pretty much every team could run through the A gap at will. As a whole, the defensive line was okay when pass-rushing, but never could get into defensive third and longs, because of the porous run defense. When Mike Canales talked about lacking size and strength I have to believe he meant here. After all, he made that comment after the Louisiana Tech game that saw Kenneth Dixon scorch his guys for 195 and 6 TDs, largely through the middle.
It might be that time has clouded my memory and made the pain of weekly obliterations fade. It might be that the months in between that time and now have provided me some semblance of objectivity. In either case, I am convinced the defense was not as bad as it performed.
The offense provided almost no support. If the offense could have produced league average yards and points to start the year, the morale leading up to PSU would have been different. Instead the offense sputtered for the second straight year and squandered a couple of decent showings by the defense.
For three years the defense has been the best unit on the field. The all-time great 2013 squad was led by a suffocating defense and supported by a near-great special teams and an average offense. In 2014, the defense regressed (understandably) while the offense suffered anemic quarterback play. Last year saw historically bad offense paired with rebuilding defense that really needed support.
The defense simply was not motivated to play their best given the awful offensive unit for which they were busting their ass. Before you being your lecture about grit and discipline, look at the attendance figures and see that fans were demoralized also. Imagine the defensive unit. Hell, if Dan McCarney was giving up while getting big bucks can we blame the 19-year-old?
At the very least apportion blame accordingly.
After McCarney’s debacle against PSU, the defense reduced the points allowed per game by 14, from about 49 to a little over 35.
We could break it down further but suffice it to say that this roster may not be as bad as the numbers they allowed last year. That is encouraging. The move to 3-3-5 is also.
The new scheme fits the roster, and is more aggressive. The Skladany/Cosh defenses were the bend-but-don’t break variety. It paired well with a ball-control, mistake-free offense. In 2013 it was devastatingly effective. The defensive line was dominant, allowing rangy linebacker Zach Orr to make plays and ball hawking safety Mike Trice to grab picks.
Unfortunately, when the line was not as dominant, the likes of Cody Sokol, Brandon Doughty and other CUSA QBs could pick it apart for big yardage.
Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett are bringing a more attacking, flexible, and unpredictable defense. It is the perfect defense to pair with an attacking, up-tempo offense. The emphasis will be on chaos and creating the turnovers that will give the (hopefully) explosive offense the ball.
Reffett coached 3-3-5 at ULM who were known for getting turnovers and getting pressure on the quarterback in a pass-happy league. You might remember his 2012 team that upset No.8 Arkansas and gave Auburn a run into OT the following week. Derrick LeBlanc will attempt to bring improvement to the defensive line though coaching, while Nate Brown inherits a talented secondary. Brown played and coached under Reffett at his alma mater ULM and also brings experience with the scheme being implemented.
Mike Ekeler – Defensive Coordinator
Troy Reffett – Associate HC/Co-Defensive Coordinator
Derrick LeBlanc – Defensive Line
Nate Brown – Cornerbacks
It all begins here. The defensive line that I maligned is going with a three man crew in the 3-3-5. After Sir Calvin Wallace decided to leave, we were concerned about the future of the middle. Bryce English was brought in with the hope that he could get a waiver and play immediately. Unfortunately, that waiver was denied and so his usefulness will be confined to practice. That is not insignificant but it is not ideal.
The good news is Demonte Hood is the most talented player on the roster. He is a late addition out of Kansas State, another of the transfers that make their way back to DFW after some time away at a P5 school. As a 3★ recruit, that makes him the highest rated HS man on the roster. He had offers from A&M, Arkansas, Kansas, and San Diego State to go with his K-State offer. We do not know much beyond that. He is big and strong and had time in the K-State DT rotation the last few years. No one saw this coming, and if he can produce at his talent level, this should be a nice consolation prize after losing the English waiver decision.
