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Rice Beats Up North Texas 20-14

HOUSTON, TX — As usual, the traveling North Texas crowd looked bigger than the home supporters, but that did not matter. Mike Bloomgren’s Rice Owls came to play on Saturday at Rice Stadium, and Seth Littrell’s Mean Green did not.

Of course, things are not as simple as effort and desire and the twenty-two starters on each team cannot be summed up by a simple adjective. Still, North Texas preaches being the “most excited to play” and it looked like the green team was not.

NT went down 20-0 and the same old problems emerged: could not protect Fine, mistakes in execution, and some questionable play calling. Defensively, Reffet’s player okay but could not generate the consistent pass rush that would have put Rice in reaction mode.

Late in the game, needing a stop, the defense surrendered two first downs that sealed the game for Rice. They ran out the clock and celebrated their second win of the season, and their first at Rice Stadium.

Rice had that to play for — Bloomgren has done a great job of keeping his team ready despite so many close calls — and NT had just a chance at a bowl game in a season that started with much higher hopes.

This season is effectively over. There is one game to play: next week vs UAB on Senior Day. Outside of sending off Mason Fine and the other guys who helped revive the program, there will be nothing extra to play for.

Long time North Texas fans will remember that the last time the season ended this way it was 2015, and we had a coaching change. Seth Littrell will not be fired, but he will still he sought after despite this season’s outcome. He can point to the record book, the young talent on the roster, and the three bowl appearances as proof that he built something at NT.

The setbacks can be explained by acknowledging that he is a first-time coach and learning mistakes happen. There probably could have been some better decisions made in recruiting and hiring but it all has been for the good and this has been one of the most successful eras of the program that does not include a trophy case.

It is important to keep that perspective when attempting to digest an ugly loss such as this one. Rice, for all the very due praise they have gotten all season for being tough, is not as talented as NT from 1-85.

They made that not matter for a large portion of this game, however. A lot of that is coaching.

Offense

putting their The offense had only 238 yards on 57 plays. Rice wanted to choke the game by holding the ball but the real culprit was the poor execution. Fine threw an ugly early interception and missed a few receivers — including Greg White in the end zone. The line could not create space for Siggers not protect Fine often enough to get a rhythm.

Later, NT had a shot from the red zone after Rice fumbled. The refs did not call an interference call on 3rd-and-12 but NT was not exactly not exactly putting the Owl defense on their heels. They needed a 4th down conversion the previous drive and a ball to go through a defender’s hands on a pass to Lawrence.

Ultimately, NT had their chances to win and did not capitalize.

Defense

The Rice offense was solid and unspectacular. They scored 20 in the first half, aided by some short fields but scored when they needed to. The NT defense allowed some conversions early and that hurt them. Later in the second half they did well to force punts except on the final drive when they allowed a big first down on third and long.

NT brought heavy pressure and left Nick Harvey in single coverage. QB Tom Stewart lofted a pass to his big target Austin Trammel who had inside position and used his superior size to go up and get it. Rice used up more clock and then converted a game-sealing 3rd down on the ground.

Defense should be judged in two ways: comprehensive and situational. North texas did well overall and poorly in the latter category. The overall numbers are solid. Holding a team to 20 and under 350 is usually winning defensive football.

However, allowing red zone touchdowns and game sealing drives when you need a stop is not. The staff takes a lot of heat and some of it is very deserved — how, in a scheme that is designed to get pressure, does the squad not get enough pressure?

Some of it is undeserved — this defense is young and getting better weekly.

In this one everyone will remember that the defense was the last unit to make a losing play, but the gave the offense enough possessions and therefore opportunity to win.

Coaching

We wrote that Seth Littrell would earn his paycheck this week, as he had to motivate his group in a game that is very easy to dismiss against a team with nothing to lose, and hunger to impress.

There are a string of bad starts to this season — on the road and at home. SMU, Cal, this game come to mind quickly. North Texas is simply not ready to play to start the game. That is coaching.

The head coach is an offensive guru, and handpicked his new offensive coordinator. He said in preseason that he always had changes in mind for this year and wanted to be aggressive and more explosive.

