PonyFans.com is proud to have 18-year-old Nate back as a guest columnist. This week, Nate reviews the season-opening win at Arkansas State and previews Saturday's game against North Texas.
|Nate says it is critical that Delontae Scott and the SMU defensive front must get pressure on UNT quarterback Mason Fine (photo by SMU athletics).
Feel free to post comments and constructive criticism, ask him questions, and/or give suggestions for upcoming columns! (He can be followed on Twitter at @Pony_NATE_tion.)
SMU is 1-0 for the first time in the Sonny Dykes era, a far cry from the thumping SMU took at the hands of North Texas to open the 2018 campaign. The Mustangs’ season-opening win Saturday in Jonesboro, Ark., was nothing but gritty, as they were road underdogs and took down a solid Arkansas State team, 37-30.
There was plenty of adversity and a lot upon which to improve, but SMU responded to it all. A sluggish start for the offense was made up for by the defense holding up well. And when the defense began to falter, Shane Buechele got comfortable and made a ton of plays. And when all the momentum had swung to ASU following two straight touchdowns for the Red Wolves, C.J. Sanders came up with an enormous, game-changing kickoff return for a touchdown that tied the game at 23 and sparked a run of 21 unanswered points for SMU.
To say I’m impressed with the maturity of this team compared to last season would be an understatement. The 2018 Mustangs would have folded following ASU’s 14-0 run to take a 23-16 lead. But they responded. Buechele could have folded after an awful start, but he responded by engineering drive after drive, finishing with 360 yards through the air.
Lastly, the defensive front was as advertised. There wasn’t a great pass rush, but two sacks were enough, and Delontae Scott came up with a huge sack on the final play of the game. The front seven also held up well against a potent rushing attack, only surrendering 90 rushing yards. While it wasn’t terrible, the secondary also showed at times why there were so many question marks surrounding it coming into the season. Letting up 324 passing yards isn’t bad, but where I’m worried is the fact that it let up 10 catches for 132 yards and four (!) touchdowns to Omar Bayless. Why is this particularly alarming? Because one of the best quarterbacks in the country awaits the Mustangs this week.
His school’s all-time passing leader, Mason Fine, leads leads his North Texas team down I-35 to take on the Mustangs after a victory over Abilene Christian in which he threw for 383 yards, completed 75 percent of his passes and four touchdown passes. UNT jumped out to a 31-0 lead before the first half ended and cruised to a 51-31 win.
On the ground, UNT put up a solid 5.6 yards per carry, and has plenty of weapons out of the backfield like Deandre Torrey (11 carries, 95 yards) and Loren Easly (nine carries, 51 yards, one touchdown). But where I think SMU will have trouble is containing Fine and head coach Seth Littrell’s passing attack. UNT has numerous weapons on the outside, and given how susceptible to the big play SMU seemed at times against ASU, some of UNT’s burners on the outside could give the Ponies some trouble.
Fine completed an outrageous 75 percent of his passes to nine different receivers, with each playing a different role. It appears UNT’s home run hitter is Rico Bussey Jr., who caught just four passes but for 154 yards and a touchdown. He averaged 39 yards per catch with his longest being 57 yards. Jason Pirtle was also a huge weapon, catching four balls for 88 yards and three touchdowns. The 5-9 Jaelon Darden was a menace out of the slot, as Fine linked with him 10 different times. The point of all this is, the best quarterback SMU will face all season is not devoid of weapons, and he also is not devoid of a great coach.
Seth Littrell is one of the rising coaching stars in college football, and, barring disaster in 2019, will be a prime candidate for the next Power Five school’s head coach opening. He has turned North Texas around completely, and the Mean Green are one of the best teams in the Group of Five. His offense is one of the most innovative systems in the country and UNT has run roughshod over its competition. It would be shocking if he isn’t a Power Five coach within the next two seasons, at the most. The coaching battle of Littrell’s offense against SMU defensive coordinator Kevin Kane’s defense will be fascinating to watch, as Kane also is a rising star in the coaching world, as SMU’s vastly improved defense is his latest reclamation project.
X’s and O’s will be as important as ever in this matchup of the UNT offense and SMU’s defense. Kane likes to mix it up between man and zone, and he will have to be creative with blitzes and different man/zone disguises to try to confuse the veteran quarterback. Takeaways will be key for SMU in this matchup, as SMU forced three Arkansas State turnovers, and it really changed the game. Remaining positive in the turnover category will go a long way toward beating UNT.
Offensively, I think SMU will be able to have its way with UNT. While I recognize that Abilene Christian didn’t score once before it was down, 31-0, it still was able to hang 31 points in a little under three quarters. UNT likely had a lot of backups in, but I still believe that the Mean Green can be had.
ACU racked up 456 yards, 273 through the air while 183 came on the ground. ACU burned North Texas for touchdowns of 64, 69 and 35 yards. I anticipate lots of big plays for SMU’s offense, especially on the ground. ACU’s two feature backs averaged 7.7 yards per carry, picking up yards in chunks as the game wore on. One thing that was very encouraging from the ASU game was SMU’s running game. Ke’mon Freeman toted the rock more and had more yards than Xavier Jones and looked really physical too, but after an injury-riddled 2018, we finally saw the explosive and elusive 2017 version of Jones that had SMU coaches and teammates so excited about his potential. He found the end zone three times and really demonstrated great short-area quickness. I expect big games from the SMU offensive line, opening up holes for SMU’s finally-healthy runners. One key I was looking for with Buechele was how much he has already developed his chemistry with Roberson and Proché. It took about a quarter and a half, but Buechele really got the offense moving and spread the ball around well. But he also leaned on his star wideouts. Roberson and Proché picked up right where they left off in 2018, combining for 18 catches for 246 yards.
Based on film, my evaluation of UNT is this: its offense is very explosive, and Fine is ridiculously accurate. He is a known commodity now, yet still grossly underrated. Make no mistake: Fine is the best signal-caller SMU will face this season.
The secondary has its work cut out for it, and Kane will have to get very creative. Fine is quite short, so generating pressure and making him uncomfortable in the pocket will be key. But the Mustangs’ margin for error on defense is very slim. All eyes will be on Kane’s gameplan this week.
On the flip side of the ball, SMU’s offense will have its way. UNT’s pass rush looked stagnant on film, the linebackers looked a step slow (and will look slower against SMU’s team speed) and missed some tackles which led to huge plays. The UNT secondary also struggled with play action and got beat deep a few times on that. SMU should be able to establish the run early, which will in turn open up many more downfield opportunities for the Mustangs. This is a very young UNT defense that I think matches up poorly with SMU’s potent offense.
Long story short: this will be a shootout. This is an under-the-radar game this week that will be wildly entertaining between two rival schools that don’t particularly like each other. UNT’s offense is going to be very difficult for SMU to stop, but I have enough faith in Kane’s defense that SMU’s front seven will win the day against UNT’s young offensive line. Putting pressure on Fine will be essential for SMU to have success, and Delontae Scott and Demerick Gary are coming off huge games against Arkansas State.
SMU won’t stop UNT’s offense but will slow it down enough. SMU’s offense, however, is an even bigger mismatch vs. UNT’s defense. I am sold on Buechele’s leadership and poise that he showed in the face of adversity against ASU, and this offense is ready to take off. SMU will pound UNT on the ground and play with great pace. Early on, the run will be established, which will lead to bigger plays later on for the likes of Proché and Roberson. I’ve got SMU in a shootout, as the Ponies move to 2-0, a great improvement on their 0-3 start in 2018.
Nate’s take: SMU 41 UNT 35