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.
Jaelon Darden fell backward as he backpedaled and adjusted to a ball thrown over his left shoulder with less than 10-seconds left. Mason Fine had rolled to his left three steps, and floated a ball to the hash, in the only spot that Darden could get to but away from the defender. Darden made the grab, and NT was set up for a nice chip shot field goal. NT wins, 33-30.
The win stopped something like a skid. There were 16,094 announced for this one, but even if there were that many scanned into the stadium, they were not around by the time NT was kicking the game-winner. That is life in CUSA and in a disappointing season like this one. Yes, it does say something that NT is just 3-4 on the season and just four seasons removed from barely squeaking out one or two wins in a lucky year.
This is how it all works, so we can save the reflections for later. Right now NT is still in the fight for a bowl appearance, which is necessary if Seth Littrell is ever going to get a chance at a bowl win with Mason Fine at the helm.
The conference chances improved after the day’s results as well. Southern Miss fell apart late against La Tech in Ruston, with Jack Abraham throwing four interceptions. Tech is on the NT schedule, and on UAB’s too. That means everyone has a chance if they get a little luck. NT needed a dash of luck and execution in this one. There were many self-inflicted wounds in this one: NT dropped something like two clear interceptions offered by MTSU QBs. They finally grabbed one in what seemed to be a the final defensive stance before Loren Easly fumbled it away soon after.
The poor snaps were ever-looming over the offense, and many a FG was attempted. In the end, Mason Fine threw some strikes, playing just a week after he was knocked out of the USM game and playing through more pain sustained in this one. He was hit often — as he always is — but found Darden 13 times on 14 targets, for 125 and a TD.
The new, young WRs stepped up in this one — Shorter, Ogunmakin, White, and Simpson all grabbed two or three or more.
NT looked a little more crisp in the face of some injuries. Tre Siggers dressed but did not play. His backup DeAndre Torrey played but did not impress. Loren Easly fumbled, but he did rack up 99 on the ground. Nic Smith played in spot duty but grabbed a huge screen pass late.
In shades of the UAB win two seasons ago, NT blew a lead, allowed a game-tying TD with under 40s left. Deion Hair-Griffin, demoted from WR duties, returned a big one — 50 yards — to set up the drive. Nic Smith got a screen pass for 11 yards. Then Mason Fine found Darden down to the 7-yard line.
It was not pretty but it did not have to be. This league is still winnable and we all would much rather be complaining about the ugly in a win than the pretty in a loss.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This has been an strange week. The Houston Cougars star QB D’Eriq King abruptly announced that he is redshirting the rest of this season — a prelude to a transfer perhaps — that would remove him from the upcoming game vs North Texas.
Incredibly, his backup is Clayton Tune, Hebron HS’s own steps into the shoes. You might recognize the family name. Yes, he is the brother of former NT QB Nathan Tune. He of the dog and the losing and the hip injury.
Further down the depth chart is one Logan Holgerson, son of the Houston head coach Dana Holgerson and one-time NT target. This duo has some talent and the head coach is a certified offensive master-mind but De’Eriq King is special so it is a bittersweet announcement that he will not play for the Cougars this Saturday.
North Texas went from three-point underdogs to about a six-point favorite with the announcement. Two things about the last time Houston was at Apogee: 1) they were quarterbacked by Case Keenum. 2) It was the Apogee opener.
The University of Houston Cougars
We have an interesting matchup then. North Texas is favored, feeling good, coming off a thorough beatdown of UTSA at home last week. Houston lost a heartbreaker in which Tulane pulled off a miracle play on the back of a some aggressive trickeration. The football gods rewarded the Green Wave’s playing to win.
This was always going to be a measuring stick game for Seth Littrell and North Texas. The U of Houston program has been ripe for P5 head coaches — Art Briles, Kevin Sumlin, and Tom Herman. Those guys have been helped by some quality assistants that are making, or have made their own names: Kliff Kingsbury, Major Applewhite, Kid Briles, and yes, the current head man Dana Holgerson.
That Houston was able to wrangle a P5 coach — Holgerson coached at WVU for seven years — is significant even if the result of a special set of circumstances. Houston is something like a model for the non-P5 schools as it pertains to hiring and keeping an identity.
The Houston reputation has historically been one of offensive prowess. Andrew Ware and David Klinger tore up the record books and when Briles came to town, he and others helped push a new era of offensive success.
Tom Herman was able to recruit talent to the program, and everything culminated with Ed Oliver and the Cougars upsetting Oklahoma to start the season a couple of years ago.
Since then, Herman went to UT, Ed Oliver quit, Major Applewhite was fired, and well now we are at Dana Holgerson and his QB is going to sit the rest of the season.