Injuries have taken some of the experience from the team, but the mistakes that have plagued the group all year do not inspire confidence.

The criticism of the Air Raid system Littrell brought with him was of empty calories: big numbers but little in the way of details. Put another way it is “yes, you can have big per-game numbers but can you win a big game, or a big drive, or a high-leverage moment?”

Littrell’s group has pulled off some big plays in crucial moments but also has some huge, glaringly bad performances in others. It is discouraging to see his offense be the inconsistent performer in those games and moments.

Overall

This was a terrible loss. Rice deserves a lot of credit and Bloomgren has them playing well. Still, NT is further along the process than Rice is and had an all-timer at QB.

There is little reason to expect better in the finale against a better team than Rice, and a more experienced coach than Bloomgren. UAB beat Tech this day and combined with the USM loss to WKU, controls their fate in the west division.

Put simply: NT has nothing but pride to play for while UAB has a championship appearance on the line.

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North Texas Loses To Tech 52-17, Mason Fine Injured

For any shot at a division title or a reasonable bowl appearance, North Texas had to beat Tech in Ruston. They accomplished that feat two seasons ago in a tough game that ended with a missed field goal.

This season, they were beat up, but feeling good after two incredible offensive performances against two of the worst defensive teams in the league in UTEP and Charlotte. It was always going to be tough in this one, but there was hope.

That hope was quickly eradicated and stomped and choked and buried. Then it was dug up and beat some more for good measure.

Mason Fine left the game with a concussion near the end of the first half. NT had struggled, but was within 14 points at the end of the first two quarters. From then on, it was all Tech. They took full advantage of Jason Bean as their playmaking defense stepped up and made huge plays.

Bean struggled, but showed some promise here and there. He could not drive his team to a score, however and NT stayed at three points even after intercepting J’Mar Smith once and setting up the offense for a score.

Austin Aune made an appearance and immediately tossed a score to Mike Lawrence, lending speculation that we may see a depth chart reshuffle.

While frustrating to those that expected much more — the oft-repeated league favorite thing — this was always a possibility. The offense needed to be great and it was not to start this game against a quality defense. After the QB switch, the chances of scoring lots of points dropped dramatically.

Jason Bean has talent but is clearly not the QB that Mason Fine is. That acknowledged, Fine amounted only 48 yards in the first half and the offense could not muster more than the three points even while starting in quality positions.

North Texas has a bye week before traveling to Rice to take on the Owls in a game that is needed to reach six wins. NT is 4-6 with two to play, and a bowl game invite is looking dicey, even with six. Meanwhile, Tech controls their destiny at 8-1 on the season, and with UAB getting drilled by USM, they would have to drop two games for USM to make up the difference the rest of the way.

The Future

This was — again — an unbalanced team taking on a good one. There have been some criticisms of the experience level on the defense, and with good reason, but NT has largely made defendable choices. The offense, despite recent events, is record setting. The defense was pretty good last season all things considered. This season has been a disappointment, but there is young talent on both sides of the ball and good reason to think they will develop into a quality team in the coming seasons.

The one issue that is difficult to address is the quarterback position. Ideally, a QB that could learn with the rest of the young talent would get reps but that would mean pulling the best QB in the league. That is a non-starter and so Fine has got the majority of repetitions in the game.

There are a ton of quality graduate transfer QBs out there if North Texas feels they cannot reasonably compete with the current group. The future of the roster is bright.

The other question is the staff. After a 4-win season Seth Littrell is not as hot of a coaching candidate as he was last season, but he is still respected and injuries and roster turnover have been a big factor in the decline this year. If he were to leave, NT would have a big coaching search decision on their hands.

It is easy to get dramatic at a loss like this. This margin of loss makes everyone question everything, but making big decisions after one or two outstanding results is generally not good practice. NT had a set back but is overall trending upward compared to the last time they were under .500.

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Seven Is Fine: North Texas 52 UTEP 26

Mason Fine threw seven touchdown passes, including two in the first couple of minutes as the Mean Green proceeded to handle UTEP easily on Homecoming. The Miners kept it closer-than-expected, but there was never really a point where NT looked like they would be too troubled.

