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    North Texas preview: Mean Green trying to Dodge head coachs firing

    North Texas preview: Mean Green trying to ‘Dodge’ head coach’s firing
    By Jess Nicholas
    TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
    Sept. 14, 2009

    There’s probably more at stake for North Texas this year than just bowl games, conference wins and the general rise of the school’s program: Head coach Todd Dodge’s job is probably in jeopardy.

    After going 3-21 his first two years, Dodge, the former high school coach at Southlake-Carroll in Texas (and Greg McElroy’s high school coach) was already on the hot seat prior to last week’s loss at home to Ohio, a game North Texas easily could have won had the Mean Green not had an overtime meltdown.

    This week, North Texas comes to Tuscaloosa, and while the Mean Green probably aren’t expecting to win this game, a good showing could go a long way to securing Dodge’s status for 2010 and beyond.

    Both teams enter this game fairly well battered and bruised, and North Texas will be the second consecutive team Alabama has faced that gives only cursory attention to the running game. Alabama is hoping to play the reserves much more than the Tide was able to against Florida International last week.

    OFFENSE

    Dodge’s North Texas offense is a good bit like the Texas Tech four-wide spread passing attack. The Mean Green run only as a change of pace, and will start with four wide receivers. There are no fullbacks on the team, or even tight ends. Alabama counters with its multiple offense that, so far in 2009, is making substantial use of the Pistol set and is less predictable than in 2008. Alabama will be balanced in this game but the health of certain key players will dictate much of the playcalling.

    QUARTERBACKS
    Todd Dodge’s son Riley, a freshman, was to be the showcase piece in the North Texas offense this year. But Riley Dodge was injured against Ohio, and might not play in this game, or perhaps might rotate with backup Nathan Tune. If Dodge can’t play, it would be a huge loss for North Texas. Through the first two games, Dodge was already 35-of-53 (66.0%) for 333 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. But it’s his running that had people excited – Dodge had carried 19 times for 83 yards (4.4 avg.) and the UNT offensive line had limited its quarterbacks to just one sack. Tune’s passing numbers are good – 9-of-15 (60.0%) for 69 yards and an interception – but Tune is not the running threat Dodge is. Dodge’s injury is to his non-throwing shoulder, but the injury was severe enough that he might be held out of this one. North Texas’ passing offense mostly consists of shorter routes, run-and-shoot style, so Dodge would figure to be OK for that duty unless he’s called upon to run. Alabama counters with Greg McElroy, who last week set the school record for consecutive completions and turned in his second straight impressive outing. More importantly, McElroy looked very comfortable at the controls against Florida International. Due to Star Jackson having the flu much of last week, Thomas Darrah was the first quarterback off the bench against FIU. Given how the coaches talked about Jackson in fall camp, it would figure that he would go back to the No. 2 position this week if his health allows. Depth probably favors North Texas narrowly due to Tune’s experience this year and in 2008, but McElroy provides a big edge over Dodge, especially now that Dodge is hurt. Advantage: Alabama

    RUNNING BACKS
    Despite running only as a change of pace, Cam Montgomery has done a great job of it so far in 2008. Montgomery has carried 39 times for 237 yards (6.1 avg.) and 2 touchdowns. He doesn’t figure to have the same success against Alabama’s stout defensive front – Alabama is currently 5th in the nation in rushing defense – but he won’t go down at the brush of a finger, either. Montgomery is a big back at 6’1”, 220 pounds. Sophomore Lance Dunbar provides a nice breather for Montgomery from time to time. He’s carried 23 times for 92 yards (4.0 avg.) and 1 touchdown this year, but is a smaller player. Jeremi Mathis rounds out the depth chart. Alabama’s running back corps continues to be hit by injuries. Jeramie Griffin was lost in fall camp, and last week, Roy Upchurch injured an ankle. Given that Upchurch was in a walking boot on the sidelines in the second half, it would figure to be unlikely he would play in this game, especially given that Alabama is expected to win comfortably. Look for Mark Ingram to start now that he is recovered from the flu, with true freshman Trent Richardson backing him up. Both players have had 100-yard games already in 2009. Terry Grant provides a change of pace and some extra speed off the bench. Alabama will probably keep the redshirt on freshman Eddie Lacy unless Upchurch’s injury turns out to be more serious than thought. Demetrius Goode looked good late against FIU and should be good enough to at least keep the redshirt on Lacy, provided Upchurch can come back quickly. Baron Huber played a little more in a fullback role against FIU, but isn’t there enough to matter for purposes of this comparison. While Montgomery is a nice running back for North Texas, Alabama still has better depth and more star power. Advantage: Alabama

