That Was A Hoot: NT 42 Rice 35

When North Texas was down 17 points and had just ended the second of two drives in the first quarter with another punt I checked the stats. Our favorite program had just -17 total yards to that point. When combined with the previous game that meant in five quarters of football, this team had produced zero points and 36 yards of offense.

Twitter was not pleased, and the large contingent of fans were more than disappointed. Rice had just scored their second TD after our defense helped another drive with offside penalties. I leaned over toward my little group and said “They absolutely need a touchdown here.”

The season was teetering on the brink. This pattern NT has continued the last few years — defense carrying the offense — can only be sustained so long. The defense is comprised of people, and even the most team-focused group will harbor some feelings for those not pulling their own weight. Its just human nature

At that point, North Texas Football needed hope. The ensuing drive was near miraculous. Starting at their own 25, the first two plays — a run by Ivery, and an incomplete to Thompson — managed -1 yard. On 3rd and 11 from the 24, Mason Fine launched a pass to O’Keeron Rutherford in double coverage near the NT bench. His defenders both fell while the ball was in the air and Rutherford came down with the pass, avoided tripping, and went down.

I want to complain and do #analysis and say that that pass should not have been thrown and so on. Sometimes you just need plays that do not make sense to happen for you. I present to you that catch. Sometimes you just need a guy to make a play.

Given new life, the offense looked like they had more energy and belief. The hope we all needed. Ivery rushed for 15 on 2nd and 10 from the 44. Then on 3rd and 12 from the 31, the Finedozer scampered through the middle on a QB Draw for 15 yards. As the crowd settled for the next play, Mason Fine play-actioned and found a diving Willy Ivery for a 16 yard TD.

The numbers say Rutherford should not come down with that pass. The numbers say you should not expect your QB to pick up 15 yards running on 3rd and 12. The numbers say your second string RB shouldn’t make diving catches in the endzone.

After that I leaned over and enthusiastically said “That might have been the drive that saved this season.” It might have been.

Lets talk about this game as we review our squad y’all. Remember, I do not hate your favorite player.

Offense

After the aforementioned -17 yards and zero points in the first quarter, the offense produced 411 yards and 28 points through regulation. That is 7.33 yards per play. Thanks to big plays from Jeff Wilson (75 yarder!) and Kenny Buyers (75 yards before running out of gas!) the offense did not have to dink and dunk its way down the field.

That is concerning in that a good offense can do that. It can get 5-7 yards and generally do not go backward. Please do not misunderstand me, a good offense also produces big plays. And the ones that absolutley cannot produce those are in bigger trouble than anyone. I fully expect the offense to get one week better and improve. The components are still young and there are a lot of new faces trying to adapt. When that happens we will see more consistency. We will see — for example — less miracle drives where it is absolutely necessary to convert on multiple third-and-longs.

Jeff Wilson looked like the player we expected. He was corralled by Florida but even the great Lance Dunbar was corralled by SEC defenses. I like Willy Ivery and he played well, but Jeff Wilson is just special. He turned the corner on that big run and exploded up field. When he fights for yards, he usually wins. That is special.

Thaddeous Thompson is our number one receiver isn’t he? He was targeted six times, caught only three, but had a couple of clutch catches. Kenny Buyers had 6 targets also, and really broke out. That 75 yarder was the type of catch-and-run we described in the season preview :

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.

Kenny Buyers made a play. This offense has needed that. Speaking of the man, how about this: he has dominated Rice in win on offense and defense..

The offensive line committed untimely penalties 1. There were some changes. The one I noticed from my seat in the stands was that Jordan Murray was benched in favor of 77 Elex Woodworth. The redshirt freshman played well, even though he is slightly “undersized” for the position. The holding call on our final drive of regulation that nullified a Fine scramble for a first down was huge but he played a good game. The left tackle position has been a liability. Murray has been beaten by every team including FCS Bethune Cookman. This was one of the changes that Littrell had in mind during the week. It seems to have paid off.

There is much more to say in the coming days and MGN will do its best to say as much of it as possible. Right now, lets enjoy the fact that the offense was not the one that was not big enough for the moment in Gainesville, and that for the second straight year, NT has put up 400+ yards against Rice.

