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North Texas Offensive Preview

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Featuring the best QB you’ve never heard of before.

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at North Texas Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The story line for this game is “the best QB you don’t know” against the best secondary in college football. Does Mason Fine really have what it takes to beat the Cal secondary?

If you know anything about Mason Fine, you’d know it’s best not to answer that question. Fine is a guy who has spent his whole life being told he can’t do something, only for him to prove his doubters wrong. He’s “too small to be a quarterback,” “too small for the FBS,” “too short for the NFL,” and so on, and yet here he is, drawing early Drew Brees comparisons. He’s almost certainly the best QB in the G5.

Overview

We’ve heard the news that former North Texas Offensive Coordinator Graham Harrell took the OC job at USC... so who did North Texas hire to replace him? They tapped a popular source of offensive coaches these days: they hired Eastern Washington OC Bodie Reeder, who managed another explosive offense at EWU (EWU led the FCS in most offensive categories, and ultimately lost to NDSU in the FCS Championship). Under Harrell, they ran a pretty balanced Air Raid-type offense, similar to what we know as the “Bear Raid.” It’s hard to say with too much certainty what kind of offense Reeder will run at North Texas, but from what I saw of Eastern Washington last year, they ran a lot RPOs with some air raid concepts. They try to isolate a single defender and force him into making mistakes. I imagine North Texas will build an offense designed to get receivers into space, and one in which they can take advantage of Mason Fine’s arm talent.

One thing to note about North Texas is that they really showed up to their out of conference games last year:

  • North Texas was a 3-point favorite vs. SMU (won by 23 points, 46-23, but the game was actually 39-7 before some garbage time TDs): +20 against the spread
  • North Texas was a 9.5-point underdog @ Arkansas (won by 27 points, 44-17, and it was 44-10 before a garbage time Arkansas TD): +36.5 against the spread
  • North Texas was a 14-point favorite @ Liberty (won by 40 points, 47-7): +26 against the spread

However, they went the complete opposite direction in their conference games. They suffered an upset loss to Louisiana Tech (a game in which Mason Fine got banged up, and they lost RB Loren Easly for the season), and consequently put up some games like this:

  • North Texas was a 25.5-point favorite @ UTEP (won by 3, 27-24): -28.5 against the spread
  • North Texas was a 1-point underdog @ UAB (lost by 8, 29-21): -9 against the spread
  • North Texas was a 13.5-point favorite @ Old Dominion† (lost by 3, 34-31... a game they were up 28-0 in the 2nd quarter): -16.5 against the spread
  • North Texas was an 18.5-point favorite @ UTSA (won by 3, 24-21): -15.5 against the spread
  • North Texas was a 7-point underdog vs. Utah State in the bowl game (lost by 39, 52-13; this one is excused because Mason Fine was injured in the 1st quarter, but still merits note because USU still put up 50+ on the defense): -32 against the spread

†You may remember Old Dominion is the team that had the biggest Vegas upset last year when they beat #13 Virginia Tech 49-35 as 29-point underdogs, but don’t let that fool you: both teams were terrible. Virginia Tech went on to finish the season with a losing record, and Old Dominion went on to a 4-8 record in C-USA.

I have never seen Vegas miss on a team this badly throughout an entire season, and I’d have to do some historical research to see just how rare this is, but it is quite an aberration. It’s not unusual for Vegas to miss early on in the season, but typically lines get tighter as the season progresses... which means that it was truly unexpected how poorly North Texas played against some over-matched teams like UTEP or UTSA. I’m not going to play armchair psychologist here, but you can draw your own conclusions as to why North Texas rose to the occasion in their OOC games and fell so flat in conference. This could be a tale of two teams.

North Texas caught Vegas by surprise last year, but a lot more people have heard of them this year. And although they lost a pair of very good linebackers and a pair of very good cornerbacks to graduation, they are returning most of their offense from last year, so many people expect them to be even better this year.

Let’s look at a position-by-position breakdown.

Quarterback

I love Mason Fine. As a player, it’s hard not to like him. As previously mentioned, Fine plays with a huge chip on his shoulder, and it really shows in the toughness he demonstrates on the field. A common defensive game plan against Fine was to try to get pressure on him, force him into making mistakes:

Mason Fire misfires under pressure.
Mason Fire misfires under pressure.

