Where to start?
14,718 fans attended. This drops UNT's season average to 17,516. It this trend continues, UNT's attendance is hardly going to get CUSA's attention.
On the positive side, seven minutes into the game I counted 42 FIU fans in the visitors section.
I am so glad UNT isn't in a conference with teams with distant western teams that might hurt UNT's home attendance. Thank God UNT can count on the kind of huge traveling fan numbers we have seen from Sun Belt competition like ULL, Arkansas State, and FIU over the last few weeks to buoy attendance and put UNT into the most favorable light possible for possible future inclusion in CUSA.
Thank God UNT's leadership doesn't want to be in a conference with or even play OOC games against schools like Louisiana Tech, UTSA, or Texas State who obviously can't draw the kinds of huge crowds we get from our Sun Belt competition.
OK, I'll drop it.
Acidic sarcasm aside, it is always interesting to do a head count of the visitors' section. I think if more UNT fans did that we would have a very different view of the Sun Belt.
Florida International's coaching staff once more kicked the living bejeezus out of UNT's coaching staff. It was about as thorough of a job of owning a staff as I have ever seen.
FIU has good athletes in their back seven. They were able to use that athleticism to totally bottle up Lance Dunbar in the first half.
Dunbar is not a power runner. Athletic, competent defenses like FIU's can limit his effectiveness if they tackle well. FIU tackled well.
It was a similar situation to what happened against the better Sun Belt defenses last year. If teams can jump on Dunbar early and bottle him up for gains of less than two yards, the defense can dictate his number of touches and take UNT's best big play guy out of the game.
FIU is a team that was soft up front. UNT should have punched them right in the mouth with a power running game.
I generally like Mike Canales, but I think, like Todd Doge, he retreats to his comfort zone (his being running wide and working the sideline) when things go badly, instead of going to what his players know they can do. He needs to constantly remind himself that he has two dynamos at guard and that this team can punch most teams right in the mouth with a power running attack when the need arises. Dodge and Canales just love speed and skill so much. Maybe they are too cerebral in their approach.
Any handyman will tell you, sometimes the right tool is a hammer.
UNT punted from fourth and eight on their first two drives. That kind of ineffectiveness shakes an offense with a young QB. Even if the running game didn't yield first downs on those two drives, Baine and the offense would have been a lot more confident if they had moved the ball a little.
More effort has to be made to give the unit confidence by letting them do what they do well instead of retreating into the coordinator's comfort zone.
Canales has had a number of very strong games this year, but this was a stinker like the Army game and for the same reason. In games where a defense has taken away his planned bread and butter, he has retreated to his comfort zone, not the kids'.
In general I believe the solution to good linebackers and defensive backs keying on Dunbar is to sneak Dunbar out into a pass route against a linebacker fairly frequently (not run screens) and to alternate him in the running game with a back who is more physical and finishes his runs better (like UNT did with James Hamilton against FAU). Pound on them and really take the attack to them.
One can argue that UNT should have continued giving Dunbar the ball, but it was pretty clear that FIU was all over Dunbar early. Dunbar wasn't just being slowed down, he wasn't gaining anything. You can't get first downs with consistent 0 yard gains on running downs. If you take away Dunbar's one big 26 yard run, he had 10 carries for 3 yards TOTAL. You can't win games if that is your running game.
I think it was defensible that UNT offensive coordinator Mike Canales would think he needed to get something else going before they would be able to get Dunbar going. (It also makes some sense that Canales might have felt the athleticism of the UNT wildcat set would also not be as effective against this more mobile defense. I cannot recall any plays out of the wildcat at all in Saturday's game though and that was almost certainly a mistake. )
I thought UNT should have mixed in more of a power runner - Brandon Byrd - to grind into the undersized FIU line, but Canales opted to throw the ball to the receivers against the strength of that defense.
Not coming back to Dunbar more (either as a receiver or a runner) was almost certainly a bad move. A lot of times when a team is keying on a back as well as FIU was, a team can go away from that player for a quarter to something that is reasonably successful and then come back to him heavily with pretty good effect.
Canales tried to get Chase Baine going throwing the sideline dinks that suited Riley Dodge. That failed pretty miserably. Picking up 4 yards on a pass play is useless if you have to do it three times in a row to get a first down and your QB isn't there yet as a passer… and you have no running game. (Riley Dodge was great at getting the ball off on time and it arriving where a receiver could catch it in bounds to pick up the 2 yard gains I guess those plays are designed to generate.
Although I too hate those plays, I take those plays to be part of a strategy geared to push the secondary wide to open potential big running lanes inside. Baine struggles in that utilization. He will sometimes throw a sideline pass too late or the ball might be a yard out of bounds. It simply isn't his game and it doesn't suit these receivers either.)