Thus far, the Coogs are 1-3. The opener against Oklahoma was a blowout that saw new transfer Jalen Hurts destroy the team without much of an effort. Houston beat Prairie View — but not by the margin we would expect. Holgerson’s mentor and former coach Mike Leach and his Washington State Cougars came to town to play and Leach got the better of that matchup.
Last week, Tulane won 38-31 thanks to a sneaky fake kneel-down and a Minnesota-vs-New-Orleans Hail Mary.
Houston comes in allowing 33+ppg but three of the opponents faced are quality offensive teams. North Texas is in that conversation, as well, but the loss of Rico Bussey and some questions about execution perhaps put NT on a lower tier compared to the competition they’ve faced already.
The real question for Houston was the relative lack of cohesion offensively. These things take time. Holgerson’s offense still has Air Raid underpinnings and that means a lot more focus on repetitions and rhythm. Holgerson has mentioned how good the production of his second-year QBs is — this is also one reason why King sitting out a year to try again next season is not such an outlandish idea.
The Houston roster is adjusting to its fourth staff combination in four years, so there are parts that do not necessarily fit with the rest of the others. The offense averages 30.8 a game — compared to NT’s 35ppg — which is lower than perhaps they expect, but still a solid number.
Last year Applewhite’s squad averaged 43 per game and lost only five. Unfortunately for the Major, two fo those losses came at the end of the year and included a 70-14 blowout to Army. That got everyone fired and paved the way for the new regime.
The Houston offense will look very different without its trigger-man. King has put up his worst number since his freshman year. He has thrown 58/110 for 52.7 completion rate for 663 yards and six scores against two picks. His rating is 117.2
His junior year he threw 219/345 for 63.5% 2982 yards 36 TDs and 6 interceptions for a rating for 167.04.
He was, however, averaging about about 17 more yards rushing per game (78) than last year and already had six scores. Last year he had 14 on the ground. He is and was a true dual threat. His highlight reel against Tulane included freezing a safety in his tracks, and evading a number of tacklers on the way to a NCAA record 16th straight game with a running and passing score.
He is good and NT is lucky to not have to face him. We fans are unlucky to not be able to watch him live in Denton. So it goes.
The line has five upperclassmen, including one graduate transfer in Justin Murphy out of UCLA. North Texas was able to create some pressure against Cal’s young line, and UTSA’s um, bad one. This group is solid and big.
The X and Z positions — outside receivers — have not produced too much thus far. Bryson Smith, and Jeremy Singleton have combined for 11 catches and 100 yards and no scores. Inside WR Marquez Stevenson has produced 17 grabs for 234 and 3 scores, however. Keith Corbin, we should note, is the second leading WR with 11 grabs for 192 and two TDs, and will also join King as a redshirt sitting down this season.
Stevenson has nearly double the targets of Corbin thus far — 32 to 18 and for good reason: he is a playmaker.
Stevenson was the leading receiver a year ago, with 1019 yards on 75 receptions and 9 scores. He also returns kicks and punts.
UH likes to give it to him on jet sweeps and reverses. He is agile, quick, and speedy and tougher to bring down than expected.
Outside of that, it will be hard to gauge what to expect from this offense this weekend. Clayton Tune is not the same type of player, and his stats from last season are from a different regime. Dana Holgerson has the upper hand, ironically.
At RB, Patrick Carr was the main runner last season, with 800+ yards but Kyle Porter as the most totes this season with 47, just eight behind leader King with 55. Carr did not play against Oklahoma or Prairie View and only logged 9 attempts vs Wazzu. He had 17 for 63 against Tulane last week.
The thing to be concerned with, is the ability for Holgerson to scheme up some say touchdowns. The opening play looked like an RPO that turned into a speed-roll-out for King — something easy and that Tulane had seen on film. In actuality, it was a clever play designed to get their most dangerous receiver one-on-one in space with a flat-footed DB.
As you can see, it worked. Football is about the players, but making it easier for those players to be successful is what makes good teams great. That is the coaching and scheming that can produce even greater teams than the sum of their parts.
While Houston will be down two tremendously talented players, this staff can still scheme up a touchdown or two and that is something NT DC Troy Reffett will be charged in looking for.
Best case scenario: the moment is too much for Tune, who is rattled and makes mistakes Worst case scenario: Tune has enough of an unknown factor that is supported by some clever play-design that makes Houston even more dangerous than if NT had to prepare for King.
Good news, friends. North Texas has an identity. On the podcast this past Sunday, we talked up Tre Siggers and all he means to this program. North Texas is Air Raid in philosophy, but when we are honest with ourselves, we do not trust the pass game to grind out a drive.
Mason Fine is great, but his relationship with his receivers is still a work-in-progress at best. Tre Siggers is something like a sure thing, averaging 131 per game on the ground. He runs aggressively, through arm tackles, and seems to seek out contact.
Siggers is 27 for 196 and 2 scores on first down runs. That is a blistering 7.26 yards per carry. He is better on second down: 20 tote, 187 yards and a score.