This makes two weeks in a row that NT has exploded on offense. NT finished with 479 on offense and it could have been more if they wanted. Mason Fine threw for five scores in the first half and seven for the game following last week’s five score effort against Charlotte.

Jyaire Shorter caught his first TD pass of the game on a 48-yarder, making it 4 straight catches for 4 TDs across the last two. He finished with two grabs 59 yards and the one score. On the season he has eight TDs on 19 catches, an incredible return.

The star of the game and the season, really was Jaelon Darden. North Texas found a way to execute on short yardage plays and that involves throwing the ball to Darden in the flat on some motion-swing passes. He scored three times in this one, including two from 6-yards out.

Darden is just about un-guardable in space, and NT has recently found a way to make him a threat throughout the game. This has been helped by the emergence of Shorter and Deonte Simpson. Both struggled to start the year — Simpson did not get the start over Bussey and Hair-Griffin but has recently been getting lots of snaps.

Darden finished with 6 grabs for 60 yards and the three scores. He has 11 on the season, putting him just two behind Ron Shanklin’s school record of 13. Darden is tied for 4th. Rico Bussey Jr. and NT hall-of-famer Casey Fitzgerald are tied for 2nd with 13.

He also tied with like, a ton of guys, for the 2nd with 3 receiving scores in a game.

Fine’s seven tosses were a school record at Apogee. Previously, Mason Fine had the school record for scores there with four three other times (v UTEP ’17, v Army ’17, v Incarnate Word ’18). Houston’s Casey Keenum had five at Apogee in the stadium opener way back when.

Fine also becomes just the second NT QB to throw for five TDs twice in one season, with Steve Ramsay throwing for five three times in 1968. The school record for a game is Giovanni Vizza’s 8 in 2007 vs Navy. Fine has now thrown for 12 scores in two games. He now has 27 on the season, which equals last year’s total. He has the school record of 31 set in 2017.

Fine already has the school career record at 91 and counting.

North Texas is now 4-5, 3-2 on the season. Charlotte and UTEP were the easier of the games on the schedule. We saw evidence of that in the way the offense was able to score seemingly at will. The defense did not hold up against Charlotte but was able to dominate UTEP.

The schedule looks like this: @Tech, @Rice, vs UAB.

The Mean Green need to win out. After that, they need Tech to drop another game and have Southern Miss lose twice more. USM has division leading FAU, surprising WKU, and defending champ UAB on their schedule. It is not unreasonable. Tech has NT, UAB, and Marshall and UTSA. Three of those are tough.

There is hope, and really, if NT can just get two of the final three, it will be enough to be eligible. Realistically, the Mean Green need to get to seven wins. Four CUSA squads have six-or-more wins at the moment, including Tech with seven and UAB with six.

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Queen City Let Down: North Texas 38 Charlotte 39

Mason Fine threw for 5 TDs but it was not enough. NT needed two more points to win this thing and they were not there. This was the best offensive effort in some weeks for Mason Fine and HC Seth Littrell, but the defense was shredded late by a Charlotte team in its first year under Will Healy.

Charlotte has some talent — Benny LeMay ran the ball and caught the ball well, and for the first three weeks of this season the 49ers led the league in scoring. All that has been mostly forgotten the last couple of weeks — after getting smoked by Clemson (understandable) and beaten by FAU (self-inflicted).

In the 4th quarter, Charlotte’s effort and resilience were rewarded with a little luck and success. The key was obviously the final 34-yard TD to put them ahead by a point (the 2-point attempt failed after). North Texas had Charlotte pinned back deep but allowed two consecutive big pass plays to allow the score.

The pass rush was not there in time, and the secondary was too small for the big WRs.

Fine and company came up just short on a brilliant offensive day. All season we said this offense needed to be nearly-perfect to pull out wins and they were just short of that. The key failures in the 4th quarter aided the comeback effort. NT scored on a little out to Jaelon Darden late but it was called back because of penalties. The subsequent field goals attempt was blocked.

North Texas only scored three in the final frame.

Mason Fine threw for five scores — three of which went to Jyaire Shorter, who caught all three of his passes for scores and 111 yards. Jaelon Darden also continued his stellar play, grabbing 104 yards worth of passes and a score on a 68-yarder early. North Texas went deep early and often against the Charlotte secondary and it mostly worked.

