DENTON — The North Texas Mean Green lost a heartbreaking game at home to one of the divisions’ best teams.
The day began with a little look into the future and an honoring of the past. NT broke ground on the new indoor practice facility and unveiled the Mean Joe Greene statue in front of his fellow Hall of Famers including Franco Harris.
It was a fitting ceremony for one of the schools’ greats. Then North Texas and Mason Fine jumped out to an early lead, looking like the powerhouse offensive team everyone presumed them to be.
The keys early were the runs from Easly and the lightning quick cuts from DeAndre Torrey. The duo combined on the final 1st quarter drive to slice up the Tech defense. Rico Bussey Jr. scored on a Mesh play. It was classic Air Raid — dink, dunk, and a lot of run-after-catch.
The idea of this offense is to get the ball to playmakers in space. North Texas has a lot of playmakers now, and it was difficult for the talented Tech defense to cope.
Then La Tech woke up.
A long TD drive following an even longer FG drive to put the Bulldogs within 5 late in the second. Tech found success throwing against Cam Johnson, the young sophomore corner filling in for the injured Kemon Hall — out with a shoulder injury in the first quarter. The referees were generously calling pass interference on some deep routes but Seth Littrell called the late hits and the penalties ‘undisciplined.’
In any case, they had the effect of taking the offense out of rhythm in the second quarter. After 21 quick points in the first, NT was held scoreless in a period for the first time in 17 quarters. They would repeat the feat in the fourth. More on that in a bit.
Rhashid Bonnette caught a ridiculous 34 yard grab where he leaped over Cam Johnson that put Tech in FG territory. That made things 19-21 with 1:30 left.
North Texas got a big play to Bussey and things looked good until a combination of bad luck: Torrey fumbled on a dump off. Tech punted but Darden muffed the punt on the five. Tech’s J’Mar Smith then threw a little five-yard pass for six points.
NT was now down 26-21 with :28 left in the game. NT got sacked and things felt like the UTSA game last season. NT started fast and then fell apart in the second quarter. Jaylon Ferguson ended the half with three sacks.
At halftime fans could reasonably expect some adjustments and a return to some of the things that were working in the first half.
There were adjustments made. Offensively, NT went with their heavier sets, bringing in an H-back to chip Ferguson and also provide a bit more heft in the running attack. Defensively, redshirt freshman cornerback Jordan Roberts started in place of Cam Johnson.
Presumably, this move was made to correct for some of Cam Johnson’s mistakes. Littrell said after, “we like Jordan Roberts. He’s physical, and has his eyes in the right place. We are excited about him.”
After an exciting first half featuring 47 total points scored, the second had just 9 — six for NT and three for Tech.
Through three quarters Tech had more yards — 336 to 319 — more plays — 62 to 50 — , and more luck — they had two recoveries. North Texas could not get more than the third quarter touchdown. The subsequent two-point try fell just short. Replays in the press box showed clearly that Darden was short of the TD.
North Texas had two really great drives in the final quarter, a period where the offense put up 108 yards on 8-11 passing and ran 22 plays to Tech’s 9. Two drives to get the necessary points to win the game and two missed field goals. The first was bounced off the left upright, as Cole Hedlund over-corrected on his kick from the right hash from 41 with 12:36 in the fourth. His second was the sealing play: Amik Robertson blocked the Hedlund kick attempt from 46 and only :33 left in the game.
North Texas Offense
If you are a box-score watcher, you see good numbers. North Texas was not amazing, but there were very nice things in the first quarter. Mason Fine was kept clean early, for the most part, and found his guys for big yards. The backs made plays and made people miss.
The long drought without touching the ball and the adjustments by Tech killed the rhythm in the second. Late in the half, when NT found Rico Bussey, Jr. along the sideline for 35 yards, it it flipped the field and put the Mean Green at the Tech 25. The Torrey fumble gave Tech the ball at the NT 35. A defensive stop — drove Tech back a yard — forced a punt that was muffed at the five.
NT went from scoring range to — at best, if Darden caught it — their own five. Field position is incredibly important. The final drive saw NT move from deep in their own position — again, poor field position — and come up just short. While Nic Smith was great getting yards, he was not the equal of Loren Easly when it came to short yardage.
NT could not get the necessary yards to get closer, extend the drive, and possibly score six instead of attempting three.
The litte things against a good team are important. Seth Littrell felt his offense got behind the chains and did not perform all the way to their standards.
North Texas Defense
This group held Tech to five field goals, practically shut down Tech in the second-half, and gave the offense one final shot to win things in the fourth quarter. Realistically, that is all that can be asked of a team.
J’Mar Smith was as advertised: he was not efficient, but he was tough to bring down and found his playmakers when he could. The secondary was reacting well but found it hard to guard the talented WRs that Tech had. This was to be expected, but they held their own with an emergency sub at corner to boot. Kemon Hall has been great, and Tech took advantage of his absence.
EJ Ejiya talked some about not being able to get to the quarterback enough, lauding the offensive line of the Bulldogs for keeping J’Mar upright for most of the night. It is true. He had too much time to throw all night even though he didn’t always capitalize on every opportunity.
NT Special Teams
This group came in as the highest ranked unit of the three: at 6th in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ for special teams. Hedlund had hit 10/10 field goals thus far, and the return teams were great. Darden’s muff and the two missed field goals are going to be remembered forever and with good reason.
Elsewhere, Torrey looked dangerous on kickoffs.
Tech’s players made more individual plays. Seth Littrell lamented the number of ‘explosives’ the defense gave up, and talked up the little mistakes that the offense made to make it more difficult. Let’s give some credit to the Bulldog team. Rhashid Bonnette’s leaping grab over Cam Johnson will be gif’d for a long time. Amik Robertson’s block was a feat. Jaylon Ferguson’s four sacks were literally game-changing.
What It Means
North Texas is in a tough spot. They need Tech to lose twice and to win out themselves. This was billed as possibly the division title game and it looks like it has been so. If you take a peek at the CUSA Scoreboard you will think again, however. Anyone can jump up and bite any team in this league. This is not only just college football but CUSA we are talking about this year.
North Texas has a reasonable shot at good things if they win the rest of the league games. UAB and USM are good enough to beat anyone, and there is still the looming FAU game in November. Nothing is over yet, even if NT is clearly looking for help from other squads.
This was an epic game with a program-record crowd. North Texas had three players come up gimpy: Mason Fine and his leg, Kemon Hall and his shoulder, Loren Easly and his leg. Meanwhile both EJ Ejiya and Taylor Robinson had to sit for a few plays after being helped off the field.
Attrition is a part of this game, and truly good programs have enough depth to step up and continue things. Mason Fine is quite clearly the best QB on the team, but the true test of Seth Littrell’s program-building ability will be if he can find someone to step up and win a game for NT not wearing 6.
North Texas is tied with Rice and UTEP in the basement of CUSA West. La Tech, UAB, USM, and UTSA all have one conference win.
UTEP hosts NT. The Miners are winless after a failed comeback attempt in San Antonio on Saturday. Old friend Mike Canales coordinates the Miners and there should be a lot of familiarity with the play calls and offensive design.