The game against UL-Lafayette ended a really bad couple of days for the UNT Mean Green.
Thursday night Josh Rake, a walk-on from Southlake, was injured in a car accident. On Friday he died from his injuries.
In light of that it tragedy, the fact that UNT played a game seems very trivial.
I attended the game in hope that the team would play well, but in the wake of this horrible incident I was not expecting it. Regardless I wanted to be there to be supportive of the kids.
Those kids played their hearts out. You could tell at times that some players' games were just really off. They weren't sharp at all. They committed a lot of uncharacteristic penalties, but across the board those kids played their asses off.
But sometimes it just isn't meant to happen.
For the second week in a row UNT pounded their opponent on the ground to get back into a position to win the game late with clutch plays. Against ULL, UNT drove down the field on a worn-out ULL defense to score a TD with about 30 seconds left in the game. They lined up for the extra point and the kick was blocked.
I know some will say UNT should have gone for two. UNT has a year long history of problems with blocked kicks due to low kicks and crumbling protection and ULL is quite accomplished at blocking them. I briefly thought the same thing in the stands, but if Dodge had run the wildcat and gone for two and been stopped, people would still be calling him a poor coach for not playing the odds.
UNT was killing ULL on offense and the UNT D Line looked fresher than it has looked in a good while and capable of controlling ULL in OT.
Sometimes it just isn't meant to happen.
As a UNT fan I left the game feeling better about this game than any UNT loss in a long time. The players fought hard for four quarters and I felt represented UNT very well. They may have lost the game, but they played like winners and sometimes that is all the cards have for you.
That said, I still have some harsh thoughts on the game - mostly for the coaching staff.
Before we get into those, I have noticed that I am being a lot more critical of the staff this year in my in-season articles. I thought maybe I should tone that down a little - after all they are professionals with years of experience. But ultimately I decided against it.
Do I think I am a great football mind who is right on everything? Certainly not. I am just a fan who knows a little about football.
Unlike the coaches, I am not under the pressure they are. Stress leads to bad decisions. Shared stress often leads to group think. I am part blind squirrel, part stopped clock. Call me Mr. Obvious.
If I point out something that is being overlooked and it seems so obvious after reading it that a lot of fans agree, that specific idea probably gets put to the coaches by the paid media or boosters.
If, when confronted by their own decisions, the coaches don't have a sound argument for their actions, maybe they re-evaluate and reach their own decisions on an appropriate adjustment.
I'll always suggest a direction, but probably most of the time they'll go in an entirely different direction than I advocate. That is fine. The point of mentioning these areas is to try to kill those indefensible ideas fuelled by group think.
Just looking at trouble spots with a fresh view increases the odds of the team winning.
I am a UNT fan, but to be honest, I am more of a fan of these players and coaches. I admire these specific players who could have played anywhere but signed their eligibility over to UNT. I admire Todd Dodge who was probably on track for a CUSA head job or a Big 12 coordinator job. He took this job out of loyalty to the school when we didn't have a new stadium on the way, had a small athletic budget, and only had about a dozen FBS kids who had the talent to start and succeed at the FBS level. And half of them played TE!
These guys have gone out of their way for UNT. Dodge and staff have rebuilt the talent to a point where this team can compete in the Sun belt. The players have worked hard to become good FBS players.
I want to see these guys win as many games as they can THIS year.
I may kick the coaches repeatedly, but only in areas where it could help the players win and help the coaches to keep their jobs. I take some pride that I am not the guy sitting in the stands bitching incessantly and pointlessly about "high school coaches" and other non-productive venting.
I want these guys to win out. If I can write one sentence that starts a progression that gets the coaching staff to look at their weaker decisions.If that ends up getting this team even one more win, it is worth it.
If I can bring up something a coach, a player, or even players may see but might not want to ask for fear of repercussions, It seems to me like everyone wins.
Anyway back to the game.