He has only one carry on third down and 1-3 yards to go, but NT as a team has only 9 plays in that situation and has produced 8 first downs. He seems like he would be an obvious battering ram, but in reality he is more like a cannon ball.
The last guy in Mean Green to run like this is scoring touchdowns for the 49ers in the NFL. It really is not like NT has had a bad rush attack. DeAndre Torrey nearly had a 1000-yard season last year. Loren Easly looked like the number-one guy before he went down against Louisiana Tech.
Tre Siggers has just brought something extra to the run attack that makes him someone to account for with extra-special attention by the defense.
Every offense needs a player that can make 40/60 plays. The ones that turn a 3-yard loss into a 10-yard gain, and 5-yard gains into 50-yarders. With his ability to run through defenders, Siggers is turning gains that are blocked up for 7-yards into 45-yard scampers.
North Texas is doing well to not over-use him either. He is at about 17 carries a game and he put up 143 on just 14 against UTSA. NT has the aforementioned talent in this group, so a handful of Siggers carries go a long way toward establishing the fact that the defense will need to account for the run game.
Beyond that, Mason Fine just needs to be something like a caretaker. He is best when he does not have to throw 50 times in a game. Every quarterback is. The game plan against NT has been to bring pressure and hit Mason Fine early and often. This has worked in every big loss NT has suffered for the last four years.
Everyone likes Jyaire Shorter, but he is still more potential than production at this point. His 8 grabs on 15 targets for 116 yards and 2 scores is great for a run-first team, but not as the Z-receiver in a spread team.
Jaelon Darden continues to be the number one receiver. He’s scored in every FBS game, even if last week was a garbage time TD grab.
Houston plays a 4-2-5/3-3-5 hybrid defense that nearly every team does in 2019. Payton Turner (6’6″ 288 Jr) is the bandit player, the hybrid DE/LB/QB Destroyer type.
At DT there is Young and Fleming — Fleming being the NG. Those two are the more typical 4-3 DT types, in that the are in the 280 range. Olivier Charles-Pierre is 345lbs and is the space-eating type. He will play situationally. Anenih, Parish, and Chambers are at the other DE spot, being typical “other” DE type size at 6’2″ and mid 200s.
Behind them are two good LBs in Kirven and Mutin. The leading tackler is Nickel back 3 Grant Stuard 6’1″ 210 Jr. He has 3.0 tackles for loss, putting him third on the team behind two DL guys.
Gerverrius Owens at 200lbs is the bigger of the two. Damarion Williams is 170. Deontay Anderson is the bigger safety at 217 and he can hit.
North Texas probably likes that Tulane’s line got some real push against this defense, putting a few DLs on their backs. That opened up the play-action and they got big plays over the top with some speedy guys. Tulane threw to a guy they thought could win some jump balls and he did.
NT does not have Rico Bussey to do that, so Deion Hair-Griffin is the speed option, and Shorter is something like the jump-ball option. I would not be surprised to see a little bit of Deonte Simpson get a look in that role. He made an appearance and NT likes the freshman’s talent.
Best case scenario: North Texas is able to power-run with Siggers/Torrey/one-of-Easly-Johnson-Smith getting over 200 yards, while Fine throws 2 TDs on 19 passes. Worst case scenario: The run game is unable to find its footing, and Fine is hit, intercepted, or there are dropped passes that kill drives.
Seth Littrell and Bodie Reeder have put up some prolific offenses in their time. Dana Holgerson has done so as well, but at more places and as the head coach. He has produced at Texas Tech, Houston, Oklahoma State, WVU — as coordinator and HC — and now at Houston as the head man. He has seen a ton and found ways to produce offense and scores.
All that is to say that we have to respect his ability to get offense from Clayton Tune.
Reffett’s group is getting more reputations but has faced two poor offenses with less-than-impressive schemers coaching them. Cal has not scored well in any game this season and UTSA has had offensive challenges for the last three seasons. That is to say we will see more of the defense that was burned by SMU than the one that has only allowed six points in the last seven quarters.
The scheme is sound, however, and lessons have been learned.
MGN eBook Season Prediction: L 38-41 MGN Prediction Today: W 31-24
If you had paid close attention, you knew that Mason Fine is good and that the defense had a lot of inexperience. North Texas jumped out big quickly but allowed Abilene Christian to outscore them in the second half 17-13 to make the score look something like respectable.
Mason Fine and company were up 38-10 at halftime, including 31-0 with 2:42 left in the first half.
The first game in Bodie Reeder’s offense started out brightly: Fine threw a TD on his first pass of the game. He completed his first ten passes and seven of those went for either first downs or touchdowns.