|97||Demonte Hood||6-0||303||SR||Arlington, TX||Kansas State|
|44||Sid Moore||6-1||261||JR||Van, TX||Van HS|
|15||T.J. Tauaalo||6-2||287||RS SO||Keller, TX||Central HS|
|49||Roderick Young||6-1||287||SO||Spring, TX||Dekaney HS|
|93||Julius Combes||6-1||313||RS FR||Washington, D.C.||DeMatha HS|
|34||Bryce English||5-11||332||RS FR||DeSoto, TX||Kansas State|
Sid Moore, TJ Tauaalo and Roderick Young comprise the rest of the DT rotation. There is some talent here. The biggest problem last year was their size. In the recruiting speculation post I mentioned the problems the line had:
The starters were and are undersized. Flusche, Orr, and Tauaalo are all 250-ish lbs. …
If Littrell wants any kind of improvement immediately, he will have to bolster the DT spots. I expect the young guys that were thrown to the fire to get bigger and stronger and learn from their season getting gashed, but this position group is as important as the QB spot and should be addressed.
NT already lost RS FR DT DeMikal Harrison to transfer, so this spot is in dire need of some size. One or two 350+ lbs guy would be ideal. Obviously, those types of players are highly coveted so it will not be easy.
Much will depend on the defensive coordinator Seth Littrell brings along with him …
A fancy scheme won’t make up completely for talent, but it can use talent more effectively. No matter what NT runs they’ll need to control the line or the defense might be setting the wrong kinds of records next season.
The bad news is that the 350+ DT is not on the roster. The good news is that the scheme change might better use the talent we have. One out of two is not bad. The attacking 3-3-5 should be able to produce pressure on the quarterback and stymie the run game by creating confusion. Chris B. Brown:
In the 3-3-5, there are more stunts, and usually at least one linebacker is rushing. This means each player ends up responsible for one specific gap, though the player’s specific responsibility will change from play to play. The 3-3-5 is designed to make both pass protection and run schemes (particularly zone-blocking schemes that heavily rely on double-team blocks) difficult to the point of futility.
In a two-gap system like the Patriots 3-4 or Saban’s 3-4 you want your DEs to be a little bit bigger, to absorb blockers and let the LBs do the pass rushing. Generally speaking in the 3-3-5 the DEs do not need to be as big — but it helps. Ekeler and Reffert have 4-5 guys stalking the line of scrimmage with the intent of confusing blocking assignments. The confusion and threat of the blitz should make things slightly easier on Combs, Roberts, Dilonga et al.
|7||Jareid Combs||6-3||258||SR||Minneapolis, MN||Iowa Central CC|
|56||Malik Dilonga||6-4||264||SR||Cedar Hill, TX||Trinity Christian School|
|99||Andy Flusche||6-3||259||RS JR||Muenster, TX||Muenster HS|
|90||Tillman Johnson||6-1||248||JR||Round Rock, TX||McNeil HS|
|94||JoJo Ozougwu||6-3||205||FR||Alief, TX||Taylor HS|
|30||Jarrian Roberts||6-2||252||SR||Clarksville, TX||Clarksville HS|
|18||Joshua Wheeler||6-3||240||JR||Grand Prairie, TX||Tyler JC|
|92||Terrance Johnson||6-4||257||RS SO||Austin, TX||McNeil HS|
Last year’s preview mostly applies:
A lot of buzz is surrounding [Tillman] Johnson who was really starting to come on last year before getting hurt. [Jarrian] Roberts can be an explosive pass rusher, but struggled against the run. [Malik] Dilonga had a great spring last year, but never really got going. This year NT adds Jareid Combs, Dakota Smith, and Eli Howard to its DE depth.
No question this group can get after the passer, but can they bolster the run defense?
Last year the pass rush was only occasionally succesful and mostly against the poorer teams like UTSA. Tackling was an issue, as Roberts and Dilonga were able to get hands on passers and runners but were unable to bring them down, which is the entire point.
JoJo Ozougwu has the prototypical size for the position but barring an amazing camp, the majority of reps will come from familiar names. Expect the coaching and regime change, along with a sense of pride to carry this defense to a much better performance. The previous scheme put the entire weight of defensive success on the line and they failed miserably. The new philosophy might help this group of talented players make the plays that will lead to wins.
