Mason Fine saw the rush, stepped up, scrambled to his left. He found daylight to his left and sprinted toward it. He began his slide and NT was safely in the win column following some cursory kneels.
Why was NT in need of a 3rd-and-8 scramble to win things? Well the reason is a long and terrible story that involves Marty Biagi coordinating a unit that kicked to Isiah Harper a second time after he returned a kick 97 yards for the inital score.
North Texas is 5-3 on the year, 4-1 in conference and yet there is a pall over this win. It was ugly and no one is happy with anything group that played. Still ugly wins are necessary wins and much more desireable than pretty losses. This North Texas team controls their destiny in the CUSA West division and that is quite the accomplishment.
When anyone outside of the Mean Green Family asks, your response should be ‘5-3, 4-1’. The internal self-reflection and doubt will stay in-house.
The Mean Green were expected to dominate this overmatched ODU team at home at Apogee fairly easily and looked to be on the way toward that end early. Mason Fine was hot, completing his first eight passes including a 34-yard TD to Rico Bussey.
— Dave Campbell's Texas Football — TexasFootball.com (@dctf) October 28, 2017
The first drive went 77-yards on 13 plays in 4:55 and saw Jeff Wilson get the TD.
Despite allowing ODU’s Isaiah Harper to score on the ensuing kickoff, NT seemed unfazed. The Bussey TD drive went 68-yards in 4 plays. ODU would punt as the defense looked like they wanted blood. Then . . . NT thew an ugly interception. Mason Fine was hit as he threw and added his eigth interception on the year. He has now thrown at least one in the last four games, and five in the last four (all in conference play).
Still NT would score again on a 75-yard drive on 9 plays. Mason Fine was hot, and NT was moving the ball easily only facing one third down on the drive (3rd and 1, converted by Evan Johnson). The blocked punt on the next drive put NT ahead 28-10 and twitter was feeling good. This was exactly the kind of game we all expected and NT probably needed after being torched in Boca Raton.
However, incredibly NT kicked to Harper again. He scored from 98-yards out and Jeff Wilson fumbled after an 8-yard gain the following drive. ODU kicked a FG and this ‘blowout’ was only an 8-point lead at 28-20.
NT went three-and-out, getting sacked by ODU’s Rotimi killing the drive and a near-interception averted by Guyton’s effort to fight off the defensive back. Andy Flusche got the tip-drill interception he should have gotten against SMU.
The big man Andy Flusche comes up with his first career INT in ODU territory pic.twitter.com/PKk3xhUgBL
— Dave Campbell's Texas Football — TexasFootball.com (@dctf) October 28, 2017
The NT defense had saved the day. Nic Smith dove into the endzone to cap the 30-yard drive (7-plays). NT was up 35-20. After another ODU 3-and-out that included a big Eric Jenkins stop, NT got the ball back with 4:11 left and a chance to pour it on.
Instead, the drive stalled after three incompletes and a no-gain from Smith. Then the unthinkable: Trevor Moore missed a kick wide left. ODU had their first decent drive of the half to make it 35-23.
The Monarchs were expected to be able to move the ball somewhat, considering the talent and the coaching staff, and they managed their second good drive of the game to open the second half — 9 plays for 66-yards to make it 35-30. NT followed with a 3-and-out thanks to a Bussey penalty that was iffy.
Noted superhuman, Rico Bussey Jr. pic.twitter.com/GeSdqSTkMl
— Dave Campbell's Texas Football — TexasFootball.com (@dctf) October 29, 2017
Eric Jenkins seeminlgy stems the tide with a great interception. Nic Smith actually ran for long TD but it was called back thanks to a mystery personal foul penalty on Jordan Murray. NT would stall out after 9-plays, 53 yards and 2:57 after Nic Smith was stopped on 4th and 1 from the ODU 35.
ODU then pulls out their third great drive to pull ahead 38-35. Steven Williams morphed into the talented player he will grow into on these drives, moving the ball well and firing some big time throws. His 3rd-and-11 pass to Jackson for 27 yards was ridiculous. He converted one other third and long and capped off the drive with a 10-yard rush and the threw for the conversion.
ODU had scored 18-straight points.