The issue was that Charlotte kept scoring and NT didn’t keep it up in the final quarter.

This team was always imbalanced coming into the season. The defense is young and inexperienced, with transfers in the secondary trying to replace quality multi-year starter in some cases. The pass rush has been missing consistent pressure this season, also. The departed Ejiya was a leading sack-getter last season and no one really has stepped up in that place.

To be a threat, NT had to score like it did in 2016. Early this season that has not happened, to much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.

This game, against a porous defense, NT looked something like the team that we hoped to see all season. Unfortunately, the offense did not get the luck it did even last season, when the would-be tying passes did not always get completed — that UTSA game? — or in 2016, when the offense was always able to deliver late even against poor odds.

Fine threw a deep seam route to Darden with 14 seconds left that, if complete, would have set up NT for a nice chip-shot field goal attempt. Instead, it was incomplete and the protestations for a flag were ignored.

The bright spots are these: WR Jyaire Shorter looked amazing and so did Jaelon Darden. Deonte Simpson and others also shone bright, giving us some hope for their development long term.

The bad news is that Mason Fine is very close to not having a chance to compete for his first bowl victory. NT is 3-5 and the schedule is tough.

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Things Are Looking Bleak: NT 27 – USM 45

Mason Fine is injured with something that looks very serious. He tried to continue with what looked like a shoulder injury once, did so, and then hurt that same shoulder bad enough to sit out the rest of the way.

Without NT’s all-time passing leader in pretty much every category, there is even less hope for digging out of a 2-4 hole. Even with Fine at the helm, NT has struggled to move the ball the way we all expected. Fine’s numbers are down slightly from last season, and he has been hit more often than he has been since his freshman season where he took a beating.

Watching USM explode for 563 yards while NT struggled to get 378 was telling. NT’s playmakers are not making the plays that USM’s Quez Watkins (8 grabs for 198) or De’Michael Harris (19 touches for 186 yards and 3 scores) are.

The offense is not getting players in space to run against hesitating defenders. Tre Siggers went out early and NT was back to not having an identity any longer. Jaelon Darden had 5 grabs for 87 and 3 scores, but one of those came in garbage time and there were not enough plays by the other guys to help him get more.

At half this game was 28-20 USM. This game was lost in the third quarter, however, where NT went Missed FG, Punt, and INT and USM scored 10. By the start of the 4th quarter Mason Fine was injured and NT was down 18.

That is not to say the first half was really good. No, NT punted three times in the first quarter, continuing the streak of poor starts. Mason Fine threw off his back foot (bad) and the ball was intercepted through a bit of luck (which happens when you are in good position) and USM was set up for a short, go-ahead score.

This loss would not feel as bad if it were not on the heels of a poor performance against Houston two weeks go. It would also be much better if Mason Fine were not ending the game getting medical scans.

NT is 2-4 and 1-1 in conference play. This is not a completely untenable position, but a bowl game and a conference title appearance do not look too likely at this point.

With Mason Fine there are no guarantee wins the rest of the way — even UTEP can be dangerous. Without? Well, NT may have to squint really hard for another win the rest of the way.

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North Texas Cannot Handle Houston, Lose 46-25 In Front of Record Crowd

Houston losing D’Eriq King after he redshirted was never going to be an automatic win for NT. In fact, this site cautioned against thinking the defense would continue the streak of touchdown-free quarters. Dana Holgerson is too good of an offensive mind to let his teams go without a score.

We also were concerned about Marques Stevenson, he of the many targets and ability to change the game returning the ball.

We also thought the run game would be the focus of the Houston defense. It was.

We hoped that NT would have the answer for all these things. They did not.

No, North Texas lost 46-25 to Houston in front of the largest crowd in Apogee history. Mason Fine mustered 353 yards passing but a good portion of that was while chasing the game.

The run game was the focus, and Houston got lots of pressure. NT was unable to find the necessary counter measures early. The essential takeaway from the first quarter was that NT had a 4th-and-22, and two 4th-and-1s.