North Texas has always had slightly undersized LBs. Often they are simply workers who know they are not the biggest or strongest, and put in the time and effort to be great. Craig Robertson, Zach Orr, Derek Akunne are NFL players that represent the tradition of NT linebacking best.7
Fred Scott is the next in line. He was hesitant, but still showed signs of his talent and leadership last season as Robertson and Orr detail in this excellent video series.
|32||Fred Scott||5-11||233||SR||Kennedale, TX||Kennedale HS|
|10||Calvin Minor||6-3||213||JR||Lewisville, TX||Lewisville HS|
|37||Brandon Garner||5-11||225||RS SO||Mansfield, TX||Timberview HS|
|17||Cortney Finney||5-11||220||SR||Bay City, TX||Trinity Valley CC|
|43||Zack Bishop||6-2||225||RS JR||Allen, TX||Oklahoma Baptist|
|22||E.J. Ejiya||6-3||220||JR||Blain, MN||North Dakota State College of Sciences|
|57||Shane Gerths||6-1||205||FR||Celina, TX||Celina HS|
|50||LaDarius Hamilton||6-3||240||FR||Corrigan, TX||Corrigan-Camden HS|
|59||Hayden Harrison||6-2||220||FR||Wollforth, TX||Frenship HS|
|53||William LeMasters||6-2||213||RS FR||Dallas, TX||Parish Episcopal HS|
|42||Corey Mann||6-0||195||FR||Decatur, TX||Temple HS|
|5||Mylam Peters||6-5||240||JR||Kissimmee, FL||Arizona Western College|
|52||Braelon Schwartz||6-0||226||JR||Arlington, TX||Stephen F. Austin|
Calvin Minor and Brandon Garner had their moments last season, but for a unit that was part a defense that was roasted repeatedly, it is difficult to say much more without being overly negative. As with the DL, this unit should have a fresh start in the new scheme. A LB corps that will feign blitz and drop, or simply bring numbers, the athleticism of Garner and Minor should be useful.
Still the Scott’s leadership will be key, as the defense is likely to experience growing pains and give up huge gains and allow lots of scoring as they adjust or the gambling, aggressive style bites them. Keeping the unit and the entire defense steady and ready for the next play is on Scott.
The rest of the depth chart is a collection of guys most notable for not being Will Johnson, the highly recruited LB who did not qualify. There is size, speed, and athleticism along the depth chart but hesitation or bad technique can nullify all that. E.J. Ejiya and Mylam Peters were brought in for depth and are big and rangy and will likely get a chance to show what they can do.
With some pressure on the QB, and some relief from injury, the defensive backs could have had a better season. As it was, we only saw glimpses. Cedric Fernandes showed some nice things in the first game-and-a-half before being lost to injury for the year. Unfortunately, he is hurt to being fall camp. Kishawn McClain is a playmaker, and racked up 110 tackles last year. James Gray was another bright spot, doing what he could racking up 100 himself. The two safeties getting 200+ tackles tells you a lot about the front seven.
With improved support they should be able to make tackles closer to the line of scrimmage, and in the backfield.
Nate Brooks has been a star at camp, continuing his improvement from last year. He started beginning with the WKU game and impressed in spots. Ashton Preston started on the other corner spot that WKU game. He is capable of making plays if, again, there is support up front. Chad Davis returns and should get time as a nickel corner and spot duty on the edges, although he started most of 2015. Dee Baulkman is a JUCO signing and expects to get time.
|36||Dee Baulkman||5-11||200||JR||Bainbridge, GA||Arizona Western College|
|9||Nate Brooks||6-0||170||SO||Whitehouse, TX||Whitehouse HS|
|16||Chad Davis||5-10||181||SR||Richmond, TX||Bush HS|
|14||Cedric Fernandes||5-10||176||RS SO||Arlington, TX||Martin HS|
|21||James Gray||6-0||190||SR||Atlanta, GA||Fort Scott CC|
|13||Kway Hill||5-11||195||RS FR||Columbus, GA|
|38||Andrew Jones||6-1||173||RS SO||Mesquite, TX||North Mesquite HS|
|23||Kishawn McClain||5-11||201||JR||Rosenberg, TX||Terry HS|
|47||Dakota Michaels||6-1||185||FR||Lucas, TX||Lovejoy HS|
|39||Jameel Moore||5-10||160||FR||Cedar Hill, TX||Cedar Hill HS|
|4||Khairi Muhammad||5-11||170||FR||DeSoto, TX||DeSoto HS|
|27||Ashton Preston||5-10||183||SO||Edmond, OK||Santa Fe HS|
|39||Taylor Robinson||5-11||191||RS FR||Keller, TX||Central HS|
|19||John Schilleci||6-0||201||SR||Denton, TX||Guyer HS|
|45||Nnamdi Umeakuana||6-1||205||JR||Irving, TX||Austin College|
|11||Sam Wells||6-0||193||RS SO||Commerce, TX||Commerce HS|
Depending on the scenario, we may see five “true” DBs in, or a LB like Brandon Garner (speedy) in at the LB/S hybrid spot. UTSA did a lot of WR screens and used TE David Morgan to destroy the smaller corners fighting though blocks. The maleable, modal defensive scheme should allow for more counters to these scenarios while staying in base principles.