Defense

The defense was tired, and showing signs of wear. Rice was leaning on them in the first overtime and getting easy 4-yard gains. When the game was on the line, however, the defense came up huge. Really, there were two stops: The first on third down to keep Rice short of the sticks; and the second, game-winning version.

If you simply look at the totals you miss the game for the stats. Rice ran an incredible 100 plays and only averaged 4.9 per play. This defense held Bethune Cookman to 4.5 per play. That is good. The tackling was solid throughout and even forced a few fumbles. The defense consistently got to Rice QB Tyler Stehling — though it did not always wrap up — and forced an interception, continuing the streak of INTs to four games. Obviously, when it counted, the interior stiffened and got a stop for a win. The defense with the game winning play on Mean Joe Greene’s birthday. Perfect.

So what did we dislike? The penalties. So many. The numbers say Rice only converted two first downs because of penalties, but they were gifted short yardage and bailed out of bad plays because of them also. See below for more on Penalties.

The good news is that this defense is no pushover. Rice is not a particularly explosive team and the defense did not drop off from the Florida game last week. That is good. It tells us that there is a mental toughness there that can be built on.

They forced Rice into 21 third downs and even with the penalties they only allowed 9 conversions. In the last two weeks this defense has been challenged and come out looking very mean indeed. The next few weeks present a different type of challenge, but for right now let us praise this group of guys and their abilities.

This preseason I had an inkling that the defense would be much improved over the one that allowed a nation’s-worst yard per game in 2015. Gone are the days of the squad getting blasted off the line. There are things to clean up — penalties, wrapping up — but this is a defense that can challenge in CUSA under the right circumstances.

Penalties

There had to be something Rice saw on film. Ekeler and company need to correct this or we will see even more of this in the coming weeks.

Four offside calls in the first two drives. Another in the third that converted a 4th and 4 for Rice at the NT 12. That led to the Touchdown and made it 17-0. Later there was the offensive holding that killed what would have been the game-sealing drive.

Special

Tyler Wilson is a good returner. He made two great returns in the second half that could have been game-changers in the right circumstances. Tommy Perry always does a great job with his group and again we see a great unit. John Schilleci made a huge ST tackle on a punt return that pinned Rice back. The little things are unnoticed when they do not win games — Rice drove for the tying TD + 2point conversion — but they are important nonetheless. Those types of plays are the standard here at NT under coach Tommy Perry and that is great. I had wondered if Seth Littrell’s North Texas Football would continue special teams tradition. He has so far.

Coaching

Seth Littrell said he would make changes to the lineup and he did. They seem to have made a difference. Still, he cannot be happy with starting the first quarter with -17 yards. The offense still does not click like we want it to, but it likely is because of the newness of the system, the freshman playing, and so many new moving parts.

We have seen improvement. Excluding Florida, the offense has put up 394+ yards and ~34 points. No CUSA team on the schedule plays defense or has as much talent on the defense as Florida does. Whatever fluctuations we see will be a result of this team’s practice habits and Littrell/Harrell coaching offensively.

Defensively, it could get worse. MTSU, WKU, and Southern Miss are three really good, efficient offenses that will punish mistakes, and challenge all parts of the field. The good news is that Ekeler and company have a group of guys that are tough and make plays. As we saw last night, all the yardage does not matter if you cannot get the one that counts. This defense is really good at denying that one yard.

Concluding Thoughts

This team was down 17. Then it blew an 8 point lead to go down 7. Then it had to stop a team on its 100th play when everyone was tired. Even though it was Rice, and Rice Stadium was 40% NT fans, it stil was a feat. That is the kind of win that helps build a program, a season, and memories.

Last night’s game was good entertainment.

Next: MTSU

I picked Middle to win this one before the season. I thought Tony Franklin would have their offense clicking and he does. MTSU is 9th in the nation in passing yards per game. Brent Stockstill is averaging 7.7 per attempt, 340 yards per game, and has tossed 13 TDs already.

The AD is already better than the last regime at building on the hype. Immediately after the game, NT Tickets twitter account tweeted about the next game. Way to build on the momentum.


  1. You are right, there are no timely penalties.