They punted twice and were stopped short of the sticks the other time. Houston scored 14-first quarter points. One was on a 68-yard TD by Patrick Carr. The other was on a 9-play, 81-yard drive.

North Texas held Houston to a FG after that turnover, but only managed a FG after that.

NT had a better second quarter but totaled six points, and needed a buzzer-beating FG to do it. The good news was that that the defense managed three stops of the Houston offense in that time. It could have been worse earlier.

Houston scored on their first drive, 8-plays, 60-yards that included a big pass-interference call on Taylor Robinson on 3rd and 4 from the NT 23.

NT scored six on the next drive, an 11-play, 75-yard drive that saw Siggers get into the end zone from four.

Then it kind of fell apart. NT kicked it off to Stevenson who returned it 82-yards for six. The next possession saw NT score again — this time a 33-yard score to Jyaire Shorter

NT managed another stop after 5-plays and only 14 yards. NT could not move, punting to Bryson Smith who returned it 60-yards for six. Houston added a 2-point conversion to make it 39-18.

By then it was desperation time. NT failed to convert on 4th and 2, getting stuffed in the backfield with 12:32 left.

Houston punted after 4 minutes, and NT scored after 3:16 to make it 39-25. Houston scored again, on four plays. Clayton Tune got free for 55-yards. Patrick Carr scored from 12.

NT turned it over and then Houston kneeled it out.

So where did it go wrong? Let us analyze this loss.

Offense

NT had yet-another slow start to the the game. They were not quite sure if they wanted to be aggressive, and we can look at Seth Littrell and criticize. The run game was the focus for both teams, and NT was unable to power through the Houston line like they did UTSA’s.

The pass game was not crisp. The snaps were low, and that seemed to throw off the timing. The early shots were just sort of the sticks and that meant the WRs needed to get a yard. They failed to do so.

That set up some big decisions. NT punted early, then was stopped later in the first quarter.

In the second quarter, the situation was the same. Mason Fine throws incomplete on 3rd-and-5 to Lawrence. That led to a field goal.

Later, NT got to the Houston 27 after a big 4th-and-9 pass to Lawrence that got 12. NT followed that with a four-yard-loss, a Fine sack that lost 9, and an incomplete pass. Punt.

The next time NT had the ball, on 4th-and-1 from the NT 40 Mose had a false-start that caused a punt. Mose had a bad game, losing his man, snapping high, and this play here.

The next drive was promising but the half was creeping up. NT found points but the earlier blunders kept them from the end zone.

The second-half first possession was better. NT looked complete, mixing up pass and power runs that kept Houston off-balance. The pass game was crisp, getting the ball out of Fine’s hands faster, and the run game managed to get yards in short-to-go situations. There were some more mishandling of the ball, however.

Later, NT got out of a tough situation twice. The intentional grounding call put NT at 2nd-and-22. A couple of big completions helped the cause but NT scored on 3rd-and-10. Not nearly the best down-and-distance management.

Last drive that mattered: NT threw three-straight but couldn’t get the blocking on the Darden screen. NT punted from their own 8.

There were compounding problems here. NT had trouble blocking up front, snapping the ball, and throwing on-time passes, and then catching those passes. After they were caught — if they were caught — NT did not have many plays made.

Shorter, Darden, Lawrence, Simpson, Hair-Griffin made some good catches but did not get enough YAC to turn these drives into TD-scoring drives.

NT needs the pass-game equivalent of those Siggers runs where he powers through arm tackles.

Mason Fine was hit entirely too often early, and then of course, when NT was chasing the game he took the brunt of the hits.

NT managed 456 total yards, scored 25 points., went 8/22 on third downs and 4/7 on fourth.

Defense

NT had a nice second quarter after a terrible first. The 68-yard score from Carr was a great effort from him, finding the cutback lane and exploding to daylight. NT did not fill the run lane gap and that is a mistake we have seen before. Talent will make you pay for mistakes, and Carr is talented. Chalk this one up to inexperience.

The second drive in the first quarter was more inexperience, and miscommunication. Marques Stevenson took a pass 32-yards and make people miss in open space.

The second quarter saw better pressure on Tune, better gap-integrity in the run game, and better tackling overall.

