SAN ANTONIO, TX — For a brief moment as North Texas took a 10-7 lead, and forced a punt on the next UTSA drive, the west side of the Alamodome was quiet. It can be deafening in the Dome when it is rocking, and a little odd to hear 39,000 or so of the 41,400 silent. Austin Aune threw an interception soon after, and the place exploded in relief and joy. From that point on, North Texas was chasing the game.
The three minute stretch of game time that followed was an unravelling. The idea of deferring to the second half is to steal a possession. To do that you have to use your possessions well, and throwing that pick and following that up with a punt were simply giving UTSA more opportunities. Seth Littrell was rightly upset about the odd delay-of-game penalty but that wasn’t what hurt the squad. NT tried to run a delay-draw to steal yards when UTSA was sitting back waiting to defend the pass. Was it smart? Maybe, if it worked. We all know process is a better measure of a team than overly focusing on results. That said, we cannot forget this is a results-based business. It is not a competition of good guys and good students. This is a football game to see who can score the most points.
North Texas didn’t trust their passing game to drive down the field with a short clock and that is understandable. For all of the good that Austin Aune has done, he still engenders some uneasiness among the fans. He will throw a beautiful ball like he did to Kaylon Horton in the second half. He will set the single-season pass TD record. He will also throw two interceptions that have everyone shaking their heads in disgust.
Speaking of, late in the game when it was desperation time and UTSA had pushed the lead back to 14, Aune uncorked a toss to Zhiglil McMillan that was short and fell into the arms of the defensive back Robinson. Twitter exploded with questions about taking a shot there, and questioning the wisdom. Personally, I don’t mind the aggression. This offense is built to get one-on-one matchups outside and take advantage and win those. If you show you are unwilling to test that outside, you throw the entire balance of the offense off. The ball needed to be thrown about five yards further, or quicker or both. That is just the game, and NT didn’t have enough arm talent. I can live with that.
In any loss there is a good amount of responsibility to hand out. Sean Thomas Faulkner has been both maligned and praised for his contributions, and was seen coming off the field talking through his frustration after the game. He looked to have gotten beat over the top by Zhakari Franklin on the TD that made it 41 for UTSA.
- That happens
- It can’t happen in a title game by a senior DB if you expect to win.
I asked Frank Harris after the game how they looked so prepared for everything NT had for them defensively. He looked ready to scramble, ready to attack, ready for everything. “Last game I wasn’t prepared when they went cover zero. This time I was prepared and the [OC] gave me the freedom to make checks and things”
NT could not get to him like they did in Oct. They could not tackle as well on the edges as they did in Oct. They had a hard time chasing down Barnes, who ran for about a buck-fifty. NT’s secondary looked slow. It is a problem that isn’t necessarily foot speed. For example, on Franklin’s second TD he caught a pass in the flat. UTSA had NT flowing one way all night and then threw back the other way to get people in space. You could see two NT defensive backs have to reset their steps in a “oh he’s open” kind of way. That means you are just a step slower, a step behind. NT was not flying forward. NT was not as ready for the game plan that was thrown at them.
Seth Littrell said the usual: “three phases, etc” and while true, it is harder to listen to. UTSA is a good team and NT should be commended for playing well against them in October, and earning this spot to play again in San Antonio and also coming out strong and taking an early lead. This business remains results-based, I remind you.
Seth Littrell is 0-5 in bowl games and 0-2 in championship games with the majority of those losses being blowouts. You can make the argument — and some people have suggested to me that Littrell has privately made this in negotiations — that it is difficult to win at NT. To that I say, sure. It is difficult to win anywhere. Frank Wilson coached at UTSA and didn’t win. Traylor has back to back titles in San Antonio. It looks easy now, when the winning is happening and the trophy is being held up.
Difficulty is the baseline. To seal a line from a movie: “The hard is what makes it great”
The run game was back. Hidden behind the loss and the Frank Harris performance was Ikaika Ragsdale running loose for big yards. Ayo Adeyi was back as well, slicing through the defense. NT had opportunities in October and was very ready to make sure 22 yards wasn’t the final rush total. The pass game was not as good then. If you squint, you can see the narrative flipped. Pass game good, run game bad. Now run game good, pass game bad.
We knew UTSA would be more ready for the NT pass attack. Var’keyes Gumms, et al were not gong to surprise anyone this time. NT tried the throw-back pass to Roberts again and it worked, but not as well and he came up short. Gumms couldn’t find the same space as he did last time. Jyarie Shorter didn’t come up with all of the catches he needed and remains an enigma. He has NFL speed and size but not NFL hands like maybe Damon Ward, Jr. But he caught a highlight-reel ball. Aune didn’t always find his WRs. Maclin had a highlight run after catch. It was a roller coaster, as it has been all season.
Add it all up and it was not enough. NT was almost good enough. They almost scored here and there. They almost got a first down. They almost broke a 99-yarder. They almost got a stop. They almost got a sack. They almost got an interception (Gaddie). Almost is not good enough to win championships.
It is hard to hold all of the thoughts in your head at once. It is hard to simultaneously appreciate the work and effort it takes to play college football, but also want better for the program and improvement in key areas. We have to appreciate the effort, and the accomplishment, and also ask for more. Wren Baker is leaving and Seth Littrell is rumored to want a nice long extension. Negotiations were on-going but they disagreed. I can understand the argument by the head coach: five bowl appearances, the best offenses in NT history are 80% mine, NFL talent, packed stadiums, two championship games. I can understand the other side: 0-7 in post season, the worst defense in the nation for a year, rotating cast of staff because of on-field and off-field poor performance (ie, not getting hired away), and losing the fan base’s good will.
Next up is a bowl game somewhere. North Texas put about 1300 fans in the dome, give or take a few hundred. UTSA fans were disappointed with that number, but long time NT watchers know it is harder to get people to get excited after consistent disappointment in these games. It hurts to watch NT lose on the road. It is doubly-painful to have traveled and paid a little premium for the privilege.
The die-hards and obsessives (it me) will be there, and will care. That is how you get 1300 or so. If you want 5K? If you want more? They have to be excited. If there is a case for change, it is that. Is it fair? No. But the answer was always simple: go win.