Too Close For Comfort: NT 46 UAB 43

Well, that was not quite the way we envisioned the game going.

North Texas escaped UAB with 46-43 win on a Trever Moore FT to win the game and moves to 1-0. At no point did it feel like NT was threatened, but at no point was NT completely in control. At the official MGN watch party someone remarked: “How is this game so close?”

Indeed, how was it so damned close? The box score says NT completely dominated the proceedings.

Total yards: NT 548 UAB 395
Rush yards: NT 287 UAB 74
Pass yards: NT 321 UAB 321
First downs: NT 28 UAB 16
3rd Dn Cn: NT 6/13 UAB 12/19
Plays/YPP: NT 73/7.5 UAB 72/5.5

North Texas was up 30-14 at the half and had out gained UAB 339-135 and had control of this game. UAB’s run game was being controlled after UAB dominated their first drive with that 12-play, 66-yard TD drive to open things. UAB was forced into a 3-and-out, a three play INT, and then two more 3-and-outs before scoring another on Andrew Wilson’s 48-yard TD. Really, that was the story: UAB kept fighting and found some success pulling double-moves on Nate Brooks.

UAB Chunk Pass Plays (+15 yard passes)
21 - Erdely to Wilson 3rd and 4
48 - Erdely to Wilson TD 1st and 10
20 - Erdely to Stanley 3rd and 5
17 - Erdely to Lisa 3rd and 6
58 - Erdely to Wilson TD 1st and 10
59 - Erdely to Lisa 3rd and 10
26 - Erdely to Lisa 3rd and 10

Um guys? We’ve discussed at length how NT wants to attack the QB and rely on a solid secondary to hold things down. Unfortunately Nate Brooks has been off his standard as he is repeatedly targeted on double-moves with success. He allowed Wilson to beat him twice and late North Texas swapped him for last year’s revelation Eric Jenkins. Jenkins was more solid in coverage, nearly intercepting Erdely twice but it was not enough to get the much-needed stop.

One key to this game was in controlling the style and pace. North Texas played this one at their pace, an up-tempo shootout. The thinking was that UAB’s ground-based attack would be unable to keep pace and fall behind as NT pulled away. Well, that was partly true. NT moved the ball easily against the Blazer defense and was able to erase the UAB run game … but was shredded through the air.

It seems that NT’s strength defensively is not the strength we thought it was. Nate Brooks has not been his best and Kishawn McClain has been quiet (although he got an INT today). The pass rush has been good-to-okay but the secondary has been leaky — especially on third downs. Folks, that was the entire game today. UAB averaged 11.2 yards per pass attempt on 3rds, a down where they averaged a 3rd-and-7.

After UAB traversed the field in the game-tying drive a 13-pla7, 73-yard effort over 3:53 (where they converted a 3rd-and-10, and two 3rd-and-shorts) things were tied at 43 with 27 seconds left. Evan Johnson — a guy Seth Littrell said could be special — returned the ball 4 yards to the UAB 44.

NT lined up in the standard 2×2 set, but instead of throwing the ball as everyone expected, the draw call to Jeff Wilson gained 34 yards to the UAB 10. That put things in Trevor Moore’s wheelhouse, where he is money. It was something like luck, but really when we consider that Evan Johnson and Jeff Wilson are the playmaker types it was not quite luck.

North Texas won their 500th game in school history on an epic night and dominated a game that they only won by 3. So it goes. Let us get particular:

Offense

I want to focus on the positive aspects of this night, and the offense was the brightest of bright spots. The much-maligned offense finally bloomed. NT lit up the scoreboard and moved up and down the field with ease. Four games in, we can set aside any talk of flukes. NT dominated Lamar easily, scored against SMU, surprised Iowa, and exploited UAB. This is a unit in the image of its makers and it is great to see.

Mason Fine lit up the Blazers for 261 yard and 3 TDs on 15/29 passing. His 9 yards per attempt is good but his 17 per completion is telling. Of his 15 passes here are six of them:

23 - to Kelvin Smith  on 1st and 10
47 - to Guyton TD 1st and 10
25 - Smith 3rd and 12
22 - Bussey 2nd and 9
40 - Lawrence 1st and 10
22 - Smiley 1st and 10
19 - Smith 2nd and 9
15 - Smith 2nd and 12

That’s a good effort. (Meanwhile the run game produced 12 10+ yard rushes)

Jeff Wilson was dominant, rushing for 211 yards on 26 carries and 1 score. Nic Smith added 40 on 8 and another score. Both had electrifying runs throughout. Jalen Guyton Moss’d a dude

NT scored the way a team does in a blowout but this thing came down to a big special team’s play and a big run by Jeff to seal things. It was a three-point game and yet I only felt nervous once: after UAB tied, thinking they would go for two. This was such a weird game.

While you might have noticed the frustrating aspects of the offense — the poor passes, the poor conversions on short yardage — it is encouraging to know that there is room for improvement in an offense that was leading the conference in PPG (35), passing yards per game (283), 2nd rushing yards per game (205), first in rushes of 30+ (4) and 40+ (3), and first in pass plays over 10+ yards coming into tonight.