Early in the third, NT allowed an opening TD after a big return from Stevenson. They got beat on some check downs. Later, Patrick Carr powered his way into the end zone.

The next Houston drive was a great exercise in discipline.

Overall NT held Houston to 359 yards, 235 through the air, 4/11 on third downs and sacked Tune once. It was not always pretty, but 15 of the 46-points were thanks to special teams.

Special Teams

Marques Stevenson had 112 kick return yards, one of which went for six. The other set up a short field that led to another TD. Bryson Smith had 2 returns for 63 yards including the big 60-yard score.

Biagi’s group has been praised heavily recently, especially after the Arkansas game last season. He deserves praise for the good, and criticism for the bad. This game was a reminder of the time NT kicked twice to ODU’s star returner and yes, he scored on both.

This game was not lost because of Special Teams, but it certainly wasn’t helped by it. Houston scored only 31 offensively and NT’s offense only mustered 25, so that would not cut it. The coverage teams did not help the cause, however.

Coaching

Seth Littrell has a troubling trend where he loses all the big games. Three is no real definition for “big”, but the ones that immediately come to mind are these:

Bowl games: 0-3. Two were by blowout (Utah State, Troy) and one was an OT loss.

Championship game: 0-1. The embarrassing blowout to FAU in the title game.

Big Regular Season Games: 2-4? He beat UTSA in 2017, albeit via miracle comeback. He beat FAU in a big game last season. He lost to Louisiana Tech, and UAB in big games, and this one where NT was favored by 7.5 in front of the largest crowd in NT history.

It is an unfortunate truth that eventually fans will become accustomed to success. If the program wants to maintain the growth and success, it needs to win some of these 50/50 games.

Dana Holgerson called a good game and had some good playmakers. NT did not capitalize often enough, and the special teams killed them.

Overall

NT was always going to drop off compared to last year’s team. The biggest concern has been the offense. Last year we hoped it would be more consistent, even though it had big overall numbers. Seth Littrell suggested they knew this was the case anyway, and that changes were coming even before Graham Harrell moved on to USC.

This season, the pass game has been lacking, while the run game has carried the offense. NT has the same old problem it has had for three seasons: it cannot protect Fine that well, it cannot find consistency, and it comes up short in crunch time.

There is a lot to play for this season. All of CUSA is weaker. Defending Champ UAB just lost on the road to a weak WKU, that is starting a new QB. Southern Miss looks good and talented but they have questions still. La Tech was taken to OT by Rice, a program that is still rebuilding.

Over in the East, favorite Marshall was demolished 52-14 by Cincinnati. FIU is a shell of itself. FAU just beat Charlotte, but has not looked like that championship-winning side from 2017 until today.

The point is that NT very well may be bad vs the rest of the nation. But so is the rest of the league and well, the hardware is what matters. Last year’s team was better but faced a better UAB team, and a luckier La Tech team at the wrong time.

Darrel Dickey won Sun Belt titles but few remember the quality of the league then. In fact, few people go back and assess the quality of any trophy in the display case. To modify the famous Herm Edwards words, “you play to win the trophies.”

There is still a trophy to play for and NT is 1-0 on that road.

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NT vs Houston: Half-time Notes

North Texas moved the ball in the first series against Houston, but stalls out midfield. That was North Texas most successful series until a field goal in the second quarter. Houston then took over the quarter, putting pressure on the North Texas offensive line. UNT’s plays developed too slowly for Mason Fine to get a comfortable pass in. I think Houston quickly forced UNT away from their game plan on both offense and defense, and they adjusted on the fly.

Defense looked a little more comfortable after the first two touchdowns, giving the offense enough opportunities to get back into the game. The offense continued to sputter the rest of the half. For every Tre Siggers run or Mike Lawrence heroic first down catch, there were many miscues. Receivers have been visibly frustrated, and Fine has been shouting orders as well. After all those miscues, North Texas needed to score to end the half. Three points still makes it a two-score game, with Houston getting the ball first to start the second half.

Going into this game, Houston needed to slow down North Texas’ run game. They have put a lot of pressure on UNT’s interior, forcing Siggers to either break multiple tackles to get a gain on a run play, or take a loss. Houston has also stuffed UNT’s screen game, two big facets of Reeder’s offense. Fine has been made uncomfortable in the pass game and has taken multiple hits.

