What Can We Take From The LSU Game?
(Writer's note: The holiday pushed this week's column to Tuesday; ironically, it was written on Labor Day. Who woulda thunk it? Future columns will be live on Mondays, save for October 16's game against Louisiana-Lafayette. That will be up later that week.)
-- That wasn't so bad, was it? Sure, a 41-14 box score isn't getting printed out and placed on anyone's refrigerator with a gold star, but things could have gone a lot worse.
-- Warning: excuse alert. The final score wasn't really indicative of the game itself.
-- Speaking of gold stars, can we get one for defensive back Hilbert Jackson? That guy sent LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger into another dimension, and Mettenberger isn't a shrimp either. YouTube the sack now. We'll wait.
-- There were reasons to be happy with NT's defensive effort (more on why later because someone's inevitably going to point out the fact that LSU had 500 yards of offense).
-- On the flip side, North Texas' offensive performance was about what you would expect against a defense like the one LSU has.
-- The Tigers are going to compete for a SEC West title. They're good, y'all.
-- Player of the game honors for North Texas goes to receiver Brelan Chancellor, who had four catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns.
-- Chancellor outran LSU defenders on an 80-yard touchdown catch and run. I repeat, Chancellor outran LSU defenders.
-- I mean, he flat-out ran away from them. This cannot be emphasized enough.
-- Tiger Stadium is one of the great game day atmospheres in college football. Saturday was a money game for North Texas, but it's a bucket list item for any college football fan.
On Second Thought
Let's be honest, North Texas wasn't winning this game. Don't tell Dan McCarney that (related: I will be avoiding the NT athletic offices for the foreseeable future) because he prepares his team - as he should - for every game like they're going to win. You and I can discuss moral victories - that's a majority of what this particular column is about anyway - but McCarney would crumple this up and throw it in the trash if it was presented to him.
That's a good thing. No matter how crazy it sounds, a locker room has to believe it can win. Forget the number of new faces taking the field, or who lines up on the other side of the ball. If a team doesn't think it can win, it's already lost before the first snap is ever hiked.
That said, the tone was set early when LSU running back Kenny Hilliard ran 38 yards for a touchdown to put the Tigers up 7-0 before three minutes had eclipsed. That's a "welp..." moment. Most, if not all, blowout wins have them. But the funny thing is that the game never felt that out of hand even though it was never in doubt; most of the time it was right there in the middle as a three-possession game.
There are a few reasons for that. Sure, LSU wasn't the sharpest it's ever looked, but it's not entirely accurate to say LSU sleepwalked against NT either because the Tigers defense played pretty much as advertised. Derek Thompson completed eight passes - eight - for 143 yards. If Brelen Chancellor hadn't gone bananas with the yards after catch on an 80-yard touchdown, Thompson could very well have been held to under 100 yards for the game. In fact, LSU did hold NT to under 100 yards rushing.
But LSU did "Keep It Simple, Stupid" on offense. Les Miles called almost twice as many run plays as passing (46 to 26, officially) and two backs, Hilliard and Alfred Blue, surpassed the 100-yard mark. Here's the thing: LSU has been and will continue to be a run-first offense. Plus, the Tigers' O-line pretty much picked up NT's defensive front and moved them like football sleds. No need to deviate from that. That's not always going to score a ton of points or make SportsCenter's Top 10, but that wasn't the goal; Miles has trick plays on special teams for that. If you can run the ball, do it. If you can keep your quarterback healthy (see: Hilbert Jackson's sack on Mettenberger above), do it.
A 27-point win is honestly no different than a 72-point win when it's a top 5 team playing a contract game in Week 1.
There was a noticeable difference, however, in the way NT's defense played against a team that, frankly, it was no match for physically. North Texas gave up yards - 508, to be exact - but was able to harass Mettenberger more often than Miles would have liked, and Zac Whitfield came up with an impressive interception right at the goal line. Even when things went wrong, they weren't all bad. Mettenberger's 34-yard touchdown pass to Kadron Boone in the fourth quarter was defended well by Hilbert. Mettenberger just made a better throw.
Yards allowed ultimately mean little in the grand scheme of things. The questions are can your defense keep the other team from scoring, and can they force turnovers? NT was able to do both Saturday, albeit in small doses. But those are the kinds of things that John Skladany's group can build upon going forward.
The same philosophy applies to the offense. The Mean Green couldn't move the sticks once until the second quarter. They couldn't run the ball consistently, and outside of Chancellor, no receiver had more than a catch. But NT mounted one long sustained drive in the fourth quarter and pounded the rock better than at any point previously in the game.
It was just one drive. Thirteen plays, 66 yards and NT earned every one of them.
Things get a lot more manageable this upcoming Saturday when North Texas returns home to host Texas Southern, a 1-AA program from the SWAC. The Tigers have a quarterback by the name of Riko Smalls, who accumulated 323 individual yards and a touchdown in a Week 1 win over Prairie View A&M. This should be a victory for North Texas. If nothing else, this team has five home games this year, so McCarney and Co. have to get wins when they can.
Also, nothing's worse than losing to a lower-level program. Ask Houston. One year removed from a record-setting season with coach Kevin Sumlin (now with Texas A&M) and quarterback Case Keenum (now graduated), the Cougars dropped their home opener against Texas State, 30-13. Technically, the Bobcats are playing their first year of 1-A football in the Western Athletic Conference, but this was a 6-6 program in the Southland Conference just last year.
So how bad was it? Get this: UH offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt has already, ahem, "resigned."
Speaking of Houston, North Texas goes on the road to face Tony Levine's team on October 6. North Texas dropped its home opener last season to Houston, 48-23, but it was a three-point game heading into halftime. Obviously, this doesn't look like the same Houston team from a year ago.
By The Numbers
- North Texas has won just one season opener in the last 10 years - at Ball State in 2009. You could say North Texas won two season openers if you include a 14-7 win over Middle Tennessee State in 2005; the original opener against LSU that year was postponed because of Hurricane Katrina.
- Meanwhile, LSU has won 38 straight regular season nonconference games. The last 28 have come under Les Miles.
- After one game, running back Brandin Byrd is already six carries shy of tying his total number of carries (20) and is 43 yards away from tying his yardage total (83) from 2011.
- Receiver Brelen Chancellor accounted for 50 percent of NT's total offense against LSU and 80 percent of Derek Thompson's passing yards. Chancellor's 80-yard touchdown accounted for 70 percent of his total yards for the night.
- Texas Southern has zero wins over 1-A football programs in 10 tries over the last 10 years.
- Dan McCarney led North Texas to five wins in 2011, the same number the program had from 2007-09.
- After Week 1, NT's remaining opponents have a combined record of 6-4.
Ben Kercheval is s 2009 graduate of North Texas and is a writer for and co-manager of the NBC Sports website, CollegeFootballTalk.com.