A tremendous game to watch
I think Mean Green fans who missed the ULL game really missed something. The attendance was not great at just over 17,000 reported, but after years of watching UNT under Dodge get it's teeth kicked in by every Tom, Dick, and Harry, I have loved watching this UNT team deliver some physical beat down.
It looks like UNT has begun to find their Identity and it is as a smash mouth offensive team partnered with a somewhat solid defense. As a Texan, I approve.
The offense appears to be gaining some confidence. Towards the end of the game our third team center Aaron Fortenberry had a brief crises of confidence earning two false starts in a row. I think he had three for the game. There was a lot of talk that ULL was faking the snap count. Considering Dunbar's reactions during the game there may be some truth to that.
The ref with the microphone actually started to giggle a little in disbelief as he made the second call in a row. Fortenberry shook it off and the team shook it off to drive down in for the score.
It was as if he said, "Yeah, screw it. I am not the greatest deep snapper yet. I may have blown a snap that lead to 7 points, but I am still a very good blocker and we will get those yards." And they did. It was a moment of real maturity and focus from the offense. It was great to see.
Do not count this season over. A tough mentality is a real key in football. UNT appears to be developing that after not having it throughout the Dodge run.
If you have that, you can improve every game. That toughness and resiliency, a powerful running game, and a good defense are ingredients that make upsets possible.
The night had a lot of highlights.
Riley Dodge was very good.
UNT ran a heck of a lot out of the wildcat with Dunbar taking the snaps in short yardage. Let me tell you. That was absolutely a joy to watch.
Brandon McCoy played a huge chunk of the game at the strong side DE spot with Demario Dixon backing up. I thought they both played quite well vs. the run.
Which brings us to the defense
I left with a lot of questions.
I wasn't sure if the McCoy move was a strategic move or if KC Obi was injured somehow. I want to say I saw Obi playing a bit at weak side DE, but that I saw Akpunku still played the majority of plays there. The stats show ULL ran 66 plays. I'd guess Akpunku probably played about 50 of them.
If it was strategy, I think it was a partial success. You got solid play out of your starting and backup DEs at both spots vs. the run and the ends did not appear to wear down late vs. the run.
It was good and bad though.
I still think Akpunku is playing too many plays and that is hurting his pass rush, but that said, he had a nice pressure late at a key moment. And on the last ULL TD pass, he missed sacking that ULL QB Masson by a second. I still question not keeping your best pass rusher fresh for long yardage situations.
I think it is a major credit to Akpunku that there is no longer debate about cutting his plays because he struggles badly vs. the run. He's pretty solid in that regard as a weak side DE. Now the argument is strictly that a reduced play count might allow him - the team's best pass rusher - to be more effective rushing the QB.
I thought the defense had a lot more gas in the tank late, but Shavod Atkinson and Kelvin Jackson still played almost the whole game. Those guys have been the glue holding this defense together. Todd Dodge has to figure out a way to get them some rest.
The Ragin Cajuns lost their only real rushing threat in RB Kevis Streeter what seemed like about five minutes into the game. Their coaching staff quickly abandoned the run and went after UNT's back seven.
Was fatigue an issue in the back seven this week? I can't say. It may just have been a bad game brought on by the awful circumstances of the previous 48 hours.
Defensive Coordinator Gary DeLoach seemed to struggle coming up with an answer for ULL's passing game plan.
UNT was good against the run against a team with no running game and bad against the pass. Really the UNT defense struggled to stop the ULL passing attack until the UNT offense took over in the fourth quarter and controlled the ball cooling down the ULL offense.
That I could see Craig Robertson, Jeremy Phillips, and AJ Penson played most of the game at linebacker. Although Zach Orr saw some time at MLB.
Craig Robertson is a lot better player this year than he was last year. He is usually very strong vs. the run. Occasionally he blows a tackle but overall he has played like the team's best linebacker this year. He does seem to be only OK in coverage though. Could he be a threat as a pass rusher? Who can say?
