Conquer the Rock: North Texas 43 – Southern Miss 28

North Texas went into Hattiesburg and handled Southern Miss 43-28 in a game that looked precarious early. Southern Miss ended the game with the advantage on turnover margin, held a 14-0 lead, and for a large part of the game: third down conversions.

Mason Fine struggled but put up 366 yards regardless. He found a friend in Jalen Guyton — to the tune of 14 catches for 211 yards and a score. Guyton was targeted an incredible 18 times. Southern Miss respected his speed early and allowed him all of the underneath space. NT took advantage of that early and later hit the big stuff over the top. In between Jeff Wilson was his typical amazing self, adding 148 yards on 30 totes and three scores. A series of smaller, drive saving runs by Wilson were key and just as important as the bigger highlight-worthy ones.

NT’s defense made enough plays to allow the offense some breathing room and NT won relatively comfortably — unlike last week. North Texas got a week-better and made a case as dark horse division challenger here. Southern Miss came into tonight boasting the league’s best statistical defense but were sliced apart by NT’s Power Air Raid.

Southern Miss came out the blocks hot, and found their best playmaer Ito Smith for 45 big yards to set up the first score. NT missed a tackle, having Colton McDonald on Smith and things looked bad.

First two drives included a mishandled snap, a loss of dive, and a sack in the six plays. Total plays: 6, total yards: -3.

Ater a punt, USM scored again, thanks to a deep toss up to Allenzae Staggers for 33. NT looked like the defense that was giving up big plays to UAB but without the scorching offense.

USM looked like they were recreating the SMU game

Finally, after trading three-and-outs (S/O to Ejiya for an early drive-killing sack) NT converted a 4th and 1 as Jeff Wilson scampered down the left sideline for 46 yards and a score. He did the classic Jeff run where he stiff armed the inital tackler, turned it up field, and then made a move. NT 7 USM 14.

NT’s defense continued the strong play but this time Kwadra Griggs could not find anyone on bail-out 3rd and long plays. Another punt.

NT threw away a good drive on a Rico Bussey fumble — it came on the snag play we saw against SMU

The Golden Eagles capitalized and everyone was thinking this thing was a typical NT game. Ito Smith outran everyone for 65-yards and a score, matching Jeff’s run and making Kemon Hall look silly.

Bad turned to worse and Mason Fine threw a terrible pick over the middle. USM looked like they were recreating the SMU game: capitalize on early NT mistakes to take a big lead.

Instead the defence forced a punt after three plays and NT took over from the five.

Then the game turned.

The Drive

Last year NT was down 17 to Rice and had come off five straight quarters of terrible offense. Then Mason Fine tossed up a prayer to O’Keeron Rutherford for a miracle first down and everything changed.

Here, NT was backed up at the 5 yard line and nearly was tackled for a loss and a safety. Jeff Wilson made a hugely underrated play and battled forward for only a two yard loss. Mason finds Mike Lawrence for 11. Then Jeff converts a huge third down run with a 2-yard gain. This was when NT was having trouble converting already. The Mean Green have struggled (on both sides) on 3rd. They struggled especially on 3rd and short on offense which is very strange. I cannot stress enough how important and unlikely that conversion was.

Suddenly this is a game.

The very next play Mason Fine hooked up with Smiley for 41-yards. Southern Miss was sitting deep early, then started creeping up. Fine found him streaking on a skinny post and hit him perfectly. NT was down to the USM 43 and cooking. Fine found Guyton for 8, Jeff ran for a no-gain and there was an incompletion on third down. Then another huge conversion on 4th and 2. NT came out in a bunch look and Fine rolled out — just like he did on the previous interception — and found Kelvin Smith just past the marker for a first down. He caught it along the sideline and fell forward.

That was Smith’s only catch of the game.

Southern Miss had a flag on the play that added 15 yards. NT now getting some luck. Jeff runs for 12 down to the five yard line. Then again for 3 up the middle. Finally Mason Fine rolles left and hits Guyton for 3 yards and the score. It is 21-14 and suddenly this is not a blowout loss, choke job. Suddenly NT is the team the stats say they were. Suddenly this is a game.

NT’s defense, hyped and rested after NT’s 12-play 95-yard drive over 5:11 quickly forces a USM punt. Griggs had found Staggers for a miracle 31-yard gain but that proved to be more luck than anything. Two Ito Smith rushes were bottled up and then Griggs threw incomplete to Isaiah Jones.

We Continue

NT was now at the 20 yard line, 54 seconds on the clock and down four. Instead of packing it in and heading into the locker room, NT gets aggressive (love it) and Mason Fine drops a beauty to Caleb Chumley for 43 yards on 2nd-and-16. He hit him in stride, in between the safety and trailing backer. Beautiful. Who says he can’t throw deep?

After a couple of incompletions and a Guyton six-yarder, NT faced 4th-and-4 with :20 left on the clock from the USM 37. NT lines up in a tight formation and Mason Fine floats a pass to Nic Smith for six yards and a first down. Trevor Moore bent in the FG and NT was down 21-17 at the half. What an amazing turn of events.

Second Half Destruction

After Fine’s interception the NT drive chart looks like this:

TD, FG, FG, TD, TD, TD, FG, Punt, END OF GAME.

