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Mean Green End Disappointing Season, Mason Fine’s Last Game

The entire season can be summed up in the third quarter game-losing interception: tough scenario, bold plan, terrible execution, awful result.

North Texas kicked off the last season of Mason Fine’s collegiate career with much fanfare. There was a little G5 Heisman talk, some beat writer-led division hype, and the lingering good feelings from back-to-back nine-win seasons.

Instead North Texas finished 4-8, with three straight losses. Seth Littrell and Mason Fine produced their second losing season in four season’s time and miss out on a bowl game for the first time.

Readers of this fine publication will no doubt remember that we warned and cautioned and talked about how when we talk about the wins that could have been we have to acknowledge the losses that were nearly there as well.

Two seasons ago the Mean Green went to the league title game and lost. The louder part of the internet fandom complained that it was the beginning of greatness but it was a few bounces away from being nothing.

This season felt like that one — but with all the bad luck and none of the good. It was difficult to enjoy but Mason Fine said the right things about it in the end. “It wasn’t the way we wanted it to go but that’s life and that’s football.”

It is true. Life does not always reward hard work with triumph and immediate glory. The “mysterious ways” cliché comes to mind.

For supporters and interested parties, it was difficult to enjoy. There is little shame in finding something else to do besides watching a seemingly meaningless game in a losing season.

It did mean that Fine got to go out like Lance Dunbar and Patrick Cobbs: in front of empty crowds.

Ultimately it reinforced his feelings that the people he cares most about are the guys in uniform with him that went through the grind every day. “I’m excited to see what [his teammates] do. They are going to become better men, husbands, and fathers because of this season”.

Sure.

We all want to give a greater meaning to our efforts to justify it to a critical eye, and yes, every moment can be learned from in some small way.

Ultimately, the program put together a bad season and fell victim to its weaknesses: limited depth, unbalanced recruiting, coaching turnover, and well, some misfortune. Oh yeah, and the other teams played well on the day.

Another truism: If this was easy they would not pay the coaches so much.

The young defense was learning big the seemingly stacked offense sputtered and cane up short too often. Last week NT could not score the game winning TD against Rice despite having the ball in the red zone.

This week NT threw a game losing interception in the third, because the offense got shut down and sacked too much.

Seth Littrell said he was proud of the team because he saw effort and fight. That’s all we want out of anything we spend our precious attention on. Let us applaud them.

It has been clear since about midsession that the real root causes were systemic and not something that would be fixable in-season let alone in-game.

Yes, Jyaire Shorter and Deonte Simpson grew as recovers, but it was not enough to get the offense unstuck for long periods. The line was still allowing sacks, still snapping low or high, and they were not going to be able to improve quick enough for it to matter. There were big numbers but the inability to get first downs and touchdowns in the fourth against Rice and UAB were the reason for the losses.

It’s Blame Season across the nation and coaches are getting ready to pack up and move. NT fans want Seth Littrell to do like Herman at Texas and fire the defensive head man. There are more still that want Bodie Reeder gone for the sin of coaching Mason in a losing season.

Littrell practically turned over his coaching staff last off-season and the scientist in me dislikes the idea of changing another variable. The offense will be led by a new QB — one of Jason Bean or the other guys or maybe a transfer? — and so much change while breaking in yet another staff sounds like a recipe for another losing season.

Note: It has since been reported that Bodie Reeder is out as offensive coordinator, but that has yet to be confirmed by the program.

That said, the strength of the team was not well, strong. That means there is some soul-searching. The good news is that Littrell and his staff are the kinds of people that are willing to put in work and take accountability.

For the fans and stewards of the program that means adjusting expectations a bit. Do we want progress or perfection? If the former (as it should be) then we must acknowledge that progress is not always linear.

So while we should not blindly demonize a set back season, we also should not blindly trust every and all decisions. Littrell hit big on Harrell and Fine, but maybe not so much on Reeder (pending) and has some work to do building a more consistent defense.

Recruits like Simpson, Shorter, Tre Siggers, KD Davis and the young guys have impressed while some of the transfers have not. Compared to the rest of the league NT is in good shape. Finding one QB is a hell of a way to get a program on its feet. NT did that. Finding the next one is how a career is made. That’s yet to be seen.

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Football

2019: North Texas at Louisiana Tech Preview

Last year in Denton, this battle was played before a record Apogee crowd and contested by equals.

This season North Texas comes in the clear underdog. We have noted all season that reasonable fans should have expected to see an unbalanced team with a powerful offense and a young inexperienced defense.

That has mostly held true, however the offense has disappointed in most games save for the recent two. The opening quarter duds can be explained by injury, personnel, and the quality of opponent but those are just different names for “excuses”.

The fact is that the offense had all the tools to be good and was not ready to start the games that way.

Two things have happened in the last fortnight: 1) The teams NT faves were very bad. 2) The WRs got a little better.

Playing Tech means going up a level in difficulty.

North Texas needs to win out to have a shot at a division title (need two USM losses, and one more Tech loss FYI) and probably a bowl invite. My thinking is that seven wins — not six — is the magic bowl-invite number for this team. That means no losses the rest of the way.

NT has struggled despite the offensive talent. Some of that was growing pains with new faces on the field and in the coaching booth. Some of that was ill-preparation and ill-execution.

Whatever you think of SMU and Cal, they were beatable. The Houston let down was also frustrating given the circumstances. Losing to USM was understandable but the one to Charlotte was nigh unforgivable.

As Bill Parcells said, ‘you are what your record says you are’. NT is an unbalanced team that is trying to get better every week.