Jeremy Phillips has superstar instincts, but his game from play to play is still very hit or miss. He may blow a tackle or get burned on coverage and then come back the next play to make a big play. The last two weeks opponents have exposed him a little vs. the pass. He always seems a couple steps late. There were several times only a mis-thrown pass saved him. I have no doubt Phillips will figure it out and become a star by the time his career is over, but it appears to be an issue at the moment.
Finally Penson is just not a plus in passing situations. He's a good run stuffer. That is his game. It is curious that Zach Orr isn't usually on the field on third and long.
I don't want to hammer on the starters too much because they were great vs. the run vs. ULL, but they are not a great trio vs. the pass. It raises the question with ULL not having a running game and reliant entirely on their passing game, where was Brad Graham?
Which gets to the heart of my major complaint with DeLoach. DeLoach has good schemes and has proven he is still a competent defensive coordinator, but is he still the great one he used to be or has that moment passed? This unit is solid, but I keep waiting for them to take the next step and more and more it appears the limiting factor on how good this defense can be may actually be DeLoach.
He clearly can communicate his vision to his players. He can bark at them and get their attention and demand their focus at times, but this was another game where DeLoach curiously squirreling away players with specific unique talents probably cost the team.
It reminds me of watching a grandmother hiding food all over her house in case of some hugely unlikely disaster and then forgetting where she put it all. It is very disturbing. It needs to stop.
Graham, a former NJCAA Defensive Player of the Year at linebacker, is a guy who forced his way into the linebacker rotation early this season due to his ability to cover ground and his great instincts and timing vs. the pass. He is absolutely dynamite at reading a quarterbacks' eyes and can cover. He was splitting time at linebacker before we lost safety DaWaylon Cook.
He made a great play breaking up a pass in the end zone vs. Rice that few other players on this roster would make.
If a game ever screamed for Graham it was this one.
Q: Why did he not work heavily into the linebacker rotation vs. ULL?
A: Because we need a backup safety on the bench in case of injury.
This thought process is killing UNT just as much as special teams. You can't bury guys with specific rare skill sets to protect "rare scenario" depth.
Graham is a three-star recruit who was challenging for a starting linebacker job before the Cook injury occurred. Now he is on the bench while our linebackers are being picked apart vs. the pass?
Does that make any sense?
LB Forlando Johnson has an unbelievable first step moving forward. He moves like he is shot out of a gun. In the fall and in the weeks prior to the first game he was mentioned as a possible starter, but now this three-star recruit isn't really in the DeLoach rotation either? On a team with no pass rush?
John Weber must be the worst person to ever step foot on UNT's campus. He must sit in the film sessions with an ipod on listening to music and looking up porn on his laptop. He must show up to practice with a beer in one hand. He must flip the bird at Gary DeLoach each time the team is supposed to do conditioning. He must have felonies against him in every state and be on the national no fly list.
Otherwise I really don't understand how this coaching staff can see a 6-3, 275+ lb DE/DT with 4.85 speed on the bench game after game and not give him a shot rushing the passer. It is not like the guy has no pedigree. He had 8.5 sacks at DE in his last JUCO year and was rated as a 5.4 prospect out of 6.1 by rivals.
Unlike all the other DE's DeLoach has tried at DT, I can buy John Weber there. He flashed a lot of pass rushing ability and looked comfortable at DT when I saw him. I can't wrap my head around why he would not be given a shot as a spot rusher at DT at least with this team's inability to generate a pass rush.
He may be a lazy dude who hasn't earned a starting job...So don't start him!
The bottom line is you need someone who can disrupt a pocket. A 6'3' 285 lb guy with 4.85 speed and a history as a pass rusher is not a bad place to start. He seems very well suited for the DE spot in the 3/4 defense the team runs on occasion or an occasional spot guy for one of the DTs. Why not give him 10 passing situation plays and see what he can do?
Why does Weber remain glued to the bench when it is apparent that UNT has a lot of guys who can be complimentary pass rushers - guys who get close to the QB with an arm out. But no one who can actually disrupt the pocket like Eddrick Gilmore did last year and force the QB out of the pocket into his teammate's clutches.
You need to rest the big two anyway. So why not try Weber?
