2018 New Mexico Bowl: Utah State Routs North Texas 52-13

North Texas took a beating in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

It was ugly in most ways and the most important optics are ugly. The national columnists and national writers that peek in and take a scan through of the scoreboard and a box score or two will say “NT flopped because of their bad defense.”

This is a two-edged blade, so we cannot be upset about that characterization. Those same columnists took the good things about NT and spun those into useful stories that got Fine and Littrell in the NY Times, Jim Rome’s radio show etc.

Utah State finished with 556 yards including 359 passing and Jordan Love put up 4 scores against only 1 interception. The run game was explosive, as Thompson and Bright put up 196 yards and two scores.

The quick and easy story is this: Utah State is a good team and much better than CUSA’s second-or-third best team and it showed.

The truth is somewhere short of that. Sure, Utah St has a good team but NT was in this game in the first quarter. We expected a shootout and there was a little evidence of that unfolding until Mason Fine was hurt and everything fell apart.

The defense was eviscerated for big yards and plenty of scores in the 2nd quarter but that was exacerbated by the offense’s struggles. There was a little bit of the defense pressing to make a play because the offense could not.

The defense had two nice stops in the first quarter when it ended 14-7. After that, there was a Nate Brooks interception that only slightly stemmed the onslaught but for the most part NT’s defense was beaten down.

We can chalk up some blame to the altitude. A good portion of blame can be assigned to the offense, for putting the defense in bad positions quickly. The rest we can assign to the Utah State offense, which was good and as advertised.

The Aggie line was blocking up well, forcing NT’s run fits to be perfect, which was not the case. NT could not gang-tackle because they could not get off their blocks. As USU went up-tempo, it was even tougher to muster the energy to tackle.

As NT tired that all was exacerbated. There were shades of FAU 2017 in this one combined with UTEP 2016.

Offense

The real lesson is that Mason Fine is too important to lose. This was nothing new, but a reinforcement of an old truism. Each preview from the last two seasons said that if Mason Fine were to go down or out it would spell disaster for the team.

One measure of a program truly and well built as in as close to a completed thing as any college football program can be is the ability to lose a player and not miss much of a beat.

Quinn Shanbour has stepped in for Fine previously — Iowa 2017 and FAU 2018 — and done well in short shift duty. He finished this game 2/8 for 24 yards and 3 INTs. Some of those throws were just very unlucky, but that is the way of things.

The fan base called for Kason Martin, the viral freshman sensation and that was rewarded by his throwing 7/12 for 110 and a score — that score was a 75-yard toss to open the second half to Jalen Guyton. He looked like a young freshman with talent in his time.

Lso making an appearance was Jason Bean, the mobile QB with some arm talent. He threw incomplete on two passes including one that was picked.

All told it was a nightmare on offense. The team could not run and looked discombobulated without Mason Fine throwing. He made some game attempts to play but was pulled when an errant snap went over his head and he limped ineffectively after it.

Numbers: 313 yards | 4.2 yards per play | 75 plays | 4 turnovers | 19 first downs | 2/15 3rd %

Defense

This squad got smoked. Sure, we are making excuses for their 2nd quarter implosion allowing 24 points and 31 straight overall, but that was not all of the bad.

The first Utah State touchdown from Jordan Love was on a wheel route into gobs of space as Khairi Muhammad and Kemon Hall were left covering no one as the Utah state man ran into the endzone.

Big plays from Utah State: 72 yard TD, 37 yard TD, 67 yard TD. NT looked lost, and Love was throwing passes to wide-open guys running free. It was bad.

The brightest spots came early when NT forced two straight punts after that long score. After a 5-play 41-yard drive allowed NT picked off the first pass after turning it over themselves.

Then the first of three straight back-breaking TDs — 10-plays 78-yards, 2-52, 3-67.

Numbers: 2nd quarter only by USU: 24 points | 223 yards | 8/15 passing for 165 yards | 10 first downs | 6/8 3rd % | 7.4 yards per play

Coaching

Utah State only had four coaches this game and yes David Yost returned to call plays. Seth Littrell’s boys looked lost defensively and impotent offensively.

While each circumstance was different, Seth Littrell now has a 0-3 record in bowl games thus far. This was by far his best team and yes, Mason Fine was lost early when it was still a game and NT had designs on being in a shoot out.

North Texas has looked bad offensively with any QB not named Fine since the Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2016.

The depth is lacking, sure, and that was evident as NT looked poor without Fine and Bussey Jr.

Overall

This was very ugly and Seth Littrell will be asked some pointed questions soon. This is part of the deal. While each bowl loss has been understandable and perhaps even expected, getting hammered in the last two with his better teams (and this, his best team) is a bad look no matter how it is sliced.

North Texas was not better on paper than Utah State but was not 39-points worse. Going into next season the need for developing a QB behind Mason Fine is paramount. Kason Martin impressed in a short stint, but NT simply cannot afford to have such a drop off behind their starter again.

NT finished 9-4, just one loss from last year’s 9-5 record. The 10-win season still eludes the program, but a nice 9-win streak is ongoing.

Unfortunately, given the talent lost after this one, there is good reason to think that NT will be a worse overall team even if Fine and much of the offense are returning next season.

This was not a fun day in an otherwise good season.

Numbers: DeAndre Torrey finished with 18 TDs on the year, finishing just behind Patrick Cobbs 2003 season at 21, and Lance Dunbar’s 2009 season’s 19. | Mason Fine finished with 3793 yards passing | Jalen Guyton is at 15 career TD catches, putting him at 8th all time in NT history