Photo by Manny Flores
Cal Football

North Texas Preview: Mean Green Has a Blue Chip QB

September 11, 2019
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North Texas is not Washington.

But it isn’t UC Davis, either.

The Mean Green from UNT, who come to Memorial Stadium Saturday afternoon, are certainly not as talented as the Huskies, whom the Bears upset Saturday night/Sunday morning in Seattle.

But they definitely are a cut above Davis, which gave Cal a battle for most of the season opener two weeks ago. Unlike the Aggies, who are an FCS program, North Texas is in FBS, one of the favorites this year in the mid-major Conference USA. 

Located in the suburb of Denton in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, North Texas is one of the largest colleges in the state. Formerly known as North Texas State, it has an enrollment of slightly more than 38,000. Its eclectic list of famous alumni includes singer Pat Boone (ask your grandparents), “Lonesome Dove” author Larry McMurtry and football greats Mean Joe Greene (now you know where he got the nickname) and Cedrick Hardman.

The Mean Green is 1-1 after routing FCS Abilene Christian 51-31 and losing to SMU, 49-27. The latter is coached by none other than Sonny Dykes, proving there is a local angle to every story.

North Texas has something in common with Cal’s first two opponents: a quality quarterback. Davis had Big Sky Conference Player of the Year Jake Maier,  Washington was led by Georgia transfer Jacob Eason. Now North Texas comes to town led by senior Mason Fine, who has been CUSA Offensive Player of the Year two years in a row.

A four-year starter at UNIT, Fine holds virtually all the school passing, records and is on the watch list for every award he is eligible for. He came into the season having completed 782 passes in 1,241 attempts for 9,417 yards and 54 touchdowns with 25 interceptions.

He is from the small Oklahoma town of Peggs (pop. 813 at the 2010 census), and set national passing records at Locust Valley HS.

Manny Flores
Seth Littrell

However, colleges were put off by his size, or lack of it. He is generously listed at 5-11, 190, and he received no scholarship offers initially. But then Seth Littrell was hired as head coach at North Texas. An Oklahoma native Littrell knew that no matter the quarterback’s physical stature, passing records in the state meant something. He offered Fine a full ride, and the result is all those monster numbers.

Fine’s arm is strong enough to make the deep throws, he is accurate on the shorter ones and is nifty enough on his feet to maneuver himself out of trouble.

“He’s a dynamic athlete that just creates plays, even when the plays aren’t there,” UTSA coach Frank Wilson told CBS Sports.  “That’s where he’s a cut above, because it’s one thing to plan for someone schematically, but his improv, what he’s able to do when the play is covered. … He has moxie because he’s a tough player.”

Since Littrell and Fine arrived UNT is 23-17 and has been to bowl games the last two years.

 SMU was able to slow Fine down, holding him to a modest 17 completions in 32 attempts with a TD and a pick. Under Dykes, the Mustangs had an imaginative defensive plan (don’t you snicker) that blanketed Fine’s favorite receivers and generally cut down his effectiveness. The Mean Green’s top pass catcher, Rico Bussey, to zero receptions.

“People are going to do different things with Rico, whether that is bracketing him or playing one underneath and one over the top,” Littrell said in his press conference this week. “We have playmakers who can step up and make plays for us. It’s not a one-man show. It’s not like they were doing anything special. They just mixed up their coverages well. We didn’t adjust.”

With Bussey having troubles getting open, Fine threw to junior Jaelon Darden (6 catches, 59 yards, TD) and senior Michael Lawrence (5-44-1). However, neither Darden, who is 5-9, 172, nor Lawrence, 5-10, 187, has the size of the 6-2, 193, Bussey.

Fine took part of the blame himself. “As a quarterback, I have to find a way to get it into my playmakers’ hands,” Fine said at his news conference this week. “SMU did a great job schematically of shutting down one of our best guys. SMU did a great job of playing hard, physical and being in the right spots. They called a great game.”