He finished 28/37 for 383 4TDs and 1 interception. His former HS teammate Jason Pirtle had four catches for three scores and 88 yards. NT had wanted to future the TE more, and it was converted WR Pirtle, and not Kelvin Smith who shined bright from the TE spot.
The Mean Green struggled a bit in short yardage, but were aggressive all night — going for it on 4th and 11 at one point (which saw Bussey get injured and leave for the night) and kept Fine in until midway through the 4th quarter.
The defense, filled with young and new faces, struggled late. ACU scored 10 to end the first half, and then had 21 in the second. There were some blown tackles and missed assignments, and NT was a step slow getting to the QB which allowed the ACU receivers to win one-on-one matchups outside.
With so many new faces, there was always going to be some growing pains. So it goes.
Mason Fine put up big numbers but they are relatively pedestrian for the competition faced, and the offense he runs. Four scores is nice, but fairly common for good QBs in the modern game. Still, good enough to hit the milestones: Big number of TDs, big yardage.
Bodie Reeder called a nice first quarter. He had ACU reeling. Some of that was unfamiliarity — NT was going to a new offense and showed a lot of new looks and play calls.
There were still a few too many Fine designed runs for my taste and NT struggled in short yardage — kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns.
Seth Littrell wanted more aggression and he got it. NT went for it on 4th down a number of times but that also meant they were not getting 3rd down conversions — just 5/13 for the night.
I expect there were a number of things held in reserve ahead of SMU and later California. NT felt they could beat ACU with one or two new things but some basic stuff. For the most part, that was the case.
Totals: 575 total offense, 383 passing, 192 rushing for 8 yards per play. Yes it is an FCS squad.
Troy Reffett calls an aggressive defense and if everyone is not on time getting to their spots, openings will be exploited. We mentioned this in the season preview. There were some nice things shown by the defense, but the free rushers were a step slow too often and allowed ACU to go one-on-one against the new DBs.
Nick Harvey was beat a couple of times, but he had no help in the middle of the field. ACU was running post routes there and had way too much time to throw them.
While the starters are the “starters”, there are a number of spots that were just won in fall camp and so things can change. The good news is that Reffett has Mason Fine giving him some cushion, but the bad news is that is a precarious situation.
Deion Hair-Griffin took one to the house and started the game off with a big return that set up the offense with a short field. It is a three-phase game, as Seth Littrell so often says, and that is important to remember.
Ethan Mooney kicked three FGs from under 30, and Kentworthy pinned the ACU offense inside the 20 twice in two kicks.
North Texas has SMU next week. They are a full-FBS squad but are still in year two of their rebuild. Shane Buechele has more talent and will make North Texas pay for mistakes in the secondary.
Meanwhile, NT will get a little talking-to this week, and look to improve on the things that can be improved upon.
North Texas was up 28-0, and if you have been paying close attention all season you know this was a bad sign. For some mysterious reason, North Texas has been unable put together a full game. Everyone on the internet has their own reason to offer for this situation, but no one has the answer for unlocking it.
Were NT not 7-3, one of the better records in NT history at this point in a season, there would be more than a little bit of concern. As it is, there is frustration.
Coming into this game North Texas had to find some kind of motivation after dropping the Division Championship game to UAB in Birmingham. NT followed that up with a nice win over Rice that took a fourth quarter explosion to make the scoreboard look nice. In this one, NT jumped out to an easy 28-0 lead where the offense looked explosive and the run game powerful. The defense intercepted Blake LaRussa on the first possession and went down and scored a TD.
NT got their first two TDs from Rico Bussey on a 23-yard score and the second from DeAndre Torrey ran in from 37-yards out. Torrey finished with 145 yard on 25 carries. He also added 34 yards on five receptions. Unfortunately, he also fumbled early in the fourth quarter.
NT moved the ball easily and often early. NT went 7 plays and 54 yards for the third score, Torrey’s second TD of the game without seeing a third down. On their fourth TD that made it 28-0, Rico Bussey took a 4th and five pass for a 26-yard TD. That would all the TDs for NT this day. Cole Hedlund added a third quarter FG but NT was otherwise shutout.
ODU would go on to score 34 points beginning with the late-second quarter TD from LaLa Davis.
This would be the third time NT has failed to show up in the second half after going up big. They led Tech 21-6 (after one quarter), UAB 21-10 at half, and ODU 28-0 at half. All three ended as losses. The fans think it is play-calling. Littrell has credited the opponents and blamed his team for poor execution and his own staff (himself included) for preparation and coaching.
Whatever the reason, NT has failed to execute in short yardage in crucial situations and also turned the ball over. In the third quarter of this game NT went 1-5 on third down and 0-1 on fourth. The fourth-down attempt came at 4th and 7 from the ODU 9 on a fake field goal attempt. It was a curious move, but ultimately somewhat understandable. When being aggressive, you risk failure. NT still led 28-17 at that point. NT ultimately forced a three-and-out and then got their lone points — the field goal — to make it 31-17 with a little over a quarter remaining.