It is good and can/should be better. Mason Fine is rounding into the QB we hoped for and Jeff Wilson is as advertised. The new additions out wide are stretching defenses and making highlights. Still, Fine has misfired, Jeff Wilson fumbled twice (one was iffy), and Jalen Guyton is only getting the ball once or twice per game thanks to some poor routes.

Defense

UAB walked down the field early, before succumbing to the fierce pass rush. North Texas bottled up the triple-option stuff in the middle series but UAB then pulled out some plays from the SMU playbook: Throw it up to the best WR you have. It worked. Andre Wilson came into tonight with 8 catches, 101 yards and a score to his name this year and finished with five for 150 and two scores. UAB unleashed a heretofore unseen aerial attack that sliced up the NT secondary. Erdely had 321 yards and 4 scores on 13/36 passing.

North Texas managed to stem the tide when they swapped Eric Jenkins in for Nate Brooks. Jenkins had two passes broken up in the short time he saw the field and just might get the starting look next week against Kwadra Griggs and company. The weakest of links on this defense is the third down defense and while it is very easy to look at the DBs and point fingers, something needs to change philosophically. Yes, this is Troy Reffett’s go-to package but NT is a sieve right now. The defense has allowed 9 pass plays of 20+ yards coming into tonight and added six more tonight to rank them 9th in the 14-team CUSA.

One of two things need to happen: 1) NT gets to the passer quicker or 2) NT defenses the passes yet.

Rod Young hurried Erdely on third and goal on the final drive and forced a bad throw. That is the kind of play that NT will point to when talking about how this defense should work. The next play Erdely stood tall and allowed the pick play to develop for the TD. That is what happens when other teams look at our defense.

LB EJ Ejiya led the team in tackles with 9, followed by Khairi Muhammad with 8. Kishawn McClain had the interception and a tackle for loss. Josh Wheeler had two sacks, and a QB hurry. Rod Young had four hurries and three tackles. Erick Jenkins had two tackles to go with his two breakups. Brandon Garner had five tackes and a sack.

NT has played the same way defensively in all four weeks, giving up points commensurate with the talent on the opposite side. Lamar busted open, but didn’t have the horses to compete man-for-man. SMU did, and scorched the defense. Iowa powered through but relied on the run rather than the pass. UAB’s receivers beat our guys one-on-one and that was the entirety of the subtlety against Reffett’s defense.

Special Teams

Trevor Moore made four field goals, including the game winner and NT can trust him to be clutch. He hit four in the fourth quarter that should probably have been TDs but ponts are points and we’ll take them in any form they come. Kenworthy was better punting the ball this game while Evan Johnson had the huge run to set up the winning run/kick combination. Also NT blocked a punt.

This broke a streak of bad ST performances and hopefully it stays this way. If the defense is going to bring up the rear, the special teams cannot be giving them competition at the bottom. If the return game can help out the offense that will be helpful. We saw what a great return game can do — win the game.

The 2013 team had a great ST unit, and any early talk about division titles must include discussion of this unit.

Coaching

Please, someone stop the defensive bleeding.

Please, someone get the ball to Guyton in some other fashion.

We can point to lots of good thus far and yet the same old bad. The broadcast mentioned that Littrell has focused his message on cleaning up mistakes while retaining the passion. My concern is that this will be a running theme throughout his time.

I really liked the play calling again. Harrell had done a great job of self-scouting and pulling off some really nice things off of it. He probably gets too cute at times, and a little too aggressive, but with a team that is a little bit more cohesive, that aggression will look like genius.

Reffett’s defense can use one or two really great linebackers to turn this defense into a monster. We saw the 2013 team transform into the good defensive team it became after really talented guys began to step up — I mean of course Marcus Trice and Zach Orr. That team had a tendency to give up big plays until it stopped and clamped down.

Growth into a good team is a process. This blog has maintained that we have to adjust expectations relative to what is reasonable. While some other coaches can and have turned around other situations, we ave to give this it’s own time. This staff has produced 7 wins, 10 losses in 17 games after a 1-11 season. That is not terrible.

What It Means

UAB is tougher than the normal FBS startup. I did not expect Erdely to fire so many bombs around the secondary, but that was the game. NT played this game at their own pace, which is good but obviously the big scores are going to cause some late nights. Still, they have to be happy that they successfully took away the strongest aspect of the UAB squad: the rush game. UAB came in at 265 yards per game and were held to 74. That number means little other than NT forced UAB to play a different game.

NT has been on the receiving end of some awful games, and so I will not spit in the face of Lady Luck when she smiles upon us with a gem like this. NT was still clearly the better team and it showed even if the margin was only three.

NT is 1-0 in conference play and 2-2 and the year — the same situation as last year although the feeling is wildly different. In 2016, NT had to pull off a 17-point comeback against Rice and get a 4th down stop to win on the road. Here, they gave up a 16-point one before pulling it out. College Football is weird.

Next

North Texas travels to Hattiesburg to take on Southern Miss who were idle this week. Southern Miss is probably more talented 1-85 but Kwadra Griggs has a couple more questions to answer. North Texas took advantage of USM turnovers (by the freshman QB Keon Howard) to get a good enough lead before holding on late.

The early edge goes to Southern Miss, for being at home and having a more complete QB at the helm.