North Texas-Arkansas State: Mean Green Fall Short after Brutal Start

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North Texas-Arkansas State: Mean Green Fall Short after Brutal Start
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dang.

This was a tough game to watch.

UNT needed a decent start to help out sophomore QB Chase Baine in his first collegiate start.

WR Jamaal Jackson fumbled on the opening play of the game, handing the ball to Arkansas State at the UNT 21-yard line.

A fumble outside the 20 is not a guaranteed TD like a fumble inside say the 5-yard line would be, but as a lot of people around Denton know UNT's defense has allowed an opening-drive TD every game this year.  Six straight games with an opening-drive TD should be embarrassing to any defense.  It makes you scratch your head.  Why is this team never ready to stop anyone at the start of the game, but they play pretty well after that?

It would be great to see the defense challenge themselves to hold an opponent scoreless in the first half or at least the first quarter or at least focus on not giving up TDs, so the offense isn't playing catch-up all game long and the whole team can develop a little more confidence.  You don't get that playing from behind all game every game.

UNT's defense was once again flat coming out of the gate, continuing its tradition of digging the team into an early hole.

Maybe you can blame part of that lack of passion on a small turnout and a late-arriving crowd  (I personally would guess that while there were about 15,000 in attendance, only about 7,000 were in the stands at the start of the game) and part of it on the horrible design of Fouts Field which pushes fans away from the game making for a dispassionate and uninvolved crowd.

(How's this for a fundraiser for the new stadium?  Give me a sledge hammer and goggles and five minute in Fouts.  Some fans might have warm memories and want a chunk of the stadium to keep.  I'd give serious thought to plunking down as much as a C note for a chance to vent my hostility on that place. Worst stadium I can recall.)

Still Coordinators and coaches have to get their players ready to play.

Arkansas State QB Aplin escaped a pair of tacklers on a scramble on a 3rd-and-13 to put ASU up 7-0.

 

On the Positive Side, Chase Baine Doesn't Suck

Baine, UNT's fourth-string QB, responded by taking the team down the field into scoring territory for a FG.

Baine played a very strong game in his first start.  When you have a center who has had problems with high snaps, coaches often tell him to snap low so they know the QB will have a decent shot at the snap. That requires the QB to maintain very good concentration.  All night Baine adeptly handled a hell of a lot of snaps that arrived at shin level and transitioned them seamlessly into effective offensive plays. It must be a great comfort for Aaron Fortenberry that Baine has the hands to allow Fortenberry to not worry about the snap and just play his game.

Baine's running was a pretty good complement to the less physical nature of Lance Dunbar.  Additionally Baine made the right reads on running plays throughout the night.  He executed the run offense quite well.

The passing game was more of a struggle.  Early on in the game it was pretty apparent that Baine was not used to the speed of the game and had some difficulty making the reads quickly enough and getting the ball out. 

Picking out a receiver in traffic is not his game yet.  Especially in the middle of the field where defenders are floating in each direction.  Early on and to a lesser degree throughout the night, Baine seems slow to find his receiver in traffic.  Really, it wasn't that surprising for a backup playing in his first start with only a week of snaps to his name. To his credit, he played within himself and if he missed the moment he would check down to a back, run, or buy some time to find a guy who worked open late.

As the game progressed Canales made some adjustments in pass-calling that helped Baine out a lot, but early on the passing plays were not optimal for Baine in his first start.

 

UNT Hit a FG?  It Wasn't Blocked?

UNT hit four field goals actually.  No blocks.

When I arrived at the stadium I was pleased to see highly-prized freshman kicker Zack Olen getting the FG work.  My take was that the staff probably realized that the issues that were causing penetration in the middle of the line weren't going to get fixed and so they went with Olen who is well known for having kicks that ascend quicker than most kickers.

(Olen was in line for the kicking job entering the year, but had a bad end to the preseason missing FGs and even extra points that cost him the kicking job.)