In the fourth quarter of this game, after ODU scored to end the third and make it 31-24, DeAndre Torrey fumbled on 1st and 10 on the ODU 36. NT had moved 33 yards in 6 plays, had overcome a 1st down sack. Torrey had just picked up 16 yards on a pass on 3rd and 6. This was the last good drive NT had.
In the fourth quarter NT was 1-3 on third downs and 0-1 on fourth.
ODU kicked a FG. NT turned it over on downs. This was a six play drive that ended with a failed Torrey 4th-and-1 attempt. Of the 19 yards NT gained that drive 14 of them were rushes. That is what makes the whole thing frustrating. The run game can run but also fails when it counts.
NT forced an ODU punt on a three-and-out and then followed with their own. Fine lined up to throw three times but scrambled for a yard, and completed two to Torrey for only five yards. NT punted on 4th and 4. Then ODU went on their 14-play 71-yard game-winning drive.
What Does It All Mean
Look, none of this is new now. NT has had trouble with efficiency. This blog thinks the lack of a Jeff Wilson type runner has meant NT is without a go-to play or series of plays. Jeff Wilson was a reliable source of grinding yards and explosive plays. NT could build their entire offensive game plan on the threat of Wilson and the counters built on that. This season Mason Fine is the threat — but in what context?
Sure if Mason Fine has the time to throw he can be dangerous but increasingly teams are flooding the field with defenders and getting pressure with their front-four. Jalen Guyton has been off the pace he set for himself last year when he was the Newcomer of the year. He has had the dropsies all season and that happened again in this one. Mike Lawrence has been schemed out of the game. Bussey and Darden are the only consistent performers.
The run game has been boom and bust and mostly bust when it comes to crucial conversions. The team has been able to convert early in games, but late against UAB and here in the fourth quarter when NT needed a 4th down conversion, it came up short.
Contrast that with Old Dominion’s 4th and 6 conversion (and the 4th and three earlier that drive). QB Blake LaRussa threw a 36-yard pass to Jonathan Duhart, who made the grab over Tyreke Davis. When it came time to make a play that wins or loses the game, ODU made it and North Texas did not. That, is this season in a nutshell.
Everyone wants someone to blame and I do not know where to lay it. Sure, it is easy to blame the coaching staff but what exactly is the problem? What did the staff do to make Guyton the newcomer of the year and then let him develop the dropsies?
“Adjustments” need to be made, but failing to get a 4th and 1 is just a failure of execution. Most of the focus is on the offense, for failing in the same way for the third time (they have also done this inconsistent thing for longer than that) but the defense deserves a little attention. Allowing 34 points is not good. Sure, ODU is good and has talent, but some of the plays were silly. Big plays to their wide receivers and allowing a second-effort on 4th and 3 on ODU’s final drive.
Tyreke Davis getting burned on 4th and 6 is just one bad play, but the series of poor defensive plays before that set that up to hurt much more than it should have.
It takes a village to blow a 28-0 lead, y’all.
North Texas hosts a renewed and reinvigorated FAU squad on Thursday night. This was supposed to be a marquee game. Now? Well, it will just be a game.
When Mason Fine fumbled at the six yard line early in the 4th quarter, it was only fortunate that the referees — already hated by both sides of the internet fandom — blew the whistle way to early because it prevented a sure UAB touchdown return.
As it was, UAB’s QB AJ Erdely completed a 36-yard bomb to Xavier Ubosi — his only grab on the night — to get them out of the shadow of their own end zone. That set up a long UAB drive that ate up 6:14 and went 87 yards in 13 plays. It resulted in a Nick Vogel field goal that put the Blazers up by the winning score margin.
Mason Fine’s final pass to Jalen Guyton on 4th down was a yard short — clearly — and the potential game-tying drive ended at the UAB 18.
The Mean Green started well, scoring an electric 21 points in the first half. Rico Bussy Jr. had a 57-yard TD score on a quick slant that saw him out run everyone on the way to the end zone. Jaelon Darden pulled off some highlight-reel moves on the way to accumulating a career-best 10 catches and 143 yards to go with his 2 first half scores.
Those three touchdowns — all in the first half — were all of Mason Fine’s scores, as he put up 336 on 29/40 passing. He out-dueled Erdely, who had 189 on 14/22. Both QBs were sacked four times — Brandon Garner, EJ Ejiya, Joe Ozougwu, and Rod Young combined — but the run game for UAB did the most damage.
UAB’s big offensive line and powerful back Spencer Brown were able to lean on the Mean Green in the third and fourth quarters, extending drives and killing the clock long enough to keep the Mean Green off the field.