The defense ended the half on a positive note, but the offense needs to get back into rhythm.

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North Texas Destroys UTSA 45-3

Ladies and gentleman, North Texas destroyed rival from San Antonio UTSA.

The final was 45-3 and it was not even that close. North Texas put up 501 yards of offense and 290 of that was on the ground. Tre Siggers, newly appointed star running back, ran for 143 himself (on 14 carries), knocking UTSA dudes aside as he ran through them.

North Texas fans had hoped for a playmaker to help Mason Fine and it turns out it is the stable of running backs. DeAndre Torrey had 62 yards running on the ground and added 60 through the pass game and a score. The two starting backs combined for 265 yard, four scores through the air and on the ground.

Mason Fine had a pedestrian 195 and 2 scores, on 15/22 passing.

The defense that played so well for three quarters against Cal last week was outstanding against UTSA’s questionable QB talent. The thought was that if UTSA could hurt NT it would be through missed gaps, and the QB extending plays with his legs.

That proved true, but there was not enough of the execution that would hurt NT. UTSA put up 295 total yards but only 128 through the air. Frank Harris, the star sophomore QB who was an NT recruit, was hurt again on the 2nd play of the game and did not return. His backup Lowell Narcisse played well in spots but his passes were not catchable by the UTSA WRs.

He overthrew his targets, and one was intercepted because it was thrown to hard at his WR. He finished 16/36 for 124 and 2 INTs. He was most dangerous on the ground, running for 98 yards, including a 42 yard scamper that put UTSA into NT territory.

Dangerous freshman RB Sincere McCormick had a nice 20-yard run that saw him break some tackles but he was held to 62 yards. UTSA was held to 6/20 on third downs and 2/7 on fourth.

That was the story here tonight. NT’s defense is suddenly ferocious against teams without quality offensive minds calling the shots like SMU’s Sonny Dykes. SMU, by the way, upset TCU earlier this afternoon and Cal beat Ol’ Miss in Oxford.

NT is now 2-2 on the season and has a conference win to boot.

Offense

Mason Fine did not have to do much, and that is always nice. He sat for the final quarter as we saw a couple of drives from Jason Bean and Austin Aune. The run game is the driver for this group and that is fine. We have an identity now, and a spread-power run game is fine by me.

UTSA is a poor tackling team and but we have seen four games where NT has powered through tackle and showed their ability to run. Tre Siggers is much of that. When Easly went down last year, NT struggled to find the power, even though DeAndre Torrey was slicing through defenses. Their combined attack is devastating so far.

NT still can use some help in the pass game, but it was nice to see the ball move crisply through the air when it was needed. NT was 7/14 on third down and 0-2 on fourth. Not bad.

NT’s points-per-drive: 3.214. That’s excellent and includes the time-wasting at the end. Offense added 14 combined chunk plays to the total.

Defense

This unit was great. We can throw a lot of caveats about how UTSA sucks on offense and all that but the thing is you are supposed to beat up a bad team. North Texas harassed the QB all night, got turnovers, and kept UTSA off the scoreboard.

Ultimately, that is what this game is about. Stats are great, but points are the only thing that wins or loses games. Three points in four quarters against a conference opponent, and six points in seven quarters against Cal and UTSA combined.

I am feeling better about this defense as I hoped I would. We thought this unit needed time and repetitions and so far it has paid dividends. KD Davis was the leading tackler and Dion Novil was a monster up front. He created pressure, and collapsed the line from a three-man front.

NT had six tackles for loss, three sacks, five QB hurries, and two interceptions. That is quality defense, folks. Defense allowed only six chunk plays and only one of those was in the pass game.

Special Teams

Hey, a missed field goal. Mooney made another and was not needed. Just the way I like it. Kenworthy had three punts and got one inside the 20. No returns for UTSA went anywhere, and NT had some decent ones of their own but nothing noteworthy.

Coaching

Hey well NT won by 42-points and was never really threatened. They subbed out the starting QB in time to get reps for the future signal-callers and everything ended fine. Those are quality coaching results.

