There is always something to play for.
North Texas and Florida Atlantic met up for the first time since last December when FAU completed the two-game sweep that saw Lane Kiffin’s Owls put up 1436 yards and 110 points. At the very least there was revenge to be had.
North Texas jumped out to a 17-0 lead that felt precarious only because of recent history. The Mean Green lost three games this season when leading big — 21-6 after one quarter vs LA Tech only to lose 29-27, 21-10 at halftime vs UAB only to lose 29-21, and last week up 28-0 vs ODU before losing 34-31.
That fear was realized again as FAU stormed back to take a 21-20 halftime lead. Mason Fine had 280 passing yards at the half, but the entire Mean Green team managed only 3 yards rushing by then. Sure that included -9 rushing/sack yards on Fine, but DeAndre Torry had only 10 on 7 carries and Nic Smith was at 2 on 1 tote.
To make matters worse, Mason Fine threw two interceptions by the 14:51 mark of the third quarter. He threw his third on the year in the first half to a line backer — all three to that point were to LBs sitting in a zone (UIW, UAB, FAU). The third quarter interception came on yet-another dropped pass.
FAU had begun to stymie Mason Fine by dropping back 8 men in a zone. The run game was stagnant and NT had no answer. That is, until, a couple of QB draws and a nice 46-yard run from Torrey got NT into position to score. Then what looked like a disaster: Mason Fine took a big hit and immediately called for the training staff. He left the game clutching his wrist and the FAU defender was assessed a 15-yard penalty for roughing.
Player-of-the-Game and Spring Game HOFer Quinn Shanbour stepped in and ran for a score. His next possestion he did the same again. He finished with 34 yards rushing on four carries and 2 TDs. Way to be clutch.
In between series NT got a Nate Brooks interception, his fifth on the season. He was incredible all night, flying around to deflect passes and firing in for big tackles.
Khairi Muhammad sealed the game with an interception of his own on the final FAU drive. You might recall that he was ejected in the first half of last week’s game against ODU for allegedly spitting in ODU WR Jonathan Duhart’s face. Muhammad denies this.
He played incredibly all night — flying in for at least one big third down stop on a WR. He finished with 9 total tackles one behind fellow safety Taylor Robinson.
The entire defense was clutch.
While Devin Singletary had a solid game that included a couple of scores added to his ridiculous career tally, he did not manage over 100 yards and had to work for his night. He finished with 93 on 23 carries — 4 pards per tote. North Texas racked up 11 tackles for loss in this one led by Brandon Garner’s 2.5.
The defense came up big when it mattered and that is how winning is done.
Mason Fine was great again. He showed the entire package: accuracy, toughness, cleverness, and judgement.
He made the right play most of the time even though he was intercepted twice — once through his own poor read. He finished with 295 yards on 22 of 33 passing and 2 scores to go with the 2 picks.
The run game was abysmal until it was sublime. Sparked by some quality second-half runs, NT finished with 208 on the game, helped in large part thanks to DeAndre Torrey’s incredible 92-yard run late in the fourth quarter.
Torrey followed his 145-yard effort last week with a 184 yard game in this one. He added 38 yards and a receiving TD, also. He is creeping up the single-season TD list.
Rico Bussey Jr. had his usual 86 — he averages 90 – on 5 catches (7 targets). Jalen Guyton had 4 grabs for 62 yards and a TD on 7 targest. He started out hot but late he dropped some.
Despite the good feelings NT was just 2 of 12 on third down. NT also found themselves in two 3rd and 18s. Mason Fine was hit too much — again — and this time he left the game with a gashed wrist.
This side of the ball impressed again. There were some big plays allowed, but FAU has the kind of talent that does that to teams. Kiffin had his guys playing well. Two weeks ago FAU beat the presumptive East representative FIU on the road handily.
The entire defensive line was active and got into the backfield often. Motor Singletary had his moments, but they were confined and he had to work. He was hit in the backfield by two-or-more NT defenders often enough and when he got into positive territory, he was met with a gang of Mean Green.
The secondary was impressive even though Chris Robison had a nice night. The FAU plays came on big plays via play-action, which is understandable given the calibre of the run game faced.
NT plays aggressivley, and while that will allow the occasional big play, it is supposed to create negative plays and turnovers. That was the case again in this one.
Everyone was flying around with energy on a cold night in front of a relatively sparse crowd (compared to the Tech game).
The defense forced stops and got clutch tackles and huge turnovers. That’s all we can ask for.
Much has been made of the collapses in recent weeks with good reason. Overall it is important to realize that Seth Littrell and Graham Harrell are relatively inexperienced and are learning.
North Texas is a well-motivated team that executes for most of the game. Putting all that into timely production is a work in progress.
What Does It All Mean? and What Is Next?
North Texas is 8-3 with a chance to even up the all-time series against UTSA at 3 a piece. NT is 0-2 in the Alamodome, and can grab the 9th win of the season next Saturday.
UTSA is awful, and are enduring one of the worst offensive seasons in the nation.
NT needs a win in that one and a bowl win to get to 10 wins, which would be a program first.