Bravo Mean Green!
Last week I wrote an article talking about UNT desperately needing a course correction from their offensive brain trust of offensive coordinator Mike Canales and Head Coach Todd Dodge. That offensive brainstrust certainly delivered vs. Florida Atlantic and their head coach Howard Schnellenberger.
54 rushes and 15 passes later UNT had taken their first step to accomplishing their season goal.
Riley Dodge only had to throw 15 passes which protected him from turnovers and potential injury and loosened up FAU's coverage allowing the sophomore to be very effective.
Schnellenberger was very complimentary of UNT's signal caller after the game, saying “(Riley Dodge) is a very educated runner, and a very educated field general....They may be a better team now than they were when they had the other two quarterbacks.”
There is more than a grain of truth in all of that. Riley Dodge is a student of the game, very instinctive, and very accurate, but Dodge is also extremely brittle and has not matured enough as a QB to avoid turnovers. Dodge has thrown an interception every 21 passes in his college career and averaged over a fumble a game in his starts.
This kind of utilization of Riley Dodge allows UNT to profit from his leadership and guts, while avoiding the trouble areas of his game and reducing the odds of a devastating hit on the sophomore as he is passing. A little bit of Riley Dodge is a great thing.
The offense and defense work together
UNT rolled out a tweaked up offense and rammed the ball down Florida Atlantic's throat, eating up 36:29 on the clock and allowing a much fresher UNT defense to avoid much of their usual fatigue induced end of game collapse.
Usually when taking in the fourth quarter of a UNT game, one is reminded of the quote by Vince Lombardi, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
The defense, worn out by the opposing offenses and a very short bench substitution pattern by Defensive coordinator Gary DeLoach, consistently spit the bit late in the first three games this year. This is a continuation of problems the defense had last season holding on to leads late.
Saturday, the Mean Green defense had enough left in the tank to step up. Royce Hill was absolutely every bit the #1 CB UNT has needed for years. While his late INT didn't ice the game, it certainly sent a message to his fellow players that UNT's defense was not going to roll over.
When the game is on the line your big time players need to step up. Hill has been that kind of player this year. He really has lived up to his reputation and been a difference maker this year.
It was a great win. Now the hard part starts. Now UNT has to improve.
Future opponents will see that the run heavy Mean Green offense is a recipe for UNT victory.
Unlike the FAU game where it can be argued the FAU coaching staff was caught unaware by UNT's offensive play changes and tactical changes (the sheer volume of running plays), now film is out there.
Additionally, do not forget that while FAU is a good team and this is a quality win, they have a horrible run defense. FAU was dead last at the FBS level in rushing defense entering the game with 285 yards allowed per game. It seems fairly likely for UNT to match Saturday's effectiveness running the ball against future opponents, they will have to continue to improve their execution.
I have previously noted that James Hamilton looked more effective in the Canales offense than Lance Dunbar. Hamilton showed that in the modified offense vs. FAU.
Hamilton is a much more of an attacking, aggressive runner and a much, much better run finisher than Lance Dunbar, but now there is a good deal of film on him. It is not reasonable to expect him to average anything near the 11 yards a carry he had vs. FAU from here on out.
UNT's coaching staff needs to avoid a kneejerk overreaction to Hamilton's success and Dunbar's mediocre game. I mention it only because stupidly burying a talented, proven back with an entirely different running style would not be unprecedented in the Dodge era.
Dunbar has proven he is a secure ball carrier with heavy carries and is consistently productive. Even if he had a bad game, he moved the ball pretty consistently for most of the game.
We don't really know if ball security would be an issue for the hard running Hamilton if he got 25+ carries a game. UNT doesn't have the cushion to do a lot of experimenting along those lines in the midst of a series of must win games.
These two backs are tremendous compliments. Yesterday FAU was determined to stop Dunbar and focused on playing disciplined ball in attempting to take away cutback lanes. They were totally unready for Hamilton's skillset.
On the same token if a team is overaggressive jumping all over Hamilton in the future, there will be cutback lanes for Dunbar.
More offensive tweaking is needed
Dodge & Canales did a great job with the game plan, but they need to tweak again this week. Dunbar had his worst game of the year. Clearly more tweaking of the sets he runs out of is needed to get him back to where he was last year.
I think UNT will find Dunbar is great with four wide receivers on the field and just pretty good with three.
There is enough talent on this offensive roster that Canales and Dodge can use the passing game to attack a specific weak point on a team each week to compliment the running game. On a run heavy team, the complimentary stuff can stand out and make a coach look really clever.
Finally, UNT really needs to work on a couple of trick plays that have a deep pass thrown by a back or receiver who has a pretty good arm (former high school QB Darius Carey? No idea what his arm is like...) to help cover for Dodge's deficiencies in that area. They should let the defense bite and then hit Stradford or Jackson deep.