We will see a good number of the DBs given the depth issues. If say John Schilleci or Chad Davis is having trouble, expect Nate Brown to move in the younger guys. The learning time spent on Nate Brooks and Ashton Preston last year helped. It should do the same for this group.
That said, this unit is not the conferences’s best, by resume or Rivals numbers. It is a capable, winning collection of players. Brooks and McClain are playmakers and can capitalize on the mistakes and turnovers the scheme aims to create.
Tommy Perry has done an excellent job in the last few years coaching this unit. Not only have the specialists been great — Eric Keena and Trever Moore — but perhaps more importantly, the ST has been Virginia Tech-like. In 2013, bolstered by starters contributing, the ST blocked kicks and returned punts and kickoffs for huge, game-changing yardage. Every coach likes to talk about all three phases, but few ever put the time required.
|93||Blake Patterson||SPEC||6-2||195||FR||Round Rock, TX||Cedar Ridge HS|
|96||Tim Ursery||SPEC||6-2||238||FR||Great Mills, MD||Great Mills HS|
|84||Eric Keena||P||6-2||175||SR||Keller, TX||Sunrise Mountain HS|
|94||Sam Aguilera||P/K||6-5||200||FR||Fort Worth, TX||W.E. Boswell HS|
|30||Trevor Moore||K||5-11||194||JR||Edmond, OK||Edmond North HS|
|92||Trey Enterline||DS||6-3||225||SR||Arlington, TX||Martin HS|
|91||Kel Straubmueller||DS||5-11||195||RS FR||Argyle, TX||Louisiana-Lafayette|
With the roster lacking depth, the starters will need to contribute here out of necessity. The hope is more game-changing blocked extra point against UTSA.. Last year, since-departed walk-on Tre’ Johnson returned a punt against UTEP. With apologies to Tre’, having guys like Wyche, or Hair-Griffin back there should be even better.
This unit has been a not-so-secret strength for the team for a while and if Seth Littrell gives Tommy Perry the practice time he requires to make this group into what we know he can, that should continue into 2016.
Schedule / Predictions
Predicting games so far ahead is dumb but fun. So let us begin. Contributor Greg Goedecker predicted the slate and so did Adam.
I believe that SMU had more talent and depth than North Texas (NT) right now. They are in year 2 of their reboot, NT is in year one. In rivalry games you never know exactly how things will play out. I think this game is really hard to pick. It will be a shoot out and closer than last year. I may change my mind over time, but right now I’d pick SMU.
SMU 41 – NT 37
North Texas will be hungry and at home. In 2015 SMU had the season North Texas will have in 2016: lots of scoring, lots of losses. North Texas’ defense will be too much of an unknown and it will flummox SMU. Also I cannot pick SMU to win in Denton. That just does not happen. I see loads of yardage for both squads.
NT 31 – SMU 30
The Wildcats are no push over FCS school. They can score in bunches and will challenge the Mean Green. In the end North Texas still has more talent and they will win.
North Texas 42 – Bethune Cookman 30
North Texas was destroyed by PSU because they quit on Dan McCarney. Seth Littrell will not let them quit in week 2. BC might give us an unexpected run — all FCS teams do. Talent will win out. This probably will not feel like the blowout we want.
NT 45 – BC 21
Florida isn’t that great on offense, but they do have a stellar defense. It’s going to be tough for Alec Morris and the offense to put up points. I think the Gators will beat NT in Littrell’s 1st road game.