    WIDE RECEIVERS
    This is a rookie bunch for North Texas with the exception of sophomore Sam Roberson, the only returning starter out of four. The top receiver so far has been JUCO transfer Jamaal Jackson, who has caught 7 passes for 127 yards (18.1 avg) and 1 touchdown, making him the only real downfield threat. Jackson is just average height and is a lightweight (161 pounds), but his speed makes him dangerous. The rest of the group is fairly nondescript. Alex Lott (8 catches, 74 yards, 9.3 avg., 0 TD) and Michael Outlaw (9 catches, 55 yards, 6.1 avg., 1 TD) are the second and third starters, but they haven’t shown the ability to make plays downfield. Roberson has been held to just 2 catches for 13 yards. Kevin Dickerson and Darius Carey provide depth, with Carey being pleasantly productive. The rest of the action goes to the running backs out of the backfield. As for Alabama, it’s a mixed bag depending on the status of Julio Jones. Jones was hurt on an end-around against FIU and didn’t return, although the injury – a bruised knee – wouldn’t keep Jones out of a SEC game this week. With the opponent being North Texas, however, Alabama might decide to sit him. At this moment, Jones is just the fifth-leading receiver for Alabama with 5 catches for 55 yards and no touchdowns, but his presence makes things easier on the other receivers in the pattern. Mike McCoy replaced Jones against FIU and had a career day, catching 5 balls for 100 yards (20.0 avg.) and 1 touchdown. Marquis Maze offers homerun ability but was shut out against FIU, which is not uncommon for Maze; he tends to have very productive games mixed in with several games where he’s not a factor. Darius Hanks has become Mr. Reliable so far for McElroy and the Tide offense. Off the bench, Earl Alexander and true freshman Michael Bowman got most of the work last week. Brandon Gibson figures to get into the mix at some point. Tight end Colin Peek is beginning to assert himself as a weapon, and Preston Dial appeared to get a promotion to first-team H-back over Brad Smelley last week. All three are legitimate targets. Michael Williams and Baron Huber also figure in the mix. With Jones, this is an easy call for Alabama. Without him, it’s probably still Alabama, but the gap is much narrower. The tight ends make the difference. Advantage: Alabama

    OFFENSIVE LINE
    This is a veteran group for North Texas, as all five starters returned from a year ago, although there has been some shuffling of the lineup. J.J. Johnson will start at center with veteran tackles Victor Gill and Esteban Santiago to each side. Kelvin Drake supplanted Gabe Hollivay at left guard, while Tyler Bailey pulled ahead of Coleman Feeley at right guard. Drake was all-conference in 2007 but missed 2008 with injury; he’s a definite upgrade. With Hollivay coming off the bench, and some veteran tackles available, North Texas should have a solid offensive line. Alabama counters with James Carpenter and Mike Johnson on the left side, Drew Davis and Barrett Jones on the right and William Vlachos at center. Carpenter and Johnson are proving to be a formidable pair, but the Jones-Davis duo on the right can’t seem to stay away from the penalties so far in 2008. Alabama played an entire second platoon of linemen against Florida International that was composed of Tyler Love and Alfred McCullough at the tackles, David Ross at center and John Michael Boswell and true freshman Chance Warmack at the guard slots. Veteran Brian Motley is also available. This one is actually a fairly close call, as the line is the strength of the North Texas team, but give a slight edge to Alabama based on the presence of Johnson and Carpenter. Advantage: Alabama

    DEFENSE

    Want to know why North Texas was 1-11 in 2008? The word “last.” As in, last in total defense, last in scoring defense, fourth from last in passing defense and close enough to last in rushing defense (105th) that no one thought the Mean Green was particularly mean. North Texas runs a 4-3 set most of the time, but has been experimenting with a 4-2-5 set – possibly working under the supposition that it can’t hurt to try something different. To further that point, while there are eight returning starters, the question remains whether eight returning starters from a defense that finished at or near the bottom in every meaningful defensive category is a good thing or not. Alabama’s defense, meanwhile, is stifling, particularly against the run. Alabama held pass-happy FIU to just around 200 yards in the air, probably as good as can be expected given the circumstances. The real question for Alabama’s defense here will be whether it can control North Texas’ passing game in close to the line of scrimmage, which has been a problem spot for Alabama under Nick Saban.

    DEFENSIVE LINE
    This is the only place where North Texas is bereft of veterans. Eddrick Gilmore returns at defensive end and will start opposite Brandon Akpunku. The issue here is size. Gilmore is smallish for a SEC-level defensive end, but Akpunku is smaller than every Alabama starter except for the cornerbacks. JUCO transfer Shavod Atkinson appears to have bolstered the middle of the defense tremendously. He’s 6’2”, 307 and has proven able to rush the passer. Draylen Ross starts next to him. Another JUCO transfer, Kelvin Jackson, provides depth up the middle, along with Jesse DeSoto. Sam Owusu-Hemeng and Kenechukwu Obi are the reserve ends, but Obi is even smaller than Akpunku. Together, they’re currently helping to hold opponents to 116 yards per game rushing, good for 57th nationally, and the pass rush has been acceptable. Alabama counters with an explosive, deep group that just never stops coming. Terrence Cody, along with Lorenzo Washington on one side and either Brandon Deaderick or Marcell Dareus on the other, form the basis for a stifling 3-4 defense. It’s still unclear whether Deaderick will play this week or not. Help comes from Luther Davis, Josh Chapman and Nick Gentry off the bench, along with Milton Talbert and Kerry Murphy, who saw his first action last week. Damion Square’s knee injury still hasn’t been officially addressed, but it’s almost certain he’ll miss this game. North Texas is probably twice as good this year as last, but the Mean Green still isn’t in the Crimson Tide’s league yet, literally or figuratively. Advantage: Alabama