With a heavy dose of running, UNT should be able to freeze the defense enough to hit a some big passes.
Defensive oversight is needed
What should not be overlooked in last night's game is that UNT's defense had some problems.
Once more they allowed a score on the first drive.
I think it could make a lot of sense to have UNT plan on kicking off every game so you can prepare the defense to open each game on the field. (Setting that expectation might help them get ready to play, but it could also backfire giving a unit that struggles with fatigue another series.)
The argument for it is that DeLoach can whip them into a frenzy and send them out, rather than seeing them sleepwalk on to the field and not wake up and play some defense until UNT is down 7-0.
(UNT did start this game on defense and still went down 7-0, but I am suggesting planning on it for each game. It is contrary to coaching logic for a coach with an offensive philosophy, but with UNT giving up a score on the first drive every week, it may be the solution to change that reality.)
The defense also had another sleepwalking series in the fourth quarter when UNT moved out to an 11 point lead. UNT's defense again appeared to let off the pedal as if to say, "Wow, good thing we have an 11 point lead so we can catch a breath on this drive."
You cannot do that and win consistently. Even as this defense has improved over the last two years, this loss of focus after good or bad plays by the offense has prevented the defense from approaching the kind of success they are capable of achieving.
With an 11 point lead, they let FAU score in 3 plays. You just can't do that. You have to protect leads. You have to play with focus on every series.
A part of that issue was the defensive line was obviously a little gassed again at that point in the game playing against a physical FAU team. This is a regular issue that has not been addressed yet by the defensive coaching staff. Todd Dodge, the overseer, probably needs to step in.
Really DeLoach needs to solve the backup DT spot. The missing piece to that defensive problem may be Tevinn Cantly.
Cantly was a very solid starting caliber DT last year. He showed up this fall at 336 lbs - over 40 pounds heavier than his playing weight last year. His knees started giving him problems.
How much weight has Cantly lost since then? If Cantly is in usable shape and can give Shavod Atkinson and Kelvin Jackson breaks, that could do a lot to alleviate the defensive falloffs that UNT regularly experiences in the late third and fourth quarters as our starting defensive line wears down.
If Cantly can fill that role, it would free up guys like John Weber and Brandon McCoy to move back to the strong side DE spot. McCoy was very good late in the FAU game as a pass rusher (including a big crunchtime sack on what may have been his only down at DE) and Weber has flashed as a pass rusher all off-season. UNT needs someone who can introduce a bit of a power rush at DE like they had with Eddrick Gilmore last year. KC Obi and Brandon Akpunku could again split the weakside end spot as they did last year, keeping Akpunku fresher for pass rushing situations.
It should be a red flag that after 4 games Akpunku has no sacks. That is the best part of his game. How can anyone argue that this is the best utilization of our #1 pass rusher?
There is mounting evidence that DeLoach and defensive line coach Mike Nelson have repeated the glaring foolish mistake of last year when they had the two best strongside DE prospects on the roster (Eddrick Gilmore and Draylen Ross) sucking at DT rather than excelling at DE. Weber and McCoy are barely used at all by the defensive staff. That is just a stupid misuse of the talent on this roster.
Cantly's weight has created an excuse to allow this coaching decision that kills UNT's depth and causes the UNT DLine to fatigue late in the game to stand.
Ideally, Cantly can start to pick up more plays allowing the movement of players to their natural spots, but if he isn't rounding back into shape, UNT may need to take a hard look at going young for a few series each game. Could Freshman Richard Abbe fill in for Kelvin Jackson and Kyle White (with senior Weber or Jesse DeSoto getting spot play on passing downs) fill in for Atkinson to burn a couple series earlier in the game?
If one of our two defensive anchors is in, UNT should be solid enough to pair him with a young guy for a series or two.
If they can buy our starting defensive tackles a couple series of rest and free up a correction at DE, UNT could look dramatically fresher and stronger stronger at the end of games. That will be needed in the next few weeks.
The defensive staff is not only allowing the defense to wear down with the short rotation and lack of size on the line, they are risking a fatigue fuelled injury.
When a team with a losing mentality scores a win, they often treat it like confirmation they have arrived and follow it up with a weaker showing the next week. That certainly was the case for UNT last season.
Good teams realize that with film out there, they have to fix all the little mistakes and constantly improve to continue to win.
UNT seems to be maturing as a team. Leaders who can make big plays at key moments are clearly emerging, but one game doesn't make a season.
UNT's players will have to play better and eliminate their concentration lapses to beat ULL. The coaches will have to build off their solid showing vs. FAU with an even better game plan for ULL that builds off the teams strengths and better masks its weaknesses.
One can't help but be optimistic that this senior laden team may be figuring it out, but the team's ability to put this win into proper perspective will do a lot to determine how next week's game goes.