Ladies and gentleman your North Texas Mean Green are 3-0 and just beat an SEC squad on the road. There is precious little to point at and be angry about, but we’ll do our best.
For the time being, we can celebrate. If you remember the last time NT played Arkansas and lost 66-7 — hell if you remember the last time nT played Portland State you are thoroughly enjoying this win over the Razorbacks.
North Texas is 3-0 for the first time in decades, and beat a P5 team on the road for the first time since 1999. This was the first P5 win since 2011 (Indiana at Apogee). All of that is cool and important but pales in comparison to the fact that NT could beat any number of P5 teams with the way they are playing right now.
Add to the above the fact that Chad Morris had North Texas’ number the last few years, and NT was always just a year or two behind the development of SMU at the time. This season NT has ended that three-game SMU win streak and then beat the man that had coached them for those three games.
If you read the season preview, you knew that the key question was the defense. The thinking was that DC Troy Reffett’s crew had the ability to at least occasionally slow the opposition and in so doing would give the explosive offense some room to breathe.
Instead, they have taken it to the next level and have dominated the competition. Has that competition been bad? Yes, unquestionably so. This Arkansas team is the worst in a half-decade at least. The level of competition cannot be controlled, but the way that this team competes and dominates that level can be.
The Mean Green have dominated three straight overmatched opponents the way good teams are expected to do so. The way they have done so has been surprising. For all of Mason Fine’s counting stats, he has been slightly less efficient than is ideal. He had a good game today but Arkansas’ defensive line was able to knock down passes and break up some potential TD drives.
The defense meant that Mason Fine had little to worry about, helping he and the offense with short fields and six interceptons. Yes, that is right. The tally was one short of the school record — set in 1971 against Wichita St at 7 INTs — and came largely through the exploitation of man-to-man matchups and pressure on the QB.
It is surprising that the game plan in an SEC matchup was for one team to go ‘man’ and bring pressure, challenging the opponent to out-talent the defense. It is even more surprising that the team that did so was the underdog CUSA squad.
Arkansas punted after five plays thanks to good defense by CB Nate Brooks and Safety Khairi Muhammad. North Texas got an early penalty and then had a call reversed that forced a punt. Then Brooks picked off Ark QB Cole Kelley and gave Mason Fine a short field to operate. Fine pushed in for 2 yards after a quick 7-play 44 yard drive.
Then NT forced a punt and got the play of the day.
Keegan Brewer faked the fair catch “The UnFair Catch” and returned it for 90 yards and a TD. That play did more than the win for virality. The entire internet was seemingly talking about the game and when checking on the score found out that NT was kicking ass. NT forced another interception (Khairi) and got a field goal out of things.
There was some concern at this point that NT was maybe not getting enough out of the pass game.
The teams traded punts before Arkansas scored on a 7-play 61 yard drive for a score. NT punted again after four plays and then Arkansas managed another FG, this time from 54 yards. It was 17-10 NT at this point and North Texas was not doing too much to impress offensively.
NT punted again, after a questionable holding call that nullified a 48-yard TD strike to Rico Bussey. NT punted, but Nate Brooks intercepted the very next Kelley pass.
Then NT put all the talk to rest as he tossed a 31-yard pass to Jalen Guyton to get NT down to the Arkansas 3. Loren Easly then scooted in from three. The next drive Arkansas missed a chip-shot field goal that NT answered with a 7-yard TD strike to Bussey to make it 31-10 after a 8-play 80 yard drive.
NT forced another punt and then drove for a half-ending FG that made things 34-10.
From then on, it was extended garbage time. North Texas opened the half with a long, 14-play 72 yard drive that ate 5:34 and added another FG to extend things. Arkansas would turn the ball over three more times in the half and would only get a 68-yard run from Maleek Williams to add to the score. By then North Texas had backups in the game and was trying to run the ball out.
The defense held Arkansas to 336 yards and only 210 passing and intercepted the three quarterbacks a combined six times. Starter Cole Kelley had 4 himself. The Razorbacks managed just 4 yards per play, and 3.9 yards per rush. By contrast, they came in averaging 435 yards per game and 189 rushing, including 4.21 yards per rush and 6.17 yards per play.
Three games in North Texas has faced a G5, an FCS, and an SEC team and has looked the better, more ferocious side in each matchup. NT came in allowing only 19.5 points per game and held Arkansas to 17. The Mean Green are holding teams to 5.36 per play and held Arkansas to 4.4. I point these things out to say that while the turnovers were a little more inflated than we can expect (six interception is not replicable) the defense played up to their standards.
That is an incredible statement to make, but it is all truth. North Texas has shown it has a good defense this season, with LBs EJ Ejiya and Brandon Garner flying around the field and making plays in the backfield. The duo combined for five tackles for loss (TFLs) and two sacks.
Add to that the play of the defensive lineman and it is no wonder that Reffett thought he could go man coverage with success. The pressure was in the Razorback QBs faces, and they could not get on the same page with their receivers. Kemon Hall nearly had two other interceptions to add to his pick-six.
If this defense can play even 80% of this level, the league looks mighty winnable.
Mason Fine did not get gaudy numbers, but he did show some pretty soft touch and nice accuracy among other quality QB play. He was good, and as advertised, but he was hurried 9 times and sacked.
Mason ended the night at 24 of 45 for 281 and 1 score and a 113.1 rating. His passes were tipped at the line at a high rate, but that was the extent of the vaunted Arkansas defensive line’s success. In another version of this game where the defense does not play as well, people are killing Mason Fine and the offense for this performance. So it goes in this game.
The run game was still a bit too quiet, as RB Loren Easly carried 13 for 68 with most of that in garbage time. The short yardage runs are effective, however, and that allows the pass game to do its thing. The pass game is still the primary weapon and it is firing on most, if not all, cylinders and so we will not worry too much here.
WR Jaelon Darden had five grabs for 87 yards on 8 targets, TE Kelvin Smith had 5 for 60 on 5 targets, and Rico Bussey had 5 for 27 and a score on 11 targets.
Arkansas could not press cover or play zone and were it not for the defensive line this thing could have been even worse. All told North Texas only managed 376 yards and were a whole yard under their season average yards per play at 5 in this game. With the short fields and the time and score consideration, this was not a terrible performance. NT scored in important moments and got points. They were able to move the ball efficiently and controlled the game.
Whoo. Marty Biagi deserves a ton of credit and the entire staff apparently let the ref know that they were going to try to trick the Hogs. It was bold and it worked. We all expected a closer game and any little edge helps things when an underdog is playing. All told, combined with the poor offensive performance and the early NT TD drive, this play took the winds out of the sails and turned the crowd against the home team.
What It Means
It means it is time to celebrate. It has been a long time since NT could go toe-to-toe with a P5 team (no matter how bad) and bully them around. The old timers no doubt have told you all about the wins over Baylor and other teams back in the day and now we have our own tale to discuss forever.
Beyond that, NT is halfway to six wins and another bowl appearance. Remember when that was a lofty goal? I do also. NT is nearly there with at least 10 games to go.
3-0 feels really good, but it means little on the way to the league title. Liberty is a good team that can score and will challenge this very quality NT defense before Louisiana Tech comes in to Denton. That game is as important as last year’s UTSA game was, an early battle that determines the division race leader.
That is for later. Right now, let us enjoy this win.
MGN had to stay home, but had friends out in Fayetteville where they report that the Hog fans were extremely cool and received all the green fans with open arms. We can empathize with their current plight, and it was not that long ago that NT was emptying the stadium in disgust. Thanks to those folks for their hospitality.