Echoing the performance against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs back in September, the Mean Green only had the ball for 4 minutes of the third quarter. A failed 4th down attempt gave the ball to UAB at midfield. The Blazers drove 3:53 before fumbling at the six. Mason Fine was forced into an intentional grounding by Garrett Marino that caused a safety. Then UAB drove for another three-and-a-half minutes for a TD. It was 21-10 and NT had not had the ball in ages.
The offensive rhythm gone, and the defense unable to get off the field thanks to 3rd down penalties, NT struggled to find the form of the first half. The adjustments the Blazers made were along the lines of hitting Mason Fine more. The possession after the TD, Mason Fine hit Kelvin Smith for five yards, then was harassed into two incomplete passes while taking big hits from the defensive line.
In the fourth, after going down 26-21, yet another 4th down conversion failed when Mason Fine threw incomplete when Jack LB Stacy Keely knocked down Mason Fine’s pass.
The defense did enough to get the ball back once more, but the drive ended on the six when Mason Fine clearly fumbled. After UAB drove, NT had one last gasp in them but could not convert. A mishandled snap cost NT a third down and on fourth down, Fine avoided pressure and found Guyton for 9-yards, just a yard shy of the first down that could have extended things.
The offense came out, well, blazing. Mason Fine was accurate, quick with his passes and finding playmakers in space. North Texas has 222 total yards to UAB’s 140 at the half, and 212 passing. The run game was a concern, and that never improved. DeAndre Torrey and Nic Smith ran hard, but could not find much space against the huge UAB defense.
In the second half, NT simply could not execute. Misfiring on 4th and 2 (run game) gave the ball away. A sack in their own end zone ended another drive. A misfire on 3rd and 2 (run game) and the failed subsequent 4th and 1 (pass game) killed another.
Finally, the fumble by Mason Fine ended yet another possible scoring drive. North Texas was good enough to win this game — much like they were in the Louisiana Tech game — but mistakes against good teams — like against Tech — will cost you wins.
This was unsurprising — both aspects — as North Texas has been playing this inconsistently all season. Every post-game review has remarked on how the offense struggles for a quarter or two, but also puts together a remarkable run of points where it looks like the team we expect it to be.
In this game, the total numbers mask the fact that NT had an awful third and fourth quarter. NT went scoreless in the second half and largely through their own doing. Credit UAB for making things difficult — the defensive line was good — but there were too many mistakes in short yardage to think that NT was simply overpowered. They just did not execute when it mattered.
The defense has been the most consistent and best unit this season. They held this UAB defense and gave the offense more than a few opportunities to win things. Nate Brooks ripped the ball away from a UAB running back that saved a scoring drive — shades of last week when Khairi Muhammad did the same against Southern Miss. EJ Ejiya racked up 10 tackles and flew all over the field. AJ Erdely was sacked four times and the run game was held in check until late, when the defense played way too much.
Even then, they held UAB to a FG in their final drive, giving Mason Fine one more shot to tie things with a TD+two point conversion.
UAB had a huge return that set up a short field. That drive resulted in a TD for UAB. Outside of that, NT did not have any return chances. No one muffed a return. Kentworthy punted four times and had one over 50 and two inside the 20.
What It Means
Well, as we explained earlier this week, it is all but over for NT. This UAB team — a very good one — would have to drop three of their next four to the likes of UTEP, UTSA, Southern Miss, and Middle Tennessee.
NT falls to third in the division behind UAB (4-0), and LT (3-1).
Rice. The Owls played better this week but are still struggling.
It is easy to get excited for games like Louisiana Tech or UTSA. It is much more difficult to get excited for the worst team in the nation — UTEP — especially on the road. What of USM, a good team with little sizzle at the moment? Well, after a disappointing outing in El Paso (but still a win!) North Texas returns home to Apogee for a game against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles.
Last year, this matchup brought out the debut of Jalen Guyton, destroyer of secondaries. If you ask the average NT follower, they are wondering aloud if this NT team is headed for a disappointing conference schedule after going undefeated in the non-conference portion.
I suppose we should begin this preview with a few words about the last game. North Texas struggled, yes, but that can mean so much. UTEP came into the game playing awful football but if you looked closer you saw a team that was improving ever so slightly. Meanwhile, North Texas had issues even if the play of the defense was hiding a lot of those things. With the defense missing Kemon Hall at corner, there was the slightest drop off in play. Cam Johnson struggled against LA Tech and allowed a 67-yard TD against UTEP when he fell late in the fourth quarter.
The real issue, as we will detail later here, is the defensive line. Ryan Metz was able to force the defense into some zone looks, and that meant NT brought only four. EJ Ejiya, in his post-game comments after the Tech game bemoaned the time given to J’Mar Smith, remember. That was top-of-mind as NT gave Metz lots of time to throw and then a huge lane to run through as he scampered for 23 on 3rd-and-14.
