Week One Offense

We all were looking forward to the first offensive series. It was very anticlimactic, ending on an Alec Morris interception to SMU’s Darrion Millines.

From then to the final series — when Mason Fine was sacked for a 7-yard loss on 3rd and 25 from the 14 — there were some good things, some bad and a lot of things to talk about. Yours Truly is without the aide of a second viewing — no one had a copy of the broadcast they could get to me 🙁 — and so I will rely on third party accounts, my own memory, and the play-by-play.

The quick game was solid. Greg charted the passes, and that read like I remembered it: Alec Morris had trouble throwing deep. That will be a problem as teams scout him more and force him to go over the top. In the mean time (against Bethune Cookman) if he completes 61 percent of his passes in short-to-intermediate range, I will be content if there are no interceptions.

It probably is important to acknowledge the elephant in the room: flashbacks to Andrew McNulty. While Andy Mac had a reputation for throwing short and tossing interceptions, Alec Morris had a much better day than Andy’s average day at the park. When McNulty threw greater than 20 passes he never completed greater than 60 percent of them. Also, he only exceeded Morris’ 6.1 yards per attempt (again, when throwing more than 20 passes) five times in ten games.

We could go on, but there is no need to bash Andy Mac. Alec Morris did not have a good day but his 114 rating was better than all but two NT passing games last year, and his 237 yards were better than all but one NT game last year and three games in 2014. Littrell said that there were plays available that could have helped this team win the game. I mostly agree. The offense was productive but turned the ball over. Football is a simple game.

The wideouts played well. Tee Goree and Willie Robinson were obviously the stars, although some folks thought they could have competed for the Morris toss-ups better. I did not see much quit there, but I had a bad angle for all of them. Goree fumbled once, and was lucky it went out of bounds. The entire position group got themselves open, caught the ball and made plays after the catch where they could.

The run group was dominated by Jeff Wilson. We did not see Ivery, but instead only Wilson and Wyche. Jeff was the guy we saw last year — slicing runs on handoffs and short passes. He was the best player on the field on offense.

Anthony Wyche was disappointing in both the special teams and from scrimmage. He was hesitant and Littrell called him out (by inference) in his press conference. My angle was poor, but reports are that the run on 3rd and 1 (before the INT) could have been successful if Wyche had “done his job”. The criticism is deserved. He is a JUCO guy that should know better.

About that run, “We gotta be able to line up and get a yard” says the coach. He is right. He hinted at the mistakes by both Wyche and Morris by suggesting the run could have been better (the former) and that the decision to check to Goree after was a poor one (the latter). Then he took the rest of the blame by saying it is the staff’s job to emphasize down-and-distance and situation. All three criticisms are correct.

I like that Morris felt comfortable enough to check to the pass. This offense and his experience afford him lots of authority to make decisions. I really like the aggression but the execution was poor. I generally do not like playing what if but the situation is important. That one yard should have been a 90% success call, and he checked to a 70% success call. I am being generous. Play the odds. If the offense were able to only manage a FG, it would have cut the lead to 7 and given the defense some rest.

I was encouraged by the urgency and effectiveness of the squad in responding to the gut punch TD (the 46 yard bomb). The offense had the ball at the 25 with 1:59 and scored in 1:21 in 6 plays, going 75 yards. The offense clicked as designed. Wilson got the ball running and passing (and got 10 yards both times), and Morris found Kelvin Smith after being flushed out of the pocket.

He is not completely immobile and his best quality is that he looks downfield to make plays when he’s flushed. Unfortunately, on his next two drives his accuracy was off and a chance to make it a one-score game was lost after SMU scored again.

Morris was taking big hits during these, so that contributed to the inaccuracy, but facts are facts. His three third quarter drives stalled and SMU extended the lead with 10 points of their own. A ten-point third quarter deficit is not desperation time, and the pressure he was facing was not coming because SMU knew NT had to take 7-step drops. Lawler was good, but Morris was (a) not seeing the field as well and (b) was not throwing accurate passes.

This was why Graham Harrell and Littrell pulled him for Fine. The freshman came in and completed five straight passes that were available to the senior in the three previous series. Fine has the added run dimension — he ran for 15 yards on three carries in the next few plays — but he completed 6/7 passes for 54 yards on the drive.

Mason Fine came in and provided the ‘spark’ that Littrell was looking for. That spark will cost Fine a season of eligibility. I could not quite glean meaning or intent from SL in his press conference, only vague football platitudes: “can’t make it through a season with only one QB.”

Week one of 2016 was a showcase for QB rotations, both good and bad. Everyone loves the Texas version, but that was more of a thrower + runner. Mason Fine can move better than Morris, but he is not Tyrone Swoopes. If he comes in for a series or two, we run the risk of both quarterbacks throwing the offense out of rhythm. I mostly believe if you have two quarterbacks then you have none. That said, we will see more of Fine this season. If he steps in and runs the offense with the authority he did that first drive, this thing might be what we hoped for.

The offensive line was shaky. Littrell said two sacks were on them. I will reserve more judgement as I do not have much more beyond that. Bad angles and all that.

Let’s check in on our speculations:

  1. I thought that we’d pass a bunch.. Other contributors weren’t so sure. I predicted 490 attempts for Morris and he is right on pace. The 50 attempts as a team were the most since the Dodge era, when NT threw 54 passes (completed 35) for 313 yards, no TDs and 3 picks vs MTSU in 2009.
  2. I thought we’d get space to run with Wilson. He was able to gash SMU when he had chances. He had a big 31 yard run and a TD.
  3. I didn’t mention it here, but there was an MGN slack discussion about targets. We all predicted high numbers for the H and Y guys, but the outside receivers took most of the targets and the catches. Kenny Buyers was not targeted once from what I saw.

The offense looked good. Outside of the self-inflicted turnovers, there was plenty to like. I can see a scenario where the defense gets the stop on 3rd and 45, and we have an entirely different ball game. I have no idea how long it takes to get back into playing mentality after four years on the sideline. I am hoping Morris got what he needed from that game experience. Next week’s game is a perfect scenario for him. While BC is good and ‘quick twitch’ they are not as good as SMU from top to bottom. He will get a chance for more playing time with slightly less pressure on him. He has game memories fresh in his mind, and that will do him more good than practice and game film.

We are looking for 2nd quarter Morris: decisive, accurate, poised. We do not want 1st quarter (rusty) or the 3rd quarter one (panicky, shell-schocked). I have a good feeling about it and I expect we might get a big stat line from him. He can continue his assault on the record book.