NT punted after four ugly plays — the exception being the 22-yard pass to Bussey.
Here is where it got interesting: ODU had the ball at the three, drove to the 29, and then Tillman Johnson forced the sack-fumble that was recovered by Hambone. NT got inside the 10 before stalling out and kicked the tying FG.
Then began the first of three 4th and 1 stops for the NT defense.
Old Dominion moved the ball 24 yards but was stopped on 4th and 1 by Andy Flusche and Rod Young. NT followed that up with a 4-play, 48-yard TD drive that saw Nic Smith score from 20 yards out. Bussey and Guyton got two first-down big pass plays that moved the chains and opened things up. NT was up 45-38.
Old Dominion followed the score with another 7-play 21 yard drive but Dee Baulkman cam up with two huge plays back-to-back. He first stopped Gemonta Jackson’s catch-and-run to 3-yards on 3rd-and-3, then got a pass break up on 4th-and-1.
With 2:11 on the clock NT opted to … pass? Yes, NT’s play calls:
Run with Nic Smith
NT punted. Just :55 of the clock was used.
After two rushes for two yards total, Williams completed a pass To Travis, Fulgham for seven yards. NT had thier third straight 4th-and-1 and stuffed Jeremy Cox for no-gain.
NT ran twice and on third-and-8 mason Fine ran for nine. Then the kneeling began.
Let us review things:
The numbers show a good performance: 460 yards, 309 passing, 151 rushing and 24 first downs. The problem was that the majority of that came in the first quarter: 224 yards, 173 passing, 51 rushing, 12 first downs.
The Mean Green had two turnovers, three three-and-outs, and were 42.9% on 3rds.
Mason Fine was harrassed after the first quarter, and the run game was nonexistent. We have to credit the ODU pass rush and the their staff for keeping Guyton away from the deep stuff he has feasted on earlier in conference.
The glimpse of the offense with answers was there, as Rico Bussey had himself a game. Turnovers and sloppy play aside, the offense was good and probably the best unit overall.
Three straight stops on 4th and 1 is not insignificant. The defense had the spotlight on them and stepped up and won this game late. The 18-straight points by Old Dominion are concerning but are nothing out of character. The next step from this offense is creating turnovers. This game presented an opportunity to take advantage of the youth and inexperience of Steven Williams and the defense came up with three takeaways.
This is good. If circumstances were different, this would be the story. The two kick off returns made the defense’s lapses more stark. Still, the three straight stops were evidence of the improvement over last year.
Army managed conversions to win the Bowl game. This defense stopped UTSA and ODU to allow the offense to win things. The defensive line is good, and should have the advantage against the rest of the schedule.
Special Teams were mostly bad but also had two super positive plays that resulted in 7 points. The bad was obviously the two kick off returns for scores and the missed field goal.
Three negatives and two positives. This phase nearly put the game in danger, and put the defense in a precarious position. Marty Biagi has drawn the ire of the fans. Without more insight, there is not much we can know about how or why this group has been struggling. Is it preparation? Is it the talent? Is it practice time?
Seth Littrell’s team came out and underperformed in the last two weeks. Given the Lane Train is at full steam, it is conceivable that this was the weird and strange week and Boca Raton was just an ass whooping.
Regardless, ugly wins are wins and wins are all that matter in this game. Seth Littrell has guided a young team to the top of the division with the second best offense in the league. There is a good amount improvement to be had. It is important to remember the relative inexperience on this staff — Seth Littrell is in his second year, Graham Harrell also. Reffett has coordinator experience.
Overall this staff has done well and the bad — what of it there is that we can directly pin upon them — is understandable. This is Year Two after the worst year in NT history. The team controls the CUSA Title Game destiny and that should be remembered as we complain about the quality of win.
La Tech beat Rice 42-28 to get to 2-2 in the league. A loss in Ruston would put NT at the mercy of La Tech’s schedule and probably would force the Mean Green to root for FAU against the Bulldogs. A win, however, would essentially sew up the division title. While there are games to be played UTEP and Rice are not the toughest challenges.
You might call it a semi-final before the title game. A win against a good solid team on the road is just the sort of next-step challenge. It is the biggest game of the season.