Louisiana Tech

Skip Holtz has had a nice run in Ruston. Close, cynical observers will note that he had a lot fewer league titles than is desired but compared to the league he has been a model of success.

In seven years he has only the one losing season: his first. His teams have had NFL talent and have produced some quality entertainment to boot.

The criticism is right on, however. Going back to his days at South Florida and Wast Carolina, he has never won more than nine games and none of those have come with fewer than four losses.

This year’s team is right out of that mold: talent everywhere, but enough questions that we can have hope they will do North Texas a favor and fumble the ball away.

They have started 7-1, losing only to Texas when they were good. They have played to their competition, battling close against Grambling and Rice, but stepped up and got a big win vs USM at home. That same USM team took apart NT in Hattiesburg.

They have a ton of talent — again– and senior leadership to guide it.

Attacking Tech

Amik Robertson is the name you probably already know. He blocked the kick to seal the game last season. He also nearly intercepted the previous ball to Bussey down the sideline.

He is a tough competitor and intercepted Jack Abraham thrice in the big west division matchup this season.

We cannot expect Jyaire Shorter or Deonte Simpson to win the majority of those battles. He is the league’s best cornerback and our outside guys are still learning to be consistent.

That said, one cannot coach size. Shorter is a big dude and running through a smaller guy does not take any coaching.

The concern will be that North Texas will have to grind out some drives in this one. Sure, throw it up to Shorter here and there, but we cannot expect that will go for six the way it has recently.

In all the ways that UTEP and Charlotte are bad defensively, Tech is much better. The stats show that Tech gets off the field on third downs better, and stops the opposition from gaining any momentum early. UTEP is 129th in stop rate — the measure of a team’s percentage of defensive drives ending in punts, turnovers, or turnovers on downs. Charlotte is 116th. (NT is 99th) and Tech is 40th.

Still, looking down the Tech schedule there is only one win that impresses: 45-30 winners vs Southern Miss. They were scored upon in that game, but they got three big turnovers late to win it.

The other corner is Michael Sam, a redshirt senior at 6’1″ 194 lbs. Safety L’Jarius Sneed likes to come up and make a ton of tackles. OLB Ezekiel Barnett will bring pressure — he leads the team in hurries but Amik Robertson will come on a corner blitz, too.

Best case scenario: NT’s offense continues its run of play, and scores 38 with no turnovers.
Worst case scenario: The Tech pass rush causes interceptions, and NT’s WRs cannot get open against the talented secondary

Defending Tech

J’Mar Smith has all the tools and he has come up big when it has been needed from him. He will not set any league passing records, and that has been something like source of frustration. A lot of fans criticism him for what he is not instead of appreciating what he is. That said, he is a little frustrating.

As we saw the last two seasons, Smith can get the ball to his playmaking wide receivers. That is really the entire job description so in that respect he is a good QB. He does also make the odd mistake here in there. Odd not in frequency, but in character. He will fumble, throw the ball to no one, and take sacks.

It may be in NT’s favor that he is at home and can feel the crowd’s nervous energy instead of drawing inspiration from a bunkered-down mentality on the road. He was great last season against NT, and has come up big for Tech in crunch time this season.

That said, he had to pull out an OT run against Rice so it is not super impressive that he had to be clutch there.

The OL has experience. NT has not had a ton of success bringing pressure, and J’Mar Smith can elude whatever pressure that is brought. See last year’s preview for a little video. His targets include Adrian Hardy again. Last season his acrobatic receivers made incredible catch after incredible catch that helped calm the crowd a bit.

RB Justin Henderson is a load — 218 lbs! — and will run through arm tackles. Jaqwis Dancy is still good, and shifty and a senior.

This is by far J’Mar Smith’s most efficient season. He has 13 scores to only 3 interceptions and one of those was a freak play. NT may not be able to rely on Smith doing self-harm in this one, although they did not get much of that last year either.

Best case scenario: North Texas gets some fortunate turnovers and gets off the field often enough to get the ball back to Fine.
Worst case scenario: An endless conga line to the end zone for Tech players.

Coaching

Skip Holtz is a good coach and Seth Littrell is a proven program-builder in this league. Neither can be said to be an outstanding in-game adjuster. Call this a wash. The home field advantage is well, an advantage.

NT has had solid game plans throughout the season but has also fell on its face to start games too often to discount. The depth chart has changed in reaction to performance — a good thing — but it also means there has been some inconsistency.

Let us count special teams with coaching today. Marty Biagi’s group has allowed some awful returns this season, even while the kick and punt games have been solid. If the offense and defense keep it all even, we cannot expect to have an advantage in this area.

MGN season preview prediction: W 31-24
MGN prediction today: L 28-38

While I have appreciated the offensive explosion the last couple of weeks I absolutely know that has much more to do with the opposition than anything. Tech is good — not great, but good — and NT has had trouble being consistent. If things go the right way, I can see NT pulling this out. This is one of those seasons where NT needs to be perfect on offense and lucky on defense. I do not see it.

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Football Football Recaps

Seven Is Fine: North Texas 52 UTEP 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Football

Darden Time: North Texas 33 MTSU 30

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.

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Football Football Recaps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NT turned it over and then Houston kneeled it out.

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

Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense

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

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

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

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

The next Houston drive was a great exercise in discipline.

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

Special Teams

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

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

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

Coaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Football

North Texas vs Houston Preview

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.

Defending Houston

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.

Houston’s First Play

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. 

Attacking Houston

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. 

Coaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offense

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

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

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

Defense

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

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

Hamilton, Johnson, LeBlanc played well, among others.

Coaching

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

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

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

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

Next up:

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

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