And while yes, Fine won’t always make perfect throws when he’s about to get blasted by an unblocked 250-pound defensive lineman, he’s not afraid to stand in the pocket and absorb the hit if he thinks he can make the throw.

Mason Fine is not afraid to stand in the pocket.
Mason Fine is not afraid to stand in the pocket.
Mason Fine is still not afraid to stand in the pocket.
Mason Fine is still not afraid to stand in the pocket.
Last one since you get the point. SEC refs let Arkansas get away with a hold on this one, but... Jesus Christ, isn’t it difficult to throw with balls this big?
Last one since you get the point. SEC refs let Arkansas get away with a hold by the DB on this one, but... Jesus Christ, isn’t it difficult to throw with balls this big?

In terms of quarterbacking skills, Fine utilizes the entire field, and he will work through his progressions. Mason Fine has exceptional short- to mid-range accuracy.

Mason Fine threads the needle.
Mason Fine threads the needle.

He doesn’t uncork the deep ball too often (well, he does when his WR is wide open), but when he does:

Mason Fine with a very nice back shoulder throw to Rico Bussey Jr.
Mason Fine with a very nice back shoulder throw to Rico Bussey Jr.

I have absolutely no idea what routes the receivers are supposed to be running here, but Fine puts the ball on the money:

Mason Fine hits Rico Bussey Jr. deep.
Mason Fine hits Rico Bussey Jr. deep.

Fine is not really a threat to run the ball, opting to beat teams through the air, but he does possess enough mobility to avoid sacks, and he even had some Houdini escapes out of the pocket where it looked like he was being sacked but he managed to pop out somewhere else. He does, however, take some designed runs near the goal line:

Designed run for Mason Fine. They also run the option from here.
Designed run for Mason Fine. They also run the option from here.
Another designed run for Fine.
Another designed run for Fine.

I want to point out here that it’s probably not the best idea to pick a fight with Mason Fine the way Arkansas did, as Fine led North Texas to a 34-10 halftime lead, prompting many Arkansas fans to leave even before halftime. Arkansas constantly did this dumb posturing stuff regardless of the scoreboard.

Mason Fine is a very good quarterback, and if he were a few inches taller, everyone would be talking about his NFL Draft prospects. However, many of Mason Fine’s throws were to wide open receivers against weaker teams, so the Cal defense poses his first significant step up in competition. You can imagine that he'll be out to prove himself once again.

Running Back

With a new offensive coordinator, it’s still an open competition at the RB position. Last year, Loren Easly started the season as the feature back, but he may or may not be the same after suffering a season-ending knee injury last year. I liked Easly, because I always like running backs that can create their own yards. He had my favorite running play in all the North Texas games I watched. SEC-who?

RB Loren Easly demolishes the Arkansas safety.
RB Loren Easly demolishes the Arkansas safety.

Easly’s primary replacement last season was the emerging-talent DeAndre Torrey. Torrey racked up a lot of his stats against weaker competition, but he still showed he was an explosive player in his own right:

DeAndrey Torrey with the kick return TD.
DeAndrey Torrey with the kick return TD.
DeAndre Torrey breaks off a 92 yard TD run.
DeAndre Torrey breaks off a 92 yard TD run.

He’s got good speed and vision, but it always helps to run behind some dominating offensive line play. A lot of these runs are due to huge holes by the O-line, which has now graduated their two starting tackles, so it will be interesting to see if the running game regresses. UNT still has a sturdy interior line behind the talented OL Elex Woodworth (update: Woodworth has missed the first two games of the season with an undisclosed injury, no word on whether he’ll return— their pass protection has suffered without him), as well as the other two returning members, Sosaia Mose and Manase Mose.

In North Texas’ previous game, SMU played tight man coverage while consistently getting pressure on Fine, giving him very little time to throw. The counter: a huge game from a previously unknown running back, the 5’8” 200 lb. RB Tre Siggers, who ran for 164 yards on 18 carries. He did it on runs like this:

RB Tre Siggers is not easy an easy man to bring down.
RB Tre Siggers is not easy an easy man to bring down.
Beep beep, Tre Siggers coming through.
Beep beep, Tre Siggers coming through.

