North Texas opened as 24-point underdogs to Iowa and after seeing the SMU backup QB toss a 47-yard TD late Safeway Bowl blowout it was hard to muster up hope.
Two seasons ago Iowa destroyed NT’s defensive line on the way to a 62-16 win wherein NT was embarrassed and embarrassing. After this 31-14 defeat, there is something like pride in the effort.
What was the difference? Well NT defended well enough to make Iowa work for things this time. Sure, North Texas benefited greatly from the refereeing being questionable, and Iowa hurting themselves with penalties and an early fumble. The sword cut both ways, as NT was penalized — sometimes questionably — 13 times for 199 yards.
This was a very weird game as Iowa’s first TD was less deserved than their first two that were taken away. North Texas continued the terrible streak of being poor on 3rd downs while Iowa had zero respect — and full self-confidence — in continually attempting 4th down conversions. They were 2/3 in the first half and 4/5 for the game.
North Texas, meanwhile, could not convert a 3rd down all game — finishing 0/6.
The same inconsistencies and mistakes from last season returned: holding penalties, drops, sacks. Still, NT was able to get Jeff Wilson free for a 41-yard TD early (he finished with 95 yards on 12 carries) and Quinn Shanbour stepped in to complete his only two attempts including a 13-yard strike to Jaylon Guyton for a score to put NT up 14-10.
That drive benefitted from two Iowa 15-yard penalties. Both squads went into the second half feeling like there were a lot of opportunities missed. Iowa dominated the second half, controlling the ball for 22 of the 30 minutes. NT punted three straight times before the final INT that sealed things.
The drive of the game was Iowa’s first after the NT punt in the 3rd quarter. Iowa went 76 yards on 14 plays in 6:52 to take the lead. The Hawkeyes converted a 3rd and 3, 3rd and 1, 3rd and 1, and the 4th and 5 to score from 23 yards out. Iowa played that drive like it was for the game, and it essentially was. Once they got up, the game played to their strengths: defense and ball-controll runs.
Following that, NT punted again and Iowa used another monster drive to put the game away. A 16-play, 87-yard drive that consumed 8:50 over two quarters put them up 24-14 and sealed things. Iowa leaned heavily on the run. North Texas made them work for it, but Iowa’s backup backs Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin took turns grinding out first downs.
By then the NT defensive line was gassed, although they made Iowa grind for every yard.
What It Means
There was a lot to appreciate here, and a lot to criticize. Given that NT is in Year Two of the Seth (or Sean?) Littrell project, some room for error is expected. In year two, NT added Guyton, Darden, Nic Smith. They were dangerous all game, and threatened things. As the staff continues to find talented players to fill a roster that had much attrition, NT should have the firepower to challenge in these games a bit more.
Beyond that, we have seen Mason Fine mature. His stat line was unimpressive, but he stood tall and fired some great passes throughout. Through three games he has looked in command of the offense and as league play begins, he should have more opportunities to impress.
The defense played much better than last week, but there were still more open guys running free in the secondary. LaDarius Hamilton, Ulaiasi Tauaalo, Andy Flusche all were impressive.
NT is only slightly behind where they could have been. The loss to SMU was uglier than it should have been, and this loss was a little better-looking. The offense is better than last season’s version, and the defense is still coming together. That is a promising place to be.
The special teams, however, are awful. The punt game was a net negative, the return coverage is average at best, and NT had a field goal blocked. Add this to the two muffed punts from the last two weeks and what used to be a strength is a glaring weakness.
Next Up: UAB
UAB is 2-1 after today’s win over Coastal Carolina. NT should be favored in this one but should not overlook this Blazer team. NT’s offensinve and defensive lines should have the advantage if they play at the same level as these last two weeks.