With the passing game having difficulties, UNT was able to move the ball on the ground. 

Manny Flores --UNT Athletics
Ricco Bussey, Jr.

Tre Siggers, who missed the opening game with an injury, gained 164 yards on 19 carries Saturday. The redshirt sophomore was moved to safety last season when the Mean Green were loaded with running backs. This year he returned to the offense with excellent results.

“I think he has that chip on his shoulder, he wants to prove to everybody that he is a great running back,” Littrell said. “It’s not that I regret the decision (to move him to defense).  But I will tell you this, once you see him run like he did the other night and in fall camp, yes, I question myself.”

Siggers is not listed as the starter on the UNT depth chart, DeAndre Torrey, who has 126 yards in the two games, is No. 1. The 5-7, 191-pound junior was second-team All-Conference-USA a year ago.

The offensive line gave up five sacks to SMU but should be much improved this week with the expected return of guard Elex Woodworth, who missed the first two games with an injury.

And Fine took some of the blame for those numbers, too. “The O-line did a great job at run blocking and being physical,” he said. “A lot of those sacks were on me as a quarterback to get rid of the ball and put our team in a better situation. The O-line played a phenomenal game on Saturday.”

The Mean Green have issues on defense. They have given up 479.5 yards per game, 282.5 passing, which ranks 109th in the country. They are also terrible on third down, as opponents have converted 54 percent (15-of-28) which is 122nd nationally. 

Manny Flores-UNT Athletics
LaDarius Hamilton (2)

The Mean Green lost both starting cornerbacks and last year’s nickel back, Tyreke Davis, is now a linebacker. The inexperienced secondary can be exploited. Jameel Moore took over at nickel and junior Cam Johnson and grad transfer (Texas A&M) Nick Harvey are the corners, at least for now. Nobody’s job is safe.l

“We will see about lineup changes," Littrell said. "As coaches, we have to put our guys in situations to be successful. We know who our team is and are going to have to adjust."

One starter certain to remain is junior defensive end LaDarius Hamilton, who had six tackles including two sacks against SMU.

“They’re talented,” Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin said. “They’ve got some guys that run around. Number 2 (Hamilton) upfront is incredibly good, their linebackers move around good. Their corners, they ask a lot out of their corners. They’re good athletes and physical because they bring a lot of guys up to the line of scrimmage. 

“It (the UNT defense) is better than what the outside world thinks. SMU got hot, SMU’s a really good football team. They got hot and hit a ton of chunk plays. It doesn’t mean ...they (North Texas) have the ability to stuff people. I’ve seen it on film last year.”

 

On special teams, the Mean Green blocked a field goal (Johnson) at SMU and their Eason Mooney is five for five this year on FGs, with a long of 36. 

Notes

  • This is the first time the two schools have played one another.
  • Cal is 8-12 all-time against teams from the state of Texas: Baylor (1-2), Houston (2-0), Rice (1-1), SMU (0-1), TCU (0-1), Texas (2-5), Texas A&M (2-1) and Texas Tech (0-1). 
  • UNT senior safety Khairi Muhammad has 11 tackles in the first two games.
  • Redshirt junior receiver/kick returner Deion Hair-Griffin leads the nation in kick return average at 55.0 yards. He ran a kickoff back 96 yards vs, Abilene Christian.

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Discussion from...

North Texas Preview: Mean Green Has a Blue Chip QB

940 Views | 3 Replies | Last: 2 mo ago by oskirules
PalyBear
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Wilner picks N. Texas over Cal. Booooi!

https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/09/12/picks-of-the-week-season-defining-weekend-for-the-pac-12-and-several-games-are-a-long-way-from-home/
71Bear
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PalyBear said:

Wilner picks N. Texas over Cal. Booooi!

https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/09/12/picks-of-the-week-season-defining-weekend-for-the-pac-12-and-several-games-are-a-long-way-from-home/
Just to clarify..

He picked Cal to win but not by enough points to cover the spread.
oskirules
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Thanks for the write up.
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