I am not advocating these guys be given a starting job that they haven't earned, but each of these guys have totally unique skill sets that others on this defense do not have. Not playing them at all seems to me to be capping what the UNT defense can accomplish.
That I have seen, D'Leon McCord has not shown a great deal of pass coverage ability so far, although he is, to his credit, a smart player who will reliably get his man down quickly after the catch and will bravely fill vs. the run. He has been attacked most weeks.
John Shorter is a solid starting caliber player in my book, but he is also better at bringing guys down than breaking up passes or making interceptions.
Why not work some guys in passing situations in who are better at playing the ball?
This back seven is great vs. the run, but kind of vulnerable to the pass. One of the great appeals of this defense is the fact they have good depth of talent and players with differing skill sets on the bench. This team should never tire out. It should be able to excel vs. a variety of offenses. DeLoach just isn't using that depth.
Not playing at all has to be immensely frustrating for JUCO stars like Johnson and Graham. They were being told they were doing well and challenging for starting jobs heading into the season. These are proven playmakers who bucked a lot of advice to play for DeLoach and try to help a struggling UNT get over the hump. Now Deloach is effectively telling them they aren't even good enough to give UNT's starters a breather?
After ULL RB Streeter went down and ULL went up 14-0 this game screamed for some defensive scheme changes and really at least a few personnel adjustments.
The 3-4 is another problem area. The utilization of the 3-4 scheme seems pretty useless today.
3-4 advocates talk about how that defense confuses the offense because they don't know who will be coming at them. DeLoach clearly buys into that, but how much value do you really get out of having Brandon Akpunku - the team's best pass rusher - or KC Obi drifting out into coverage on passing downs? Neither one can cover anyone faster than an offensive lineman, so what are you really gaining there?
In theory DeLoach has the talent to throw out a very hard rush at an opponent from a 3/4 set. Sliding a Atkinson out to DE opens the door to having Akpunku coming off the edge with only a back to beat. On the one play where the 3/4 seemed to be used properly, Apunku came off the end and was about a second away from nailing ULL QB Mason for a sack.
If you look at the roster, you could bring in Weber for Atkinson or McCoy at a 3-4 end spot, have Akpunku rushing from one OLB spot in with Zach Orr, Johnson, and Gordon. Gordon provides coverage. The lightning quick Johnson could be quite effective blitzing as could the physical Orr. Orr had 24 TFL and 11 sacks as a high school junior.
A scenario like this could optimally utilize players on the roster with the unique skill sets to stop the pass, reduce any feelings of alienation they may have, give them some ownership of an aspect of the team's play, and give the starters a breather.
If you are going to use the 3-4 the questions should be "will UNT bring four, five, or six players?" or "Where will Akpunku be coming from?", not "Do we have to worry about Akpunku or not?"
Senior CB Robbie Gordon eventually got on the field late in the fourth quarter when McCord ran off with a bit of a hobble. Why is Gordon not playing more at CB? UNT's pass coverage is not great at this point and teams are passing heavily on UNT. No one has done it in practice, it is time to see if you have anyone on the roster who can step up and take a starting job with on the field play. Gordon is probably the only backup CB with the skills to potentially do that. Will Wright, a freshman backup safety, did collect nine interceptions playing cornerback his senior year in high school on a good defense. He could emerge as another option at CB.
Why not see if Ryan Downing or Will Wright can be the center fielder you need vs. passing schemes or in passing situations. At some point UNT needs to start making plays on these balls.
There were a lot of passes that could have been broken up or intercepted, but it seemed like the entire back seven had bad games. Even Royce Hill who has been dynamite recently had what looked to me to be a very poor game. He appeared to have a fair amount of blown coverages and a good deal of penalties.
...Were again a problem for UNT. The blocked PAT was obviously the play that decided that game, but there were a lot of other issues on special teams.
Kickoff coverage was strong and the punting unit looked pretty good, but the amount of penalties on special teams was unacceptable.