    LINEBACKERS
    Craig Robertson and Tobe Nwigwe are 1-2 atop the team’s tackle list. Robertson is particularly active, and both players are good enough to stay on the field during passing downs. The third starting linebacker is 6’3”, 198-pound Jeremy Phillips, who is essentially a large safety and plays like one. Depth is good with A.J. Penson, a former starter, coming off the bench, along with senior Steve Warren. The defense seems to be tuned to funnel plays to these two players. Alabama counters with a group that has been simply dominating so far in 2008. Florida International was completely confounded by Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower inside, particularly Hightower. Both players are bigger than North Texas’ defensive ends. Cory Reamer is a steadying force at outside linebacker, while Eryk Anders has exceeded expectations at the Jack linebacker slot. Depth figures to be affected by the loss of Damion Square, who was also a reserve Jack as well as defensive end. Courtney Upshaw’s role figures to expand, along with Hightower’s and Reamer’s in passing situations. With Square out, the only other Jack available behind Upshaw is walk-on Drew Bullard, so either Chavis Williams or Alex Watkins could come back over from outside linebacker; both have played Jack before. True freshman Nico Johnson appears to be the top backup inside now, as he saw the field before sophomore Chris Jordan last week, and triggered an interception to boot. There is nothing wrong with Robertson or Nwigwe for North Texas; Alabama is simply better. Advantage: Alabama

    DEFENSIVE BACKS
    Alabama would love to have Kylie Hill playing in a crimson uniform. Hill will probably find a home in the pros after this season, and opponents typically find where he is and then go the other way. Cornerback Royce Hill has 2 interceptions already, and starts along with Ira Smith at corner. DeWaylon Cook has had a nice season so far at free safety. Jeremy Phillips also plays a rover safety position at times. Depth is good, with former starters Antoine Bush and Darien Williams available off the bench along with Adryan Adams as a nickelback. Alabama’s cornerbacks have been good this year, most notably Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson, while Marquis Johnson bounced back from a rough-at-times opener to post a strong game against FIU. Safety is another matter. Justin Woodall has been a non-factor in 2009, and Mark Barron vacillates between being a weapon in the secondary and a liability due to bad angles. Robby Green played more against FIU than in earlier games and will likely have a bigger role here, as well. With North Texas going four-wide every snap, look for Ali Sharrief and Tyrone King Jr. to also get meaningful playing time, along with perhaps Dre Kirkpatrick, a true freshman who had a strong debut last week. Chris Rogers adds depth. North Texas’ pass defense numbers are good so far in 2008, but that’s largely a function of the competition. Take Alabama’s athleticism here. Advantage: Alabama

    SPECIAL TEAMS
    Alabama’s special teams are in a strange place. The kickers have been superb. Alabama’s punt return unit leads the conference and is one of the top units in the country. Alabama covers punts well. Alabama’s kickoff return unit, however, languishes in mediocrity, but the kickoff coverage unit has been flat-out terrible. As kickers, Alabama’s Leigh Tiffin (placekicker) and P.J. Fitzgerald (punter) are slightly better than North Texas’ Jeremy Knott and Will Atterberry. Javier Arenas has no peer as a punt returner. But North Texas has done a good job of covering kicks, and has put up good net punting numbers. Despite all Alabama’s potential weapons, North Texas has been more consistent. Advantage: North Texas

    OVERALL

    Alabama leads in seven categories, North Texas in one, and that one is pretty much a toss-up depending on what is most important. Alabama has clear advantages in both line matchups.

    North Texas looks like an improved team from 2008, but is it enough to beat Bama? Not likely. North Texas is about the same level team as was Florida International, which means the Sun Belt title chase should be fun to watch.

    Where North Texas can hurt Alabama is through the air. Alabama’s secondary has been a smoke-and-mirrors outfit so far in 2008 and it’s just a matter of time until safety play bites Alabama in the rear. However, the rest of the defense has been so good – which includes the cornerbacks – that Alabama can afford to scheme away from its weaknesses. North Texas cannot.

    If Riley Dodge is out of this game, North Texas’ chances at an upset go from virtually none to absolute zero. And if Dodge does play, if Alabama gets to him the way the Crimson Tide did Tyrod Taylor and Paul McCall in the first two weeks, his stay under center will probably be a short one.

    Look for another game to start closely, with some big plays given up, but Alabama’s superior depth and athleticism will make the difference in the end, and especially the second half.

    Alabama 48
    North Texas 14
    Last edited by BamaNation; September 16th, 2009 at 04:25 PM.
    Jess Nicholas
    Editor-In-Chief
    TideFans.com

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