Wide Receivers

North Texas returns the trio of talented wide receivers Rico Bussey Jr. (potential NFL Draft prospect), Jaelon Durden, and Michael Lawrence. They’ve also got a pretty good TE Kelvin Smith to catch short yardage passes, although Smith is often employed to block from the H-back position. Rico Bussey Jr. is by far and away the #1 target for Fine. The below route should look familiar to Cal fans that remember the Bear Raid (sad sigh). Watch as Bussey Jr. runs a “sluggo” (slant and go) to perfection, getting the DB to turn his hips and create the space needed for the touchdown catch.

WR Rico Bussey Jr. with the nice double move.
WR Rico Bussey Jr. with the nice double move.

Unfortunately, the C-USA cameramen are all over the place (especially in the lesser-watched games), so it’s not always clear to me how Bussey got so open... but suffice to say, he was often very open. I imagine a key focus of the Cal defense will be to keep him from finding so much empty space.

The other wide receiver that stood out to me was Jaelon Darden. Again, I love the players that create their own yards. I’m pretty sure Darden juked a guy out of his shoes on this play:

WR Jaelon Darden has some moves.
WR Jaelon Darden has some moves.

Miscellaneous things that didn’t fit anywhere else

First, let’s not forget that North Texas is the team that ran the super deceptive fake fair catch:

So it just has to be noted that North Texas can be tricky, and they are willing to risk their kick returner getting obliterated if it meant getting an edge in the game. This was a rehearsed play: they noticed on film that Arkansas somewhat lackadaisically covered kickoffs that were expected to be fair caught, they rehearsed this play, and they told the refs before the kickoff not to instinctively whistle the play dead.

Lastly, I wasn’t sure how to shoehorn this in, but if I were reporting on the defense, a player you’d have seen featured in a lot of my video clips would have been the safety Khairi Muhammad. He’s a big playmaker, sure, but he does things like posts videos of dogs mauling a caged raccoon on his Snapchat and he was ejected from the Old Dominion game for spitting on an opposing player. So if you needed someone to root against, there’s your guy.

Summary

First, as a quick note, I’m terrified of saying something to jinx Cal. I spent a whole article last week talking about how sure-handed the Washington wide receivers were, only to watch them uncharacteristically drop pass after pass. UW receivers might fail to get separation (especially against a Cal secondary, huehuehue), but I have never seen them drop passes like that, and I haven’t missed a Pac-12 game in years. During the game, I loudly announced how sure I was that UW kicker Peyton Henry was going to miss from 50 yards out, because his previous long was 41 (and he was 7/12 last year from 30+ yards), and he missed a game-winning field goal from 37 yards in last year’s Washington-Oregon matchup. So of course he makes a career long field goal right after I loudly proclaimed he couldn’t. Hence, I’m reluctant to be too definitive in my belief that Cal’s secondary will stop North Texas here.

Mason Fine is an excellent quarterback, but Cal is no stranger to elite QBs in the Pac-12. A key difference between North Texas and one of those Pac-12 teams, however, might be the talent disparity at wide receiver. They do have one very talented wide receiver in Rico Bussey Jr. (as a potential NFL prospect), but so were Laviska Shenault Jr. and Jalen Reagor last year, and Cal’s secondary shut them down. Mason Fine completely obliterated teams with bad secondaries last year like SMU and Liberty (and big bad SEC-speed Arkansas, with their 1 win outside of their FCS cupcake matchup). I’d like to see Mason Fine be forced into making tough throw after tough throw if he wants to move the ball down the field.

Last week, SMU’s secondary gave North Texas’s wide receivers very little room to work with, and SMU’s defensive line gave Mason Fine very little time to throw. The result: Mason Fine went 17/32 for 152 yards, 1 TD/1 INT whereas last season, Mason Fine threw for 3,793 yards, 27 TDs, and just 5 INTs. If you subtract out the one quarter he played in a bowl game, Fine averaged 311 passing yards per game last year. I imagine the Cal secondary is also talented enough to shut down the UNT wide receivers (or at least, not allow them to be as wide open as they often were in C-USA games) and make Mason Fine work for every pass, so Cal will also have to be ready for UNT’s stable of running backs. I don’t think Cal will torch UNT’s secondary the way SMU QB (Texas transfer) Shane Buechele did, but this certainly is a team that Cal matches up well with defensively.