Meanwhile in Ruston, UAB’s ferocious defensive line got to Smith five times. When Hall and Nate Brooks were locking things down out wide, DC Troy Reffett could bring pressure with LBs Ejiya and Brandon Garner.
UTEP OC Mike Canales saw some weaknesses in the defense in the match up zone and Ryan Metz was accurate enough to exploit those. For the most part, the defense played well, only allowing 24 points and intercepting two passes. The offense is the concern. Where was the 40-burger NT was supposed to put up with regularity? Before we discuss that further, let us look at the opponent.
Jay Hopson has his team fighting against the momentum of roster turnover. He lost Kwadra Griggs, presumed returning starter, to an undisclosed university suspension, but was fortunate to get Jack Abraham in. The young transfer has had a rocky career thus far but has found a nice niche at USM where he has completed 70% of his passes.
If there is a trend with this team it is that it has been able to find capable replacements and remain a good team. This is not quite the talent level that Nick Mullens/Ito Smith/Allanze Staggers/Korey Robertson was, but it is still dangerous.
North Texas benefitted from poor QB play the last two years (both wins) with Keon Howard (now transferring) prone to fumbles and Kwadra Griggs prone to incompletions.
Abraham is going to complete passes and that is something NT has not faced thus far. Hopson is the lowest paid coach in this league and that is a disservice to him, as he has managed to keep USM solid with savvy recruiting and good schemes. His DC last year, Tony Pecoraro, was poached by Lane Kiffin and given a little raise.
USM has a good footballing history but little financial support as of late. They desperately need to make a little more noise in this league. Beating a resurgent NT will help them nicely.
Well, last week USM had a bye, so they rested and presumably used that time to recruit and get a little extra film study of NT. Before that they took on a weak Auburn team that has terrible offensive issues at the moment. USM’s sports information department will use that close loss to sell a few more donors on the possibilities, but we can be less than impressed. Before that, USM beat Rice 40-22 on 9/22 and has a loss to Louisiana-Monroe 21-20 on the résumé.
Highlights from Rice Game
Back when Rice was a little better and running the ball well, they gave the Golden Eagles something of a scare. Abraham’s ability to move and throw ultimately was too much for the Owls ast they weren’t built for a shootout. Still, Bloomgren’s crew gave them a scare at the Rock for a good half.
Southern Miss on Offense
New QB Jack Abraham can throw the ball. He’s completing 70% of his passes thus far, which may make all the difference for the Golden Eagles.
2017 Kwadra Griggs 10 games 148 of 265 55.8% 1879 yards 7.1/attempt 16 TDs 2 INTs
2018 Jack Abraham 4 games 107 of 151 70.9% 1263 yards 8.4/attempts 11 TDs 5 INTs
Sure, against FBS competition, he has not been as good. He has thrown all five of his pick against teams not named Jackson St. The two against ULM were hugely important in the loss, and he threw two against Auburn also. He still is averaging 8.2 yards per attempt and that is telling.
The good news is that Southern Miss runs a very similar offense to the Mean Green, so there will be very little that is different to prepare for.
Out wide, sophomore 16 Quez Watkins, 6’2″ 190, leads the team in receptions. He is explosive and has scored in each game thus far. He has good size, and good speed. He ran a kick back against Jackson St. Southern Miss likes to get him the ball from a variety of starting spots — in screens, from a tighter split where he is almost a TE.
UTEP found some success — to the chagrin of many a NT fan — with some play-action. Kid Dimel found room on QB play-action and out wide, Warren Redix got yards. If you recall the Louisiana Tech review, we mentioned this.
NT likes to stop the run with numbers in the box and dare teams to throw.
Teams often try to play-action, max-protect, and try to win a matchup outside. Thus far NT has been great at defending this.
There have been mistakes, however.
Calvert ignored his TE down the middle and stared down his man, throwing incomplete.
LA Tech did not take advantage of this, but UTEP did. It helps that this kind of thing is part of their playbook.
Here is the video — that is just a nice play.
Skip Holtz mentioned how North Texas’ defenders play downhill and are really aggressive. This is the kind of thing that happens to over-aggressive defenses. North Texas knows this, and figures they can give up the occasional 33-yard pass to the full back as long as they are picking off a pass or two per game. So far, this has worked.
As teams get more film on the NT defense, there will be more exploits taken advantage of. Moreover, as the quality of the teams faced improves, the room for error decreases.
Expect Southern Miss to move the ball well and score easier than say, UIW did. The Golden Eagle run game leaves something to be desiredThey, like NT, are facing the loss of a program all-timer. Ito Smith is gone and the “deep” group of running backs has dwindled due to defection and injury.
Trivenskey Moseley (22), freshman 5’11” 195, has 116 yards on the year, four more than starting redshirt senior back 8 Tez Parks, 6’1″ 210, on sixteen fewer carries. The run game has been bad. Raw counting numbers have the team ranked 118th in the nation. S&P+ has the advanced rushing numbers in the 120s.