Brelan Chancellor was dynamite as a kick returner. For the first time in the Dodge era UNT has a kick returner who looks comfortable back there, seems to know what he is doing, and is high end, TD scoring dangerous. ULL started to squib kick away from him as the game progressed. He was partnered with the unspectacular but competent James Hamilton.
I wish I could say Darius Carey is the equal to Chancellor as a punt returner, but he just isn't. He is a very smart and cautious punt returner though, and there is something to be said for that. Carey rarely returns a punt, but he seems to usually make a safe call on punt returns. On a team where special teams are frequently the source of momentum changing big negative plays, you can probably live with that.
UNT blocked a FG. From my seat I thought the huge - and hugely underrated - Kelvin Jackson blocked it by collapsing the middle of the line, but Brett Vito credited it to Brandon McCoy. Jacskon is quite a good player.
It can easily be argued that Shelton Gandy's special teams units have now cost UNT two wins this year. I would say there is still a compelling argument to reassign the FG/PAT unit at least to a coach who has run successful special teams at the collegiate level - Gary DeLoach.
The Offense was very solid
My critical notes about the offense this week are very limited. There were a couple of series where Mike Canales fell in love with the horizontal game (sideline throws) too much, but in general he used that pretty effectively as a change of pace to spread the defense wide, opening space in the middle for Dunbar to operate. I think an argument can be made there was a little too much throwing overall and not enough passes to Dunbar who is a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield, but I thought Canales called a great game.
The Dunbar Wildcat was absolutely great to watch. I like the fact Canales and Dodge are really working on ways to get Dunbar more chances to attack out of different looks. I love the fact that both appear to have learned their lesson about not giving him the ball.
Dunbar and Riley Dodge carried the offense tonight and that is IMO a sign of some good offensive coaching against ULL.
There were a lot of penalties on the offensive line, but again the realities of the past few days may have played a role. While they weren't dominant, they did own the clock and did not show the trepidation they had shown earlier this year. They looked very cool and competent.
Jamaal Jackson struggled again. One of ULL's big plays was off a ball thrown to Jackson that he tipped up into the air. Jackson's confidence and concentration appears a little shot. I think it would make a world of sense to get him back on kick returns to recharge his confidence.
Why not force teams all game long to make the tough decision of kicking to Jackson or Chancellor? Two guys who are a threat to go all the way or squib kick it to us for great field position? Just remember to tell those up field guys to fall on the ball and just take the good field position. After watching the up field guys trying to handle those squib kicks, that does seem destined to be the next horrific special teams breakdown.
BJ Lewis looked solid. Alex Lott had a nice TD play. Those two could eat some plays for Jackson (and the injured Tyler Stradford) at WR. Maybe you have Carey, Lewis, and Jackson run off the safeties deep from time to time opening the middle of the field for a pass to Dunbar.
Fortenberry had a couple of high snaps and false start penalties. Those were glaring mistakes for some fans in a close loss and probably open the door for more second guessing of the coaching staff over not moving former all conference center Kelvin Drake back to center.
That said, I thought Fortenberry did not look like a weak link out there. You can make the argument that if Lance Dunbar jumps on the loose ball from one of the high snaps rather than fumbling around trying to pick it up and advance it, ULL might not have recovered the ball and those seven points might not have happened. (I am not trying to throw Dunbar under the bus though - he played a dominant game and saved the other high snap with his good hands.)
Riley Dodge played a great game - most of it with a broken wrist. I remember one play in particular where Riley took a big shot and got up stiffly . He was stretching in the huddle looking to all the world like a guy who could barely stay in the game, and then the very next play he kept the ball on what may have been his best run of the night for a first down inside the 20.
It was a player emerging kind of moment. We saw a little of the clever magician who carried Southlake to all those wins.
It was a tremendous showcase of guts and resiliency for the whole team, really. If they continue to try to work through the mistakes and continue to play with this kind of focus, they will win some more games.
With all the mistakes, the team never quit and almost came back to rip this game away from ULL. As a fan I love the toughness and can't wait for the next game.