Olen is 5'9", 206 lbs.  He is a little, stumpy, short-legged, thick-bodied guy who looks like a guard on a high school team...With the exception of his yellow shoes.  I guess his short legs make the trajectory on the kicks better.  Or it is the shoes?

The last blocked kick at the end of the ULL game was clearly an unfortunately low kick, but the issues with blocked kicks over the last year have not been strictly kicker issues.

Getting a FG blocked is a groin punch to the team.  Missing a FG is merely disappointing.  As I sat watching him prepare for the game, the change would have seemed very sensible even if he had not been kicking as well as he was in the warm-ups.

After the game Dodge commented that Olen had kicked well in practice.  Considering how competently he kicked on Saturday that was probably not just coach speak.

 

Curious Defensive Changes

Ryan Downing played most of the game as the deep safety/clean-up guy.  He was a little more instinctive than John Shorter in that role, but he missed some tackles and didn't really make any plays on the ball.  His play hinted to a fair amount of rust and that he might be able to play at a higher level in the future.

I may have been a little disappointed in his feel for the passing game, his overall ability to fill and make tackles, and what I saw of his ability to play center field, but he generally did what you want your last line of defense to do and despite the fact that he is no physical banger, he did force a fumble on a kickoff return and caused a second while playing that deep help safety role.  That is productivity and playmaking that frankly the team has needed.

Curiously, I do not remember seeing No. 8 Ira Smith in the game.  Was he injured?  Was he playing some CB?  Did I just miss him?  Sigh...Is he in someone's doghouse?  Is he in the mix as a backup DT?  (Just figured I should cover all the likely bases...)

I shouldn't be that harsh on the defensive staff.  Smith apparently played a little.  Who knows, maybe they are transitioning him to CB or something and that is why I missed him.  Maybe I was looking for him at the wrong position.

It is disappointing that he did not play more.  Smith does get burned from time to time, but his 4.4 speed does present itself in those situations.  He has excellent recovery speed—by far the best on the team.  And he plays with some fire.

I saw Graham in the first half playing what I took to be Smith's safety spot with John Shorter in relief.  I don't think Graham played any linebacker, but it is possible he did.  Against ASU's offense, UNT linebackers were stepped off in a coverage position at the snap like the safeties for much of the game.  Still I didn't see Smith on the field and I did note Downing and Phillips on the field with Graham which suggests Graham was at safety.

I thought Graham had good and bad moments.  He made some nice plays, but was noteworthy on the next two TDs.

On the passing TD, Graham was close to the sideline, saw something inside and took off like a shot to get there.  A second later Aplin hit a receiver in the end zone who was working his way out to just beyond where Graham had been.  Did he blow responsibility?  Who knows...it looked like potentially he may have, but without the benefit of film I can't say anything beyond it didn't look good from the stands.

On the TD run, Graham got to the QB right before Aplin scored but didn't have good position to take him down so he went for the strip.  It didn't work, but I thought it was a good try and a smart play.

I thought Graham again flashed good skills, but I think he is a good coverage OLB and an average coverage safety.  Like Downing you can see there is a knack for playmaking in his game.

DE Brandon McCoy was another curious scratch.  (After the game it was revealed that McCoy had gotten crossed with defensive line coach Mike Nelson.  McCoy's lack of minutes was a one game disciplinary punishment.) 

Defensive Coordinator Gary DeLoach and Nelson went with KC Obi and Brandon Akpunku as the starters at DE with DeMario Dixon and Frank Gaines backing up each spot.  

That mix has some problems. McCoy is able to play a physical game at the strong side DE against the run for longer than OBI can.  Gaines is more of a pass rushing specialist and a liability vs. the run at this point in his career. Obi is obviously far superior to Gaines as a weak side run stuffer.

That hurt the run defense.  Plus Arkansas State has a much better running game the ULL did the previous week (without Kevis Streeter) and ASU runs a fast tempo offense, so UNT defenders could not be used situationally, compounding the issue.  UNT had to roll with Gaines for a series here and there.

