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Arkansas vs. North Texas Preview

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North Texas brings its big offense to Fayetteville looking for a big upset

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Colorado State Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The hits keep coming for Arkansas.

What was supposed to be an easy non-conference schedule with no Power 5 teams has quickly turned into a nightmare, as the Hogs lost at Colorado State and put their bowl hopes on life support. Of course, Colorado State might not be that bad. The Rams’ two losses are to Colorado (2-0 with a road win over Nebraska) and Hawaii (3-0). Keep an eye on how they look against Florida on Saturday.

It’s also unclear how good Saturday’s opponent, North Texas, is. The Mean Green (2-0) are finally having some success under third-year coach Seth Littrell. They went 9-5 last year and won the Conference-USA West division, and they return the conference Player of the Year in quarterback Mason Fine.

So far this year, they’ve blasted SMU 46-23 (it was 36-0 at one point) and Incarnate Word 58-16. They’ve looked impressive, but it’s fair to question the competition. SMU has a new coach, new system, and is replacing several playmakers from Chad Morris’ last team. They may be really bad this year, like 2-10 bad. And we know Incarnate Word is bad: the Cardinals are Southland Conference mates with UCA and went 2-10 last year, making them among the worst teams in the FCS.

Still, the Mean Green will put up plenty of points and yards. National experts have circled this game as one to watch. There’s a lot of pressure on the Hogs right now.

Scouting report

Strengths

  • High-efficiency passing game. Mason Fine leads the NCAA in passing (that’s two straight weeks the Hogs have faced the FBS’s leading passer). He completed a staggering 40 of 50 passes for 444 yards against SMU and is averaging 431 yards per game and 9.6 yards per attempt. The Mean Green will complete a lot of short passes, but it remains to be seen if they can consistently hit longer throws.
  • Placekicking. Yep, he’s back. Cole Hedlund is 7 for 7 in field goals with a long of 51 and three makes of 40+ yards. For those wondering, he was 14 of 24 at Arkansas and just 1 of 5 on attempts of 40+. This story can only end with him hitting the game-winner for North Texas, or having it blocked.

Weaknesses

  • Big plays. The Mean Green were among the nation’s worst last year at giving up big plays in both the run and pass games, and it’s not clear that the issue has been fixed this season. They’re likely to blitz, but can be taken advantage of over the top.
  • Weak run game. The Mean Green have three backs with at least 10 carries, and they are averaging 2.8, 2.6, and 2.1 yards per carry. That’s pretty pitiful. Their leading rusher has just 50 yards. Inability to run the ball kept Colorado State’s offense from humming for nearly three quarters, and North Texas’ run game is much, much worse.

When North Texas has the ball

Quarterback

  • Mason Fine, 72% completion, 431 yards/game, 7 touchdowns, 1 interception, 9.6 yards per attempt

Receivers

  • Rico Bussey Jr., 17 catches, 237 yards, 3 touchdowns
  • Jalen Guyton, 12 catches, 206 yards, 3 touchdowns
  • Jaelon Darden, 8 catches, 91 yards
  • Kelvin Smith, 7 catches, 79 yards
  • Keegan Brewer, 4 catches, 71 yards
  • Michael Lawrence, 5 catches, 69 yards

The Mean Green go surprisingly deep at receiver for a Power 5 school, but Bussey and Guyton are definitely the main targets. Neither is 6’6 like Colorado State’s Preston Williams (12 caches, 154 yards, 2 touchdowns against Arkansas), but that’s hardly a consolation to a Razorback secondary that looked silly chasing Ram receivers last week.

As I mentioned above, North Texas likes short and medium routes, as Fine prefers to pick defenses apart by attacking them all over. They do occasionally target the running backs and a tight end (Smith), but those are not the biggest threats.

Fine is not really a run threat (he has minus-6 yards this year and about 100 for his three-year career), but he is pretty mobile within the pocket.

Film Study

The Mean Green offense is from the Air Raid family, and a lot of Air Raid staples show up on film. Here, the Green call for a “mesh” concept, a classic Air Raid staple primarily used to beat man defense by creating a “rub” with the crossing routes over the middle.

Once the ball is snapped, Fine sees that SMU is actually in a Cover 3 zone, so he throws the post to his outside receiver, who is able to get underneath the safeties.

This is a classic example of a vertical stretch, where the underneath defenders (in this case, the strong safety tasked with the flat and the left linebacker in the middle) are occupied with receivers and can’t drop back, allowing the post receiver to come over the top of them while staying under the deep safeties.

Running Backs

  • De’Andre Torrey, 18 carries, 50 yards, 2.8 yards per carry, 3 touchdowns
  • Nic Smith, 23 carries, 49 yards, 2.1 yards per carry

There’s not much to this running attack, which has struggled to run the ball in both regular time and garbage time. North Texas lost a 1,200-yard rusher to graduation, so the scheme allows for good running, but the Green don’t have the horses right now. If they’re able to run the ball with any success on Saturday, that will be a very bad sign.

When Arkansas has the ball

The best to attack North Texas is deep through the air, but that was also the best way to attack Colorado State and the Hogs couldn’t do it. North Texas allowed SMU quarterback Ben Hicks to complete just 12 of 24 passes, but for 252 yards. So the Mustangs had low efficiency, but high explosiveness.

However, the Mustangs had just four (4) rushing yards in that game. Incarnate Word fared better, with their top back rushing 18 times for 139 yards and two touchdowns, including a 55-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, long before it was garbage time.

The Green will likely bring a lot of pressure, which opens up those big play chances but could also scare Arkansas’ struggling quarterbacks. UNT already has six sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Linebackers E.J. Ejiya and Brandon Garner lead the team with a combined 27 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. The Hogs will want to keep those two blocked.

Keys to the game

  1. Start fast. North Texas is outscoring opponents 61-6 in the first half this season. If the Hogs fall behind, there could be a crisis of confidence on the Razorback sideline and a burst of confidence for the visitors. Whoever starts at quarterback must be decisive and accurate.
  2. Disrupt UNT’s rhythm. Quarterback Mason Fine is good, but he’s played two really bad defenses. The UNT offense is happy to complete 40 short passes if that’s what the defense gives them, so the Hogs have to get some havoc and stop UNT from going on long drives.
  3. Give the receivers a chance. Wide receiver is a position of strength on this team, but it’s a precarious strength because it is so dependent on the quarterback. The Hogs absolutely have to take some shots against a defense that will allow receivers to get open deep. Playing scared and conservative on offense could be the recipe for a really embarrassing loss. Again.