USM will try to run, but likely will have the most success throwing the ball. The game will come down to whether NT can continue to single-cover accross the board and bring pressure with the linebackers EJ Ejiya and Brandon Garner without getting burned by Quez Watkins.
I mentioned Watkins’ ability earlier. This is the kind of thing Jack Abraham and Watkins will be able to do if NT cannot control the yards-after-catch (YAC).
If NT has to drop into a soft zone, it will be a matter of getting to Abraham with four. This was an issue against Ryan Metz last week, and J’Mar Smith the week prior. NT sat in zones and were burned by a QB with time. J’Mar found his pass-catchers and Ryan Metz scooted for first downs. Abraham is accurate enough to find the holes in the zones.
Southern Miss on Defense
Surprisingly, the USM defense is stout again. Rice had some success against this team, but overall, the offense has been the barometer for success. USM lost their entire secondary for the most part. Hopson went the JUCO route to replenish. Starting boundary corner Ty Williams (7) 5’10” 163 JR, is one of those. Rover safety 19 Ky’el Hemby, 6’1″ 195, is another.
For a team with solid rushing numbers, they do not get many tackles for loss. Nose Tackle 43 LaDarius Harris is just 6’1″ 280 (senior), and his backup Delmond Landry (17), senior 6’3″ 308, are not the biggest guys. That helps explain why they have given up so many first downs in short yardage.
Overall, the defense has good raw counting numbers but the advanced stuff suggests there is room for exploit. Auburn, ULM, and Rice are not offensive juggernauts and that is probably all that is preventing USM from getting toasted — the competition was not up to doing so.
That said, UTEP was not very good and NT only scored 27. A good portion of that can be explained by simply not doing the little things.
This is a missed block on the outside zone. If this is sealed up, then Nic Smith gets a first down and probably more. This is a missed block on the power, if this is blocked, Nic Smith probably gets the first down and NT does not have to defend the final UTEP drive. Earlier in the game, this is a missed block on another outside zone run.
In each of those examples, the defender missed was the man who made the tackle. It is not on the running back — Nic Smith and DeAndre Torrey have done well at times. It did help that Loren Easly was able to shake off blockers and continue to run. It made everyone look good.
Beyond that, if Mason Fine connects with Guyton when he was wide open, the explosive numbers look better. Once again, NT should have the advantage on offense here. Short yardage conversion has been good — NT is ranked first in S&P+ in that department. It really is about efficiency and that starts with getting more explosive plays.
Jeff Wilson last year turned a 4th-and-1 into a 43-yard TD. NT has lacked the game-breaking individual effort this season. Sure, there have been some explosives, but a 30-yard gain is not a 57-yard TD score.
To highlight my meaning, let us return to the Tech game. NT was down two and Tech brought everyone up to the line of scrimmage. Either Mason Fine checked to a pass to Bussey, or it was called. Whatever the case, this was 1v1 for the game. Tech’s Sneed made the better play.
Sometimes football is a simple game.
Cole Hedlund has been good outside of the one miss against Tech. North Texas’s special teams has also been very good outside of a couple of muffed kicks. Quez Watkins and Jaylond Adams are good returners. They can change the game.
Jaelon Darden is also good at punt returns but his muffed kick is still on everyone’s mind. Keegan Brewer is a viral star, and he has done well. DeAndre Torrey also dropped a kick off, but he looks likely to break one soon.
Football season is a long slog through five months. It is very easy to look at any two or three game stretch (let alone one!) and make sweeping pronouncements. That is partly what makes this whole thing fun to follow, but it can also make small things into big issues.
The truth about North Texas right now is that it is not very different that the team that lined up against SMU. The offense then came out and had a hard time scoring easily — Seth Littrell was upset at halftime of that game with the offense. The offense had a similar issue against UTEP and even in the second and third quarters against LA Tech.
Because there was an actual loss to LA Tech, followed up by a poor game against UTEP, it feels like NT is on a two game losing streak. The truth is that the offense and defense did well enough to win against Tech — the offense drove for two game-winning FGs and the defense held Tech to 3 points in the second half.
Even in El Paso, Mason Fine led the team to 400+ yards and more yards per play than the season average. The defense had an off game by season standards, but got a couple of late stops to win the thing. Last year this team got four ugly wins — against UTSA, ODU, UAB, and Army — and went down by two scores on the road to this Southern Miss team before storming back.
Ugly wins are part of the game. It is important to remember that NT is winning those things. It was not that long ago that these previews could be summed up as “If everything goes perfectly, this offense can score 24 points and NT will lose by 3”. Now? Well, NT can have a few mistakes and pull out a three-point win.
With the home crowd behind them, I think NT gets back to feeling good and puts this to bed early.
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.