I was of course disappointed that CB Robbie Gordon and DE/DT John Weber didn't see more time.  Gordon is the team's best ballhawk.  Weber has shown enough to suggest he may be one of the team's better pass rushers.  Neither one appeared to be in the rotation.  I would have liked to see a little of freshman CB turned safety Will Wright on the field as well.  He is another ballhawk.

That I could tell, our starting CBs, DTs and OLBs played almost the entire game.  AJ Penson and Zack Orr split time at MLB.

That still gets you to about 15 players in the defensive rotation. To me, that is crazy.  One of the basic truths of the Sun Belt is that few teams are capable of recruiting quality talent in depth, especially on defense. 

Potentially all Sun Belt teams are capable of wearing down late on defense like UNT did all the time last year and has often this year.

This year, UNT is an exception to this talent rule.  There is legitimately two deep defensive talent at almost every spot capable of playing well at the FBS level today.   All season long the defensive staff has trotted out 15 or so players each game due to issues like violations of team rules, positional changes, or (viewed non-charitably) perhaps due to bullheadedness or not effectively using the talent on hand.

UNT's defensive coaches have largely squandered this depth advantage.  That is disappointing.

It has been masked a good deal as the UNT offense has controlled the ball for 34:06 per game—tops in the Sun Belt—and constantly put the defense in pretty good position, but the bottom line is the defense is merely good, when they probably should be better than that.

You could see it in this game.

At the end of the game Craig Robertson blew a tackle that lead to a nine yard gain that effectively salted the game away.  (I don't want to bash on him too much, because he had a really good game overall.) Was that fatigue?  It is hard so say.  Robertson has been UNT's best linebacker all year, but every game he seems to blow 2-4 tackles and give up a big first down or a TD.  I wonder if he is trying to hard to make "big plays" or is he overworked?  

On the play, he missed a tackle at the LOS (or possibly a little behind) and the runner gained nine yards.  Is he trying too hard for the big play and that is costing him form on his tackles? Is he attacking too much and as such is putting himself in the wrong position to break down for the tackle—essentially overrunning the plays? Or is it just fatigue that has him in poor tackling form or is tackling just a weak point in his game?

I think he'd do well to look at his game and try to figure out how to improve his tackling.  He's been a very good player this year, but there is a star level he could take his game to if his tackling form improved.  (I'd like to see him blitzed a little more too..)

Coverage was an issue with the same players who have been targeted continuing to be targeted.

Kelvin Jackson had another very good, gutsy game recording a sack in the third and generating a good push, but both of the team's defensive tackles were not as much of a factor in the fourth quarter.  I think they wore down a little.

In the fourth quarter it seemed like there were moments where the team could not generate any pass rush at all.

It seems like this team rarely has any gas left in the tank for late stops.  On a team with good depth and an offense good at controlling the clock, that should not be the case.

One can argue that early on it might have been a positive to play the starters a lot to develop an identity.  Even if you buy that argument, the season is at its halfway point and fatigue is an issue on every team. 

You know your starters can give you 20 good minutes a game.  What do you do for the other 3-8 minutes?  Do you use your depth to keep your starters fresh for crunch time, or do you use run your starters ragged and risk late collapses?

It is just disappointing that UNT is not taking advantage of every opportunity its talent allows.

 

Which Brings Us to Jamaal Jackson

Jamaal Jackson is quietly having a lousy year. Last year he caught 70 passes for 701 yards with six TD receptions.  This year the senior has 22 catches for 275 yards and one TD through half the season.

He is averaging less than four catches and 46 yards a game.  He is still getting a lot of passes thrown his way, but he is dropping a fair number of passes, tipping them into the air, and fumbling.

He is one of UNT's big time performers.  Just like with Lance Dunbar, the offensive coaches need to figure out a way to get more yards and TDs out of UNT's fastest standing receiver.

Jackson struggles on many kinds of routes, but is very strong on routes were he can rely on his speed rather than using change of direction to get open.  If he is running anywhere near full speed in something of a straight line, there is a pretty good chance that not only will Jackson catch the ball, but he will also make something happen with it.