North Texas outscored USM in the third 16-7, and it was 16-0 much of the quarter. For the second half, NT outgained USM 302 to 162 and outscored them 26-7. After only converting 2/10 on third down in the first half, NT converted an incredible 7/11 (64%) in the second half.

The defense was scorched by USM for 253 in the first but held them to 162 in the second, including only 4.8 yards per play on 34 plays and 1/6 on third down.

For the game USM only converted 33% of 3rd downs, including 1/5 on 3rd and 9+, and 1/2 on 3rd and less than 4. Kwadra Griggs came into tonight at 58% completion and finished 19/42 (45.5%) passing for 270 and only 1 score (that was mostly a sweep).

Offense

Whoo boy that was fun to watch. Last week I wrote that NT officially has a good offense. We had seen too many good things — even and maybe especially in losses — that suggested that NT could continue this pace the rest of the way. There is plenty to improve upon but there was plenty of great tonight.

Let us quickly complain:

Mason Fine missed throws, missed open guys, looked hurried, and did not take care of the ball. The line did not get enough push on short yardage and NT did not convert goal-to-go situations easily.

Okay I am done.

Let’s celebrate:

Mason Fine-to-Jalen Guyton is fun to watch. Number 9 absolutely owned the secondary all night to the tune of 14 catches for 211 on 18 targets and 1 score. He feasted on the shorter and intermediate routes after seeing soft coverage all night. His reputation as a burner has preceded him and USM played him accordingly. Fine and Guyton took that space and after USM decided to play straight, they went over the top.

Jeff Wilson was JEFF WILSON all night. I’ve repeatedly called him the best player on the offense and he repeatedly shows that is not an exaggeration. He was the offense early and the closer late. He put up 148 yards on 30 carries (workhorse?)

He also added a big 18-yard catch early. He’s lessened his role in the pass game as he’s increased it in the run game. He’s been spectacular all season and is inching up the all-time charts here.

The little things he did tonight were noticed and appreciated and worth every bit as much as the highlight worthy ones.

Incredible: Smiley, Chumley, Wilson, Lawrence, Nic and Kelvin Smith all had one catch and each catch was either clutch and/or an important point in a scoring drive.

The offense put up 540 yards on 87 plays, 366 passing, 174 rushing, had 24 first downs. This offense is good and is stil improving.

Defense

USM had a great first half but was stunted in the second. North Texas learned from the UAB debacle and found a way to turn 3rd and longs into an advantage. USM had talent in Ito Smith and outside and took advantage. Getting worked by Ito in the open field is part of the game and you learn from it and move on. Staggers, Robertson, and Jones are big and strong and can move in the open field. The key was making Kwadra Griggs beat them and he could not do what AJ Erdely was able to do: Complete big 3rd down passes.

Khairi Muhammad had 10 tackels (6 solo) and played solid coverage. EJ Ejiya continued his strong play and picked up a sack along with 10 tackles. Kemon Hall was good and had a pass break up. So did KiShawn McClain — who showed a little of his ability to fly in for big tackles. Colton McDonald had a big third down pass break up early in the game.

TJ Tauaalo was hurt late but had a QB hurry. Tyreke Davis has bee making plays as a true freshman. I am excited about his future here in this defense. Sid Moore, Andy Flusche, Rod Young continued to dominate the line of scrimmage. They did a good job of wrangling a talented back and one big 65-yard run is very understandable. There was also a Tony Krasniqi sighting.

The big question was at corner and yes, Eric Jenkins started. He had another pass break up and played his usual solid corner work. Withe Kemon Hall and Jenkins playing like this, this defense is shaping up to be the one we hoped would compliment a good offense.

Special

The special teams was solid today and Trevor Moore was his clutch reliable self. That end-of-half kick was incredible.

Coaching

Much has been made of the adjustments from half-to-half. This was not without good reason. I have liked what Harrell has done here and the bones of this offense were set last season. The missing piece was well, talent. NT thought it had this kind of talent in Goree, Wilson, Robinson and Smiley last season but has found it in Guyton, Bussey, Smiley this season. Add to that combination the maturation and growth of Mason Fine and this offense is clicking like no other Mean Green team in recent memory.

This pass game is on pace to be the most explosive in NT history while the run game is comparable with some of the better ones in Denton (and that is saying something). Credit the staff for the improvement. They boasted of their ability to identify talent and develop it. The last recruiting class was mid-conference in ranking but has produced Darden, Guyton, Evan Johnson, and Tyreke Davis. Not bad at all.

What It Means

I had North Texas at 3-2 heading into the bye but I thought SMU was going to be the win not USM. (I must have transposed those letters) NT is better than expected offensively and slightly worse defensively. Still, this league is very winnable. UTSA is the consensus best team in the league but the have yet to play anyone of note — Baylor is terrible, Southern is bad and hurt, and Texas State is not better than UAB. UTSA supporters are pointing to stats … but so did Southern Miss fans.

We will learn a lot next week as UTSA hosts this same Southern Miss squad. As it is, North Texas is atop the West standings for now at 2-0 and 3-2 on the season. The Mean Green are halfway toward bowl eligibility and positioned nicely to compete for a division title. That is a good place to be.

The bye week not only allows rest and recuperation but a return for Bryce English to bolster the defensive line that has been a strength. While it is disappointing to have a bye right when the offense is clicking so nicely, the rest is well deserved and much needed.