Mean Green's scoring blues
DCTF's Greg Tepper diagnoses the real problems behind North Texas' scoring woes.
Heading into the 2012 season, we here at Dave Campbell’s Texas Football had very high hopes for North Texas. The Mean Green entered into the season with considerable momentum after a very good 5-7 year (considering they were 6-37 in the previous four years), a second-year head coach in Dan McCarney and some very promising pieces. We predicted them to go 6-6 and reach a bowl for the first time since 2004.
And then…the wheels fell off the offense.
The Mean Green slumped to a 4-8 record, taking a step back instead of a step forward, and a lion’s share of the blame lies on the offense. The North Texas offense averaged just 20.9 points per game, good enough for 105th in the country and the worst in Texas.
In fact, it’s the worst scoring offense by a Texas FBS program since 2009, when both Rice and Baylor failed to crack the 21-points-per-game barrier.
But if you look at everything, it’s a little hard to figure out why the Mean Green had such a tough time scoring. After all, UNT ranked 67th in total offense, gaining 392.2 yards of offense per game. They ranked 53rd in rushing offense at 173.1 yards per game, and 74th in passing offense at 219.1 yards per game. Those are by no means good totals, but they should, in theory, result in more than 20.9 points per game.
And it’s not like the Mean Green were giving up a bunch of turnovers – they turned the ball over exactly as many times as they forced a turnover, with a reasonable 19 of each – or a bunch of sacks – they actually led the nation by allowing just five sacks all year.
So…what’s the problem? Why couldn’t North Texas score?
It obviously comes down to a number of factors, but let’s try to diagnose why the Mean Green weren’t able to turn their adequate yardage into adequate points.
You probably could’ve seen this coming. North Texas was simply dreadful on third down, converting just 32.8% of their chances, which ranks 115th. When you can’t convert on third down, you can’t stay on the field. And when you can’t stay on the field, you can’t score.
But it goes deeper than that for the Mean Green. It’s not just that they were bad at converting third downs; it’s the kind of third downs they were getting themselves into. Consider this chart:
|3rd Down Distance||Plays||% of 3D Plays||Conversion Rate|
See what I mean? It stands to reason that a team’s third down conversion rate has a negative correlation with the third down distance – that is to say, as the third down gets longer, the team will convert less often. That is true with North Texas, with the Mean Green converting more than half of their third downs with 3-and-fewer yards to gain, and converting just 14% of its third-and-10+ opportunities.
The problem is that the Mean Green could not stay out of third and long. Look at that: more than half of their third down plays came on 3rd-and-7 or longer. That is setting yourself up for failure.
And even with all of that practice on 3rd-and-long, they just weren’t very good at it. UNT’s conversion rate on 3rd-and-7 or longer this season was 17.2%, which ranks 116th in the nation. Even Southern Miss – winless Southern Miss – converted 27% of its 3rd-and-long chances.
Plain and simple: third down was just a mess for the Mean Green in 2012, and it cost them a lot of points.
The Red Zone
Another relatively predictable cause of North Texas’ scoring woes: when they got close to the end zone, they didn’t do a very good job coming away with points.
The Mean Green finished the year scoring on just 71.4% of their chances inside their opponents’ 20, which is tied for 116th in the nation. What’s worse: only half of their 42 trips to the red zone resulted in touchdowns, which is tied for 103rd in the nation.
But, as you can probably guess, the red zone problem is only the most visible – and, thus, most easily identified – problem with regard to field position. Because what was an even bigger problem than North Texas inside their opponents’ 20? Why, it’s…
The Front Zone
If you ask me, the red zone is largely overemphasized. It’s obviously important, but is it all that more important than performance just outside the opponents’ red zone, from the 21 to the 39-yard line? I think that the gulf between plays run on the 30 and plays run on the 20 is overstated. (For clarity, I’ll once again borrow a phrase from my spirit animals at Football Outsiders and henceforth refer to the area between the defense’s 21-yard line and the defense’s 39-yard line as “The Front Zone.”)
And this is where North Texas’ woes really become apparent.
I crunched the numbers for all FBS teams on plays run in the Front Zone for the 2012 season, with particular focus on yards per play. Some of the results are predictable: Oregon, Kansas State and Texas A&M averaged the highest yards per play on plays run in the Front Zone, averaging 8.53, 7.54 and 7.45 yards per play, respectively.
As for North Texas? The Mean Green ranked a paltry 109th in yards per play in the Front Zone, managing just 4.61 yards per play. They finished behind legitimately bad teams like South Alabama, Akron and Tulane in that metric.
But – and not to belabor the point – that’s not all. I also compared each of the FBS teams’ yards-per-play average in the Front Zone to their yards-per-play average for all plays, giving us an idea of which teams are particularly good – or particularly bad – in this critical part of the field.
The results were even worse for North Texas: the Mean Green averaged 0.91 fewer yards in the Front Zone than they did on all plays. That ranks 119th in the country, making North Texas one of only six teams to average at least 0.9 fewer yards per play in the Front Zone than on all plays. (The other five teams, in case you were wondering: New Mexico State, Wisconsin, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana-Lafayette and Pittsburgh.)
So, it stretches far beyond the Mean Green’s red zone woes. Once they got to their opponents’ 39-yard line, things got very difficult for UNT.
The Return Game
While the average fan may overrate performance in the Red Zone, I think the average fan also underrates special teams. These plays can have a pivotal role in deciding winning and losing, and when a team struggles to score as badly as North Texas did, one has to look at all aspects.
The return game – kickoffs and punts – can sometimes be a team’s best opportunity to improve its field position. And for North Texas, those opportunities went squandered more often than not.
North Texas finished 121st in the nation in punt return average – managing just 2.1 yards per return on the season – and finished 107th in the nation in kick return average – getting just 19.2 yards per return.
In Bob Carroll, John Thorn and Pete Palmer’s essential book The Hidden Game of Football, the authors talk at length about “hidden yards,” things that don’t show up in the box score. North Texas’ inability to capitalize in the kick and punt return games qualifies as “hidden yards.”
In conclusion, there are a lot of reasons why North Texas struggled to score in 2012. It’s easy to say “they weren’t great at any one thing” (which is true) or “they were too conservative” (which is also true).
But when you drill down deep, many of the scoring woes can be traced back to problems on third down (and, specifically, a habit of getting into third-and-long), problems not just in the red zone but also inside the opponents’ 40, and an inability to use the kick and punt return game to their advantage.
Dan McCarney has a number of things to fix to get the Mean Green back on the track that DCTF thought they were on; fixing these issues may be the top priority.
Greg Tepper is the associate editor of Dave Campbell's Texas Football and TexasFootball.com.