Florida 27 – North Texas 14
Florida is good at beating themselves. They still are more talented, but that talent has been getting suspended recently. Let’s hope that by Week 3 UF still doesn’t have its QB situation figured out and turns the ball over. This will not be as close as the score indicates.
UF 35 – NT 17
Some are bullish on the Rice Owls, Im not one of them. I don’t see them as being much more talented than NT. I think Alec Morris, and the offense have enough to beat Rice on the road.
NT 31 – Rice 28
Rice is weird in that they can play like the best in the conference and then like one that should give up football. They still have an iffy defense (that allowed a 90+ yarder to Andrew McNulty and Carlos Harris y’all) and now have QB questions. This will be the first conference game and first non-money game road game for Littrell. McCarney was awful on the road. This will be a test.
NT 31 – Rice 17
Middle Tennessee St.
MTSU will have too much offensive fire power for NT to stop.
MTSU 37 – NT 24
Tony Franklin is back to coach Middle Tenneseee. North Texas will be in Year One of the Air Raid, going up against one of the offense’s prophets. Franklin coached the Troy’s offense in 2006 that destroyed NT, the 2009 MTSU offense that destroyed NT, left to coach Cal and is now back coaching one of the conference’s best offenses. This should be ugly. The only good news is that we are at home and we’ve done well against Middle at home.
Middle 45 – NT 21
Could this be a surprise game? Maybe Marshall’s offense isn’t that good. Well their defense is still good enough to slow down NT. I believe Marshall will win a close one.
Marshall 30 – NT 26
Chase Litton is a little older and should be better. I cannot shake the feeling that North Texas had a shot at the Herd in 2015. Poor QB play and a shaky defense cost the Mean Green. I can totally see NT getting revenge in Denton, with an improved defense and a coherent offense.
NT 35 – Marshall 28
Getting Army after a bye week is great. It will give the defense extra time to prepare for the option attack. It will be a tough battle, but I have NT winning.
NT 24 – Army 21
The service academies are always tough but Army is no where near as good as the other two recently. It is weird saying you want revenge on Army but they did win the last two games played — in 2009 and 2010.
NT 31 – Army 24
UTSA could be better than advertised. The roadrunners have amassed a nice group of talent down in San Antonio. It’s a game that NT could win, but I think facing Army the week before will take its toll on a thin Mean Green team. I think UTSA wins.
UTSA 35 – NT 28
Since that classic 2013 matchup that saw an NT senior class take on a UTSA JR/SR startup squad class, these two have taken interesting paths (for we observers). Since then, both coaches are gone and both had disappointing seasons. UTSA is pretty talented this year especially at the QB spot — the weak point of last season. I call it a rivalry, and every time these two play nothing plays out the way the stats say they should. Zach Orr wants the squad to win. So do I.
NT 31 – UTSA 27
After losing to UTSA I see NT rebounding to upset the Bulldogs.
NT 33 – La Tech 31
Going from a team with talent but some questions, to a team that just reloads. They do the Transfer QB Does Well the best. I did not think much of HC Skip Holtz when he took the job but he has found a way to make the program his. I cannot shake the feeling that there are too many changes this time. Greg calls it an upset, but I would not be surprised if LaTech is struggling by this point. I would not be surprised if the opposite were true either.
NT 28 – LaTech 24
@ Western Kentucky
WKU has too much talent for NT and the Mean Green will come back to earth.
WKU 42 – NT 28
WKU is replacing their prolific QB but still is way more of a stable program to drop off too much. They’ll be like Marshall last year in that respect. NT is on the road here and that makes it too tough.
WKU 31 – NT 21
Southern Miss may be the best team in CUSA. They have the best QB and should win easily in Denton. Only think that could make this a close game is Mullens being injured.
Southern Miss 40 – NT 24
All the smart money is on Southern Miss to run away with the conference. Jay Hopson steps in for Todd Monken, who pulled Southern Miss from the abyss. By late November these predictions will be quaint. That said I cannot see a win for NT against a better squad top-to-bottom.
SoMiss 38 – NT 24
At this point of the season NT’s limited depth will be starting to show. Facing a team like UTEP wont help the matters. The Miners big OL will impose its will on the Mean Green. Had this game been played earlier in the season I’d pick NT, instead its at the end and I think UTEP wins.
