2019: North Texas at Rice Preview

This has been a frustrating season, but one that was very predictable given the circumstances. The defense is young, and the offense has struggled to score enough to keep up. Mason Fine is the linchpin, and he has not finished something like four games this season due to injury.

It is easy to become “entitled” as a fan, especially in 2019, when every form of entertainment is a version of on-demand in your hands. Watching a college football program progress is very slow, and not as binge-able as Disney+ shows.

So it goes.

There is beauty and drama in this whole thing. All of the stories and entertainment we consume is because we love stories about other humans and while there is no unified, coherent, narrative beamed at your face there are lots of great stories here.

Mason Fine’s is the oft-told, and most compelling, obviously. He is a talented kid but undersized and under recruited until Seth Littrell’s staff took a chance and he made the most of it, becoming the all-time leader in practically all the passing statistics that North Texas tracks.

The frustrating thing about these stories is that we do not know where we are in the tale. Is this the end of a chapter or the entire tale of Mason Fine: Athlete Who Overcame Being Short? That kind of uncertainty can be off-putting because it is scary. It can remind you of your own life and how you cannot know what chapter you are on.

This weekend very well may be the end of your tale or mine. So we like the neater ones, buttoned up and ready for consumption and decidedly not existential.

So it is with our fandom of this program. There is some amount of over-caring about this football program because the rest of life can be so unwieldy and unmanageable. Some people treat the college football team with more oversight than they do their own local government — this site included.

It is not wrong, necessarily, but it is worth a bit of reflection. This site and this author can only tell you that I will be in Houston this weekend and that does not make me a better or worse fan. I will be there trying to enjoy my favorite college football team.

Rice

The best one-loss team in the nation was previously the best no-win team in the nation. Yes, the Rice Owls finally won a game — last week against Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro. Head coach Mike Bloomgren is all-in on the Stanford-like offense he wants — Intellectual Brutaility he calls it — and he has built a program in that image.

As you might imagine, it has taken a while. Rice is not a particularly easy place to recruit to, but that is why the brass picked the former Stanford coordinator. So far, they need a quarterback, but they have the running backs.

In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the UTEP squad under Sean Kugler. Remember the Mean Green lost to that squad in late-season games also. Rice has the second-worst offense in the league (ODU) and cannot seem to get out of their own way.

North Texas is still playing for bowl eligibility while Rice is looking for a home win.

Defending Rice

Well, Rice does a lot of the defending for you, because they are not good. Yes, they are physical, but they are predictable. They run, run, pass, and when they do pass it is about a 50% proposition they will complete it.

North Texas has done well against poor offensive teams this season (UTSA, UTEP) and we can expect a lot of the same. A good portion of the game will hinge on the desire of the squad. If NT has checked out mentally, this can be a Rice win. If NT is hungry still, well they should beat Rice handily.

The Vegas line reflects this a bit: they have NT as about six-point favorites. Bloomgren has done a remarkable job of keeping his guys focused despite numerous near-misses. North Texas had higher expectations and has essentially failed to achieve them. That is the most compelling part of this matchup.

RB Aston Walter is nice, and has run for 100+ in four games this season. He can break one. QB Tom Stewart was not asked to do much for a large part of this season, but had a nice game against Middle’s poor secondary. He went 18/22 for 222 yards and three scores.

Attacking Rice

Rice is ranked 12th of 14 teams in the league in opponent passer rating. The teams below them are UTEP and Charlotte, the two squads against whom Mason Fine tossed 12 scores. The two above are UTSA and Middle, and Mason tossed three scores against those two combined.

Against all four of those, Mason Fine has a QB Rating of ~176, which is very good. All told, he should be able to put up numbers against this Rice squad. If he is unable to go, and we have to see Jason Bean or Austin Aune, they should be good in this one.

While Rice was able to hold USM to a muted game offensively, Southern Miss is known for their play at home, and poor road performances. The same can be said for Louisiana Tech, which struggled with Grambling also. Essentially, the teams that Rice defended well against are known for self-harm. The good teams they played were unaffected.

North Texas has been able to tear up the bad defenses in this league — Charlotte, UTEP, UTSA. All things being equal (everyone playing hard) this should not be a difficult game.

Every time NT goes to Rice, it is a satellite home game, as the NT section is loud and populated.

Random Notes

The last time NT played here (2017) they were sacked a ton, and we were upset with the performance. NT went on to get blown out by FAU in the title game and then again by Troy in the New Orleans Bowl.

Last year, NT started slowly at Apogee before blowing the game open and going on to win big. In 2016, we also played at Rice because of the change in league membership (UAB came back) and North Texas got its first big win in OT against the Owls.

Mason Fine finished 8/15 for 58 yards vs LA Tech. Last year he finished 8/12 for 59 yards against Utah St.

Fine is still 8 TDs away from 100 for his career.

The 2017, 2018, and 2019 teams all rank in the top-5 points-per-game in school history. This year’s squad is at 33.2. The 1951 team set the record with a 36.2 mark.

Since 2017, this year’s team has the lowest yards-per-game of those three teams at 449.6. In 2018, it was 460.5 and in 2017 it was 455.1. However, this year’s yards-per-play average is 6.22, which is the highest of the three seasons by a slight margin.

In Littrell’s four years, NT has not led the league in scoring or total offense but has been 2nd in each of the last three seasons.

Bowl Thoughts

We have said this year looks like seven wins is needed to guarantee a bowl appearance. That is out of reach, so NT is hoping six will do it. Rice is the easier of the two. UAB comes to Denton the next week, and that will be tough but UAB is going through some QB issues right now.

My gut tells me if NT gets invited to a bowl it will be close by, and that is probably best for all parties. The season has not built up anyone’s appetite for travel and NT has already been to New Orleans — the nearest “destination” bowl.

If NT can take care of getting eligible — a gigantic ‘if’ — my guess is like a Frisco Bowl.