In the second quarter and onward as the game started slipping away, they were more aggressive on passing plays and the plays moved more into Baine's comfort zone.
Chase Baine had a rough start overthrowing a number of plays early. Not having any running game was just brutal on Baine. Usually QBs weather a bad passing start by handing the ball off and getting into a flow. With no complimentary running game, it took him almost a quarter to get his nerves and adrenaline under control.
UNT suffered a lot of three and outs in the first half.
Now if UNT had a good defense, they would have responded by generating some 3 and outs themselves and kept the offense in the game until they figured out how to move the ball.
That did not occur. They delivered no three and outs in the first half. None.
In fact the only drive that didn't end in FIU points in the first half started at the FIU 15 and ended with the struggling UNT offense getting the ball back at the UNT 12 yard line. Backed up that deep, UNT's struggling offense predictably went 3 and out. FIU quickly drove it from their 42 in for a FG on the next drive.
There is no way anyone can say anything positive about that defensive effort. There is not enough lipstick in the world to make that pig look good.
UNT opened the game on defense. The defense again took the field looking unprepared and flat.
On FIU's opening play they threw a pass for 16 yards and another first down. Then they ran for 5 yards. On second down they ran for four more. On third down they ran for two and another first down.
It seemed pretty clear that UNT was not going to stop them on this drive.
On first and 10 from the 49, FIU's QB Carroll locked on to his man. From my seat I could see the play clearly. UNT LB turned safety Brad Graham was all over the read. I thought he had an excellent chance at it.
There seemed a split second where he delayed as if he was thinking..."Should I go for it?" before deciding "Absolutely, that is who I am."
He exploded into a sprint... and got there a half second after the ball.
Really that was the ball game.
If he makes that INT, UNT may have come to life and FIU might have been the team to implode.
As he was playing safety, there was no one behind him and his man outran the defense for a TD.
UNT was never in the game after that point.
Graham spent much of the first half on the bench after that.
Would Graham have been closer if he had been playing linebacker? There certainly would have been deep help. It seems unlikely he would have had that moment of hesitation.
Whether Graham played or not really didn't matter in the big scheme of things. No one on the defense was making any plays. A pretty crappy FIU offense (but an underrated OL) moved the ball on UNT pretty much at will.
And the UNT players melted down. Chippy plays and penalties abounded. KC Obi's two roughing the passer penalties in the first half did a lot to bury this team, keeping two FIU drives alive on their way to a 24-3 lead. (It would be 27-3 at the half with FIU eclipsing 250 yards of total offense well before halftime).
Honestly, while we still lost the special teams battle, this may have been the best game Shelton Gandy has presided over as special teams coach. The coverage units were a little better than average. There was a nice kick return. The kicking game and punting game didn't hand over the game.
Call it a C+ performance. Above average, slightly.
I do think there were some teachable moments that If I were a special team's coach I would talk about in the film room.
UNT's first kick return was really nicely executed and designed.
I would also probably make every returner on the team watch T.Y. Hilton's return of UNT's punt from the two yard line early in the game. I think Hilton is pretty darned overrated. I mean he's good for the Sun Belt, but that is it.
Still on that one play he was excellent.
He did what I have been screaming at Gandy to have our punt returners do for a while now. Hilton didn't cut back creating clipping plays.
Hilton caught the ball and started moving up field. Twice he incorporated a stutter to freeze the coverage team and then continued on his way in his original direction, constantly gaining field position. A pause allows your blockers to get better angles, but doesn't cause clipping plays like cutting back the other way. A good punt return might be 8 yards, so it is never a good idea to give up yards trying for a better angle. All you usually do is lose yardage and incur a clipping call.
That was a textbook example of how to return a punt.
A total crappy game
After the half Will Atterberry was knocked out of the game on a roughing the kicker play. (I understand his arm was broken.)
With a second chance, Chase Baine who had been playing a lot better in the second half took the team into the red zone.
For a moment, it looked like UNT might climb back into the game.
Canales had Baine immediately take a shot at the end zone. Baine overthrew Carey by about a yard. Baine scrambled on second and managed to stay on his feet to make it to the seven yard line. On third and four on a rollout pass play, Baine lost the ball. I couldn't tell if it was stripped or he ran it into his body and dropped it. UNT did recover the ball, but it pushed the team out to a point where the odds were too long to go for it.
The coaches sent the FG unit on to try and cut the lead to a three TD game.
Atterberry is UNT's normal holder.
Darius Carey tried to get the snap down, but it was a bad placement and lead to a missed FG and UNT again lost momentum.
Did nothing go right?