UTEP 31 – NT 20
Greg makes a great point about depth. All these predictions assume a perfectly healthy roster throughout which is quite ridiculous in this sport. UTEP had an injury plagued campaign last year and stands to benefit from all that youth getting playing time. The trip to Hell Paso should be hell. I feel like this one will be turnover-plagued.
UTEP 31 – NT 17
Greg: Final Record 4-8
Adam: 7-5. Clearly I’ve been drinking the green Kool-Aid.
Dan McCarney asked Why Not North Texas? and subsequently answered his own question.
This isn’t the easiest place in the world to recruit to. This isn’t the easiest place in the world when you have a track record and a lot of years of losing. Just because you put up some cement and some bigger stands, that doesn’t make it easy. Did it happen fast because I came in wearing some big ass ring from Florida or because some people respected what I did at Iowa State? No. It’s still North Texas. — Dan McCarney October 13, 2014
That quote enrages me to this day. However much truth is in his statement, he was the one person paid to change the situation. I am perfectly fine with him having this opinion or even expressing it privately. The fact that he said this publicly would have put him on the hot seat with me.
Dan McCarney and his staff bungled recruiting. Not only did they fail to stock the roster with a full set of 85 scholarshi- worthy players, but they failed to staff it with contributors in the most important position. The quarterback depth chart was abysmal. Every quarterback brought in by his staff either flamed out or transferred. The most frustrating part of it was that average quarterback play could have made the last two years decent. Instead they were only memorable for the depth of their awfulness.
And so Seth Littrell steps into the job, the latest to declare North Texas as a fertile recruiting ground and the latest to promise he will own DFW. Thus far, North Texas has been behind UTSA’s Frank Wilson, losing not only San Antonio’s QB/ATH Frank Harris, but Denton’s own OLB Javaris Steward 8.
The recruiting finish line is in February and we are only in August so we should not overreact to developments so early. Still, we should note the situation.
UNT’s recruiting plan is often to find unrecruited, and not-so-obvious, and rely on big transfers from P5 schools for 4★ talent. It is a solid plan as these things go. No matter what path you choose, talent evaluation and development is the most important part of this process.
The good news is that SL and staff have the resumés that suggest they are better evaluators than the previous staff. However, every move to a new job means proving yourself all over. So it will be with Littrell.
Success at North Texas requires a clever coach. Although in a talent hotbed, it is heavily recruited. Although in a giant metropolis, every state school and the big ones from nearby make a trip here.
Littrell’s recruiting strategy is a long-term one. He wants to build relationships with the high schools in the area and establish a playing style that will make the school more attractive to the state’s talent. This requires time. Selling kids on the product will require more film. North Carolina football doesn’t get a whole lot of television time in Texas, and so his success the last few years is muted.
I’m unsurprised at Frank Wilson’s early success at UTSA. He is a good recruiter and has an easy sell. UTSA’s recent profile has been positive, last year aside. Rhetorically speaking, a bad two years are small relative to the general positive feeling in San Antonio. Wilson can sell success, San Antonio, and being a part of building something.
Here, the 2014 HOD Bowl is not enough to overcome the last decade. The early 2000s may as well be the 1970s in the minds of the 17-year olds the coaches are chasing. And so it is good that the Littrell hashtag is #NewDenton. It is a great slogan. Forget what you know. This is new. It is a compelling selling point, but not one to overcome SMU’s or UTSA’s yet.
Edit 8/15/16 6:00p: Clarified the DB situation. Added Joel Filani to the Offensive coaches. Copy/Paste error.
- As of this writing Turner Smiley is suspended for SMU, and Rodney Bendy quit the squad. This all before fall practice began. ↩
- Under Mac, NT threw way more than you probably would guess. ↩
- This is primarily Troy Reffett’s specialty. ↩
- For recent examples, look at Sonny Dykes’ Cal, Mike Leach’s Wazzu. ↩
- We had high hopes for Darius Terrell, but is potential wasn’t met. He dropped passes and had awful quarterback play. ↩
- SMU did allow 48 to James Madison. ↩
- If you are wondering if this scheme will hurt the chances of producing a new NFL LB, know that the 3-3-5 helped Brian Urlacher get noticed. ↩
- Four stars! ↩