Thoughts

This felt real nice. It is always nice to destroy a team, but it feels extra good to do it to one of the ones that has been so close to NT for so long. No game in this series has been a true blowout — even the one in 2016 in San Antonio was close before UTSA got up two scores.

The UTSA fans are thinking of firing their coach and well, that reminds me of when NT beat SMU so bad that June Jones up and quit. SMU beat the hell out of NT and well, it is nice to be on the other side of that again.

Next up: Houston, who lost on national TV on Thursday night to Tulane. They bring a dynamic QB in D’Eriq King and a quality offensive head coach in Dana Holgerson.

Corrected Lowell Narcisse’s name. S/O to Adler on gmg.

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Bear Attack Too Much for North Texas, Lose 17-23

BERKELEY, CA. — North Texas came into the game as underdogs and played like it to begin the game on a warm but nice California afternoon. Down 20-0 at the end of the first quarter, the contingent of Mean Green fans were antsy and thinking of the SMU game the week prior.

California was able to do the same type of things that the Mustangs did the week before: capitalize on single coverage on third downs, take advantage of penalties, and well, score.

Mason Fine and the offense were unable to muster much early, and things weren’t helped after Rico Bussey went down after nearly catching a ball thrown his way near the Cal sideline.

Tre Siggers still looks like a good option in the run game, powering through tackles and getting “should not” yards. In the end the comeback fell short. The defense got the stops it needed late — forcing a punt with just under 2 minutes left in the game after holding Cal to only 3-points in the final three quarters.

The offense did manage to get a touchdown when it needed one — a 4th-and–7 strike from Fine to Shorter to cut the lead to six. The Mean Green scored three in the first half and 14 in the second. Fine also hit Jaelon Darden on a bubble route that he took 68-yards for a score.

This was a missed opportunity as California was and is vulnerable but one that ultimately did not matter as much. The conference season begins next week against UTSA.

Offense

The much-maligned offense began slowly but with some new attacks. Adjusting to Cal’s 1-v-1 coverage (because of their quality secondary) the Mean Green tried to get the ball on the edge to their backs and to playmakers in space. Fine was hit and sacked too much and after Bussey went out there was no one that obviously stepped up to make plays in the pass game.

In the second half, there were seemingly some opportunities for up-temp action but NT moved a little slowly — even when trying to get the first of two needed touchdowns. Ultimately they scored when they needed one, but came up short on the other.

Mason Fine threw some questionable balls and also threw a terrible interception. Still, he is the best offensive player and he is in a tough position.

Defense

The defense had a different sort of challenge here. Cal’s RB Brown is 230 lbs and the Bears leaned on him throughout the game — especially after taking a lead. NT had Chase Garbers scramble, but he did manage to pick up a ton of first downs. Cal was able to take advantage of single-coverage and later, zone-backed three man fronts to pick up first downs.

This was going to be a test of physicality and not scheme. SMU’s Dykes and his staff are proven offensive schemers. Cal’s staff? Not so much that. There were fewer adjustments and NT’s lapses came because they were inexperienced and then the aggression did not pay off.

Hamilton, Johnson, LeBlanc played well, among others.

Coaching

Someone somewhere needs to stop the first quarter issue. Both Cal and SMU came out to 20+ point leads and while there were adjustments made, they made it harder on everyone.

Biagi’s group allowed a big return, but managed a FG and did not miss any kicks. Kenworthy pinned them back deep a couple of times.

Seth Littrell and Bodie Reeder have some questions to answer. On the podcast we speculated that it could be just a roster imbalance — young receivers and an 4th QB.

There is talent on the roster — Darden, Bussey, Siggers, Torrey, Easly et al. The idea that league play will bring some more even games is probable, but there are still good players in CUSA.

Next up:

UTSA at Apogee. The Roadrunners played NT well at the Alamodome to close out last season. The new offensive coordinator is bringing them out of the dark ages a bit, and they have some talent at QB now, but that has only shown twice in four games — NT last year, UIW this year. Against two good teams — Baylor and Army — they struggled to do much.

It is always difficult to gauge a team coming off a game against Army, but we know NT cannot take this game for granted. The record stands at 1-2 and this is a league game at home.

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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