No. For losing teams these games happen sometimes (Especially after a series of close, heart wrenching, disappointing, emotional losses). Bad games happen sometimes. Sometimes they don't mean any more than that.
Plus, there were minor good moments here and there.
The Copperas Cove kids, UNT's talented freshmen duo, had good games.
UNT almost always runs a side return on kickoffs. They ran a fake reverse and it froze the FIU cover team for a half second allowing Brelan Chancellor (of Copperas Cove) to take the ball all the way to the FIU 23 yard line.
(Makes you wonder how teams would react to the same with Jamaal Jackson being the other returner...)
Needless to say UNT's special teams coach Shelton Gandy didn't run that again.
Everything after that was the same old side return.
Brandin Byrd (of Copperas Cove) gained a fair amount of yards running in garbage time. He ended up with 39 yards on 10 carries. He looked like someone the team could have used as a change of pace to free up Dunbar in the first quarter.
After KC Obi's second bone headed play, DeLoach let Brandon McCoy back on the field at DE. The team defense improved noticeably from that point forward.
AJ Penson and Craig Robertson were effectively utilized as pass rushers. That was a very exciting development.
While I was disappointed to see raw Willie Taylor as heavily utilized as he was ahead of more developed and consistent receivers (this was due to the fact he is Jamaal Jackson's backup and Jackson was a late scratch due to chronic shoulder issues) and to once again see deep threat TE Jamize Olawale used exclusively in the short passing game, it was cool to see the mostly forgotten BJ Lewis catch a couple big passes.
There was also a mysterious No. 1 who wasn't in the program running routes for a big chunk of the second half who looked pretty good. I moved up and it appeared to be practice superstar Casey Schutza. He didn't appear to get any passes thrown to him, but he got some PT.
Chancellor took over punt returns from Darius Carey. That didn't really change much because there weren't much in the way of returnable punts last night. FIU's punter did a really good job.
Graham played a lot of the second half at safety and was OK. (He needed the reps if he is going to play there for the rest of the year.) It was disappointing not to see Ira Smith again this game though. I wonder if he is in the doghouse or injured?
Former starting place kicker Trent Deans took over the punting duties and did very well. He looks like a very competent replacement. Although your heart goes out to Atterberry, if there is a silver lining, it is that Deans gets a shot for some redemption. I'm glad for him.
Chase Baine looked a lot better from the second quarter moving forward. He still didn't have a good night, but I think a good chunk of that was due to play calling rather than anything else.
Julian Herron got on the field for a number of plays. He was used in coverage a lot which was pretty disappointing. He is just a chaser in coverage and he looked pretty good moving forward in the offseason. Still it was good to see him play.
The Bye week
UNT is about to hit a bye week. If the coaches and the players have not checked out, that will be two weeks of good hard work.
For the players, it will be a hard situation to see classmates who attended the game after the team didn't show for homecoming. Everyone has pride. The players will probably work very hard for redemption.
It seems pretty likely that Dunbar and Byrd will be worked as complimentary runners after Byrd's strong finish. That would be very useful in preventing teams from shutting down the running game in future games.
I hope Canales will utilize Dunbar as a receiver more out of the backfield vs. linebackers. I think Dunbar could be a 100 yard receiver out of the backfield like the Rams used to use Marshall Faulk. Very similar skill-sets (although I am not saying Dunbar is that level of talent).
Additionally, with two good weeks of work, Chase Baine could get a LOT better.
One thing that was pretty clear in the game is that he needs repetitions on passing plays — especially plays that go upfield. He overthrew some plays that really he should make and has made in practice. The kid is rusty and hasn't had a ton of work throwing to the starters. He is not in sync with UNT's big play receivers.
The good news is he overthrew them (meaning reps can fix that) and not underthrew them (meaning he lacks the arm).
Like everything else, this is just an opinion, but I think if this coaching staff quits trying to make the kid Riley Dodge and work on 8-30 yard passes instead of the three yard sideline pass, we might have a fairly dangerous offense in two weeks. As a passer Baine is a lot more like FIU's Carrol than Riley Dodge and in the passing game should be utilized similarly.
The coaching staff needs to tailor the passing plays more for Baine's comfort zone. He is (barring injury) UNT's starter for the rest of the season. I believe they need to continue to isolate receivers making the reads easier and the passes safer.
In the next two weeks Stradford might be back. Jackson could be utilized better. Darius Carey is being used as more of a mid to deep threat these days too. Blaine needs reps passing upfield to these guys.
Two weeks of introspection and repetition could allow the defense to step up.
It was a tough loss, but every game is an opportunity to play well and win and every day in practice is an opportunity to improve.
This team is not out of opportunities yet.