I think the change in QBs makes for a very natural evolution of offensive strategy.   With Riley Dodge in at QB, the philosophy was to flood the flats with receivers and let Riley Dodge pick the defense apart with his knowledge of the game and great accuracy.

With Chase Baine in there, early on in his starting career, the idea should be to keep the reads easy for him, include occasional deep passes, and avoid pass routes that create opportunities for him to throw into traffic in the middle of the field. (More on this in a second.)

An optimal usage of Jackson in this offense today (especially with Tyler Stradford out) is as an isolated deep threat stretching the field.  Those are easier passes for small shifty guys to adjust to and Jackson can use his speed and acceleration to get to passes that are slightly short or long.  

Additionally If he drops or tips a pass on those plays vs. likely single coverage, the odds of negative ramifications are much smaller. 

Alex Lott, Breece Johnson, and BJ Lewis are much more reliable underneath receivers for those instances where the team may decide they need a 4-8 yard pass.

There is also the kick return situation.

Partnering Jackson and Brelan Chancellor on the return team would be very smart.  Chancellor gets how the position works and would be a coach on the field—an excellent voice talking to Jackson who is more of a raw return talent.

Chancellor could play the up return role, putting him 10-plus yards closer to any short or squib kicks if teams try to kick away from Jackson.  Chancellor has good hands and has a great understanding of how to return a kick (even if he sometimes holds the ball like a loaf of bread on returns).

Jackson averaged 27.2 yards per kick return in the few games he returned kicks last year (second best in the Sun Belt) and was a threat to go all the way every time he touched the ball.  He has only returned six kicks this year.

Kick returns play to Jackson's strengths as with his 4.4 speed he reaches the return team a half second before they expect to see a returner.  Jackson naturally makes the kind of minor cut that is so devastatingly effective on returns and doesn't create blocking in the back penalties.  He is one of the rare players who can make those kinds of cuts at full speed.

There is very little risk to this.  Jackson may have occasional concentration lapses catching the ball, but as a deep returner, if you bobble it, you can generally down it in the end zone for a touch back. Fumbling is not a generally an issue with Jackson.

With apologies to all of the kick returners UNT has trotted out this year, none of them are equal threats to take it all the way on every return.  Jackson is a rare threat.  And even if he doesn't break a TD run, his stats are just as good as the more consistent Chancellor, so why not put it to UNT's opposition on kick returns?

Do Mean Green opponents kick to Jackson and risk the big TD run?  Do they kick it shorter and risk Chancellor breaking a fairly big run?  Do they kick it short and have UNT cover the ball and start at maybe the 40 or do they kick it out of bounds and take the penalty?

UNT has the talent to be a devastating kick return team.  Getting those added yards would help offense score and give the defense more space to work.

UNT needs to make adjustments to put Jackson in an optimal position to pick up yards and break TD runs.

 

Chase Baine Needs the Offense Further Tweaked for His Skills

I thought one of the more encouraging things about this game is that Canales and Todd Dodge seemed to tailor the passing game more for Chase Baine as the game went on.

On several passing plays in the game (especially early on) Baine sat in the pocket looking at the receivers for a very long time.  It seemed pretty clear that Baine was looking at the receivers and not seeing them open.  They probably were open, but Baine is just not used to tighter FBS coverage.

Rather than chance a situation in which he was not comfortable, Baine held on to the ball, wisely used his feet to buy time, and either ran for good yards, found a back or a receiver on a broken route, or if he was in trouble threw it away.

With more reps Baine will be able to see the field better and get those passes off to the right receivers at the right time in the flow of the offensive play, but today it makes much more sense to limit his passes.  Dunbar can get you a consistent  3-5 yards on an outside run. Baine can get you six yards on a delayed bootleg, so there is no reason to have him trying to put a short pass into the scrum in the middle or have him hit a receiver on the 2-3 yard sideline pass play that suited Riley Dodge.

Efficiency in his pass count will keep him away from turnovers and will keep him confident.

I was encourage that the coaches recognized the situation and as the game progressed called a number of plays that were much more suited to his current development.

Rather than having him trying to pick out a receiver out of a pack over the middle, where defensive players can suddenly appear out of nowhere from either direction, they had a couple of plays where they rolled Baine out to the wide side of the field and let him pick a receiver with all receivers and defensive players moving in the same general direction.  That is a lot easier to read and much more in his comfort zone.

When they passed over the middle the plays were a little better later in the game.  There was one play where the coaching staff sent two receivers deep over the middle to clear things out allowing Baine to hit Jackson in full stride crossing the middle of the field for a very catchable pass.  That went for 31 yards and set up the FG to get the game to 21-16.

On a 2nd-and-4 in the second half, the offensive staff appeared to isolate Jackson on the sideline sending him deep with no other receivers anywhere around.  I thought it was a great play utilizing both player's skill sets, but the pass from Baine fell a little short to the inside. I thought the problem appeared to be that Baine and the center of the line was a little too close to the center of the field.  If they had run that with the ball being snapped at the hash, I think they would have had the missing distance on Baine's pass to complete that play.  I'd love to see that play a few times this week.  I think plays like that are pretty safe and stretch the field vertically opening space for Dunbar and Baine to run underneath.

Overall, I don't think you can expect more heady play from a QB in his first start that Chase Baine delivered. Now he needs to keep playing within himself while improving his ability to read and deliver the ball in a timely fashion.  That is tough to do.  We will see how it goes.

 

The Wildcat Play That Didn't Quite Happen

The game came down to a play out of a Wildcat set.  It was awesomely designed and set up.

It was 2nd-and-9 at the 28.  Baine rolled over to a wide receiver spot.  The stadium seemed to gasp as instead of Dunbar, there was former high school QB Darius Carey taking the snap.  Lance Dunbar went in motion hauling across behind the line.  The ball was snapped...and then a whistle blew as Carey faked the hand-off to a full speed Dunbar who was charging wide.

The play was called dead and due to a false start, pushing the team back to a 2nd-and-14 as the 33.  With a passing offense still under development, UNT couldn't get anything going from that hole.

It was a neat looking play.  State hadn't see anything like it all night.  I am guessing Carey was going to get the ball to Jackson.

On the post game show Dodge referred to that play as their shot to win the game.

It is a shame we didn't see it executed.

 

Final Thoughts

This was another game where I found myself disappointed in the defense. That is certainly contrary to most sentiment around, but I don't think this defense is all that much better than the defense that played the last month of last season.

This defense is giving up 26.7 points per game.  That defense gave up 28.75 points per game in the last month of the season.

You can look at the players individually and see improvement.  KC Obi and Brandon Akpunku are clearly better run defenders this year.  Craig Robertson and Royce Hill are consistently playing up to their reputations, something I questioned last year. AJ Penson is a strong player vs. the run and Kelvin Jackson and Shavod Atkinson—two part time guys for much of last year—play almost every play of every game and so far (IMO) appear to be the best pair of defensive tackles in the Sun Belt.

The depth is dramatically better and more talented on this defense than last years'.

But that is talent.  Coaching and player leadership are also big parts of the equation.

I've hammered UNT defensive coordinator Gary DeLoach and defensive line coach Mike Nelson all year about not using the talent they have on hand, but there is also a player part of the equation.

Brandon McCoy is one guy the team reportedly looks to for leadership.  The idea that he broke a rule or rules and created a scenario that the coaches felt was severe enough to take him out of the starting lineup says a lot as does this quite innocent quote from another defensive team leader, Brandon Akpunku, the fiery heart of the defense.

“Once we started making plays, it was a routine for us to make something happen...We thought that eventually our offense would make a play.”

It is this waiting for others that gets to the heart of it.

As the old Ben Franklin quote goes "We must hang together, or surely we shall hang separately."

There is an individual responsibility players have to their unit and their team.

If the Ravens waited around for Trent Dilfer to carry them to victory each week, they would have never won an NFL championship.  Their leaders stepped up and pulled the defense together.  There was no waiting. 

That defense decided their role was to hold their opponents under what they knew their offense could score and to put their offense into good position on every drive.  (That Raven's team was a bit of an oddity as they had a lot of guys on defense with the ability to score defensive TDs.  They also generated points. Most top defenses do not, but still win games by shutting down the opposition and generating possessions for their offense via punts or turnovers.)

Good defenses eventually take the reigns and carry their team to victory each week.  Leaders on good defenses demand that their units elevate their game and those leaders coax that higher level of play out of their teammates.

They focus in and stop blowing tackles. When they get beaten they get their guy down and regain their focus for the next play.

UNT has the talent to be that kind of defense, but (IMO) they are still thinking like last year's unit—waiting for the offense to win shootouts.

UNT's offense is competent—the defense doesn't have to try to return fumbles for yardage or anything risky like that—but UNT's defense needs to mentally take ownership of the win loss column rather than leaving that for the offense.  After all the defense has a lot fewer injuries to work around than the offense.

If you compare Arkansas State and UNT's defenses you can see this a little more clearly.  UNT has far better starting talent and far better depth, but Arkansas State ramps up their play in the red zone.  State is first in the Sun Belt giving up only 11 TDs on 28 trips by their opponent into the red zone. That is 39 percent.  Almost two-thirds of the time State rises up and prevents an opponent in their red zone from scoring a TD.

UNT on the flip side has given up 12 on 21 trips (57 percent).  Yes, as a UNT defensive player you can take pride that UNT is the second best team in the sun belt at stopping third down conversions (only a 35.8 percent success rate against UNT) and allows fewer drives to reach the red zone, but it does suggest that UNT rolls over a little due to lack of focus or exhaustion if an opponent gets there.  It does suggest a lack of on the field leadership demanding more from the unit when they are tired at the end of a long drive.  It does suggest a lack of toughness.

Those are things good defenses don't want people saying about them.

This team would be .500 today if one TD scored against this defense each game could have been a FG instead.

This defense needs to rally the troops in the red zone and not allow TDs. 

This defense needs leaders on defense who know how to get their teammates to elevate their focus. It needs players to do what is required to be on the field each week.

Guys on this defense should be choir boys off the field for the next six games.  They need to make these coaches better by not giving them (probably valid) reasons to bench them.

They need to dig out some fire when the defense is tired.  It isn't necessarily a big play issue. The players need to make the sound play that stops a drive.  This is a defense that is put together to stop drives.  This is not a team with gobs of NFL talents just waiting to return fumbles 80 yards for TDs with their 4.4 speed. 

Just make the tackles and stop the drives. If a ball is lose, cover it so the opponent won't.  Play the odds. There is only one healthy player on this defense with breakaway speed, and he barely played last week.  Just cover fumbles.

Let Lance Dunbar take it into the end zone.  Play the odds.

UNT may be the second worst defense in the Sun Belt in generating turnovers, but that can be fixed without taking dumb risks.  You don't have to go for the risky interception.  Every game there are at least five badly thrown balls.  Just be ready for those moments.  The defense as a whole hasn't done a good job of that.

Hopefully the coaching staff will help this team generate more of a pass rush by rotating in players better and sending some blitz help from time to time, but even if the coaches continue to under-perform, the defensive players can push this defense to make the next step by getting focused to play better from the first snap, by tackling better, by not getting suspended from games, by taking it up a notch as a unit in the red zone, and by taking on ownership of the team's success.

UNT's offense lead by Chase Baine can grind up the clock. The Wildcat sets are absolutely lethal and regularly succeed in short yardage situations.  The OL can reliably pass block now.  UNT can hit field goals now.

Clear progress is being made on offense.  Is the defense improving every week or are they at a plateau? The local media is trumpeting the defense as having arrived, but 26.7 points per game only ranks them 74th in the nation out of 120 FBS teams.  That is a great defense?  Is that as good at this defense can be?  Have they peaked?  I doubt it.

If UNT's defense can take the next step in playing up to their potential, a lot of games that may not look winnable today, could look very winnable tomorrow.

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