In what's been an extraordinarily *eventful* week for all of us in Cougardom, I figured a look at Saturday's opponents would be a nice break from the constant nuclear-grade takes about the direction of Cougar football.
1. A Fine Time
In 36 months, Mason Fine has transformed from a lightly recruited true freshman QB from tiny Locust Grove, Oklahoma (population: 1,404) to holder of basically every North Texas program passing record.
This game won’t feature a battle of the nation’s 2 best under 6-foot QBs in Fine and D’Eriq King as we predicted in our early-July preview of UNT, due to King redshirting and choosing to sit out the remainder of 2019.
Fine is still one of the more exciting signal callers on the remaining UH schedule, though. He owns the Mean Green program records for: career passing yards, career passing TDs, career completions and for good measure also holds the single-season records for those same categories.
In the 4-game sample size of 2019, Fine’s per game passing yards average is down by about 50 yards (a stylistic change we’ll talk about in the next section) from last year. Additionally, his interception rate has increased from 1 in 94 pass attempts to last year to 1 in about 44 attempts so far this year.
Against FBS opponents SMU, Cal and UTSA so far, he has completed 56% of his passes and averaged 5.9 yards per attempt to go along with 5 passing TDs. These aren’t the wildly prolific numbers Fine has been known for in his career.
However, the UH defense hasn’t yet shown the ability to play 4 quarters of good defense and I don’t expect Fine to be an easy opponent.
2. ‘Winning Offense’
The current era of college football has given us so, so many gimmicky offense names. So when new UNT offensive coordinator and QBs coach Bodie Reeder was asked what he called his offense, he kept it hilariously simple: winning offense.
Reeder comes to Denton from Division 1-FCS Eastern Washington where he was also OC/QBs coach from 2017-18. Last year EWU lost their senior starting QB to injury after 5 weeks (current Wazzu backup Gage Gubrud) and didn’t skip a beat, eventually losing to North Dakota State in the FCS championship game.
What was so impressive is EWU went from being a pass-first offense with Gubrud to run-first after Gubrud’s injury, without skipping a beat. I don’t have to tell Cougar fans about how difficult it can be to change offenses, even when a team has the benefit of a full off season.
The last EWU offense Reeder coordinated averaged well over 200 yards per game passing and rushing, and currently UNT is averaging 247 pass yards and 203 rush yards per game. That rushing yardage number is notable.
The Mean Green ran a variation of the Air Raid offense the previous 3 years under Graham Harrell (who’s now at USC) and the way the new offense has used the 3-headed RB monster of Tre Siggers, DeAndre Torrey and Loren Easly might be UNT’s biggest surprise.
As much as Mason Fine versus a shaky UH pass defense seems like the game’s key matchup when UNT has the ball, I am not wildly confident about the Cougar defensive front facing this Mean Green rushing attack either.
3. KD With the KOs
The Mean Green offense came into the season with most of the hype around their offense, and for good reason. While their defensive counterparts were a critical part of them winning 9 games last year, 3 of the Mean Green’s defensive All-CUSA selections and multiple other defensive starters exhausted their eligibility. This season looked like a pretty big reset for what was one of the country’s most improved defenses in 2018.
One of the many new starters is sophomore KD Davis, who’s started the last 2 games at weakside linebacker and leads the Mean Green with 41 total tackles. Coincidentally or not, the last 2 weeks have seen UNT noticeably improve on that side of the ball. If he continues playing regularly, I’d imagine all-conference honors are in the future for Davis.
Senior DE LaDarius Hamilton, the lone returning all-conference selection, continues to be a good college pass rusher and has near as many QB hits (7) this year as the entire UH defense (8). Nick Harvey is also finishing up a long and winding career, that included stops at Texas A&M and South Carolina, starting at corner for the Mean Green. Harvey and returning starters Khairi Muhammad and Taylor Robinson have held opponents to 205.5 pass yards per game so far.
I think UNT has a worse defense than Oklahoma, Tulane and even Wazzu, but they’re certainly good enough to give a much more inexperienced Cougar offense problems if they don’t bring their ‘A game’.
4. Sooner State Pipeline
When it comes to Texas and its northern neighbor Oklahoma, a fair amount of high school talent heads north for college as Oklahoma schools have known for a long time about the quality of Texas high school football.
In scanning the Mean Green roster, I noticed they had 8 players from the Sooner state, including star QB Mason Fine, leading returning receiver Rico Bussey Jr and 2 of Fine’s backup QBs.
This makes sense as Littrell is from Muskogee and played collegiately for Oklahoma. And considering Fine and Bussey Jr have both been 1st team all-conference selections at different points in their respective careers, you can’t argue with Littrell’s results with Sooner state players.
5. Mattress Mac vs. Mid-00s North Texas Athletics
I am telling this story not to shame Jim ‘Mattress Mack’ McIngvale, a staple of my childhood network TV only existence and true Houston humanitarian, or shame the present-day University of North Texas. If you know anything about Mack, the story won’t surprise you too much.
In mid-November 2006 UNT was at the tail end of a 3-9 season that would be longtime head coach Darrell Dickey’s last as Mean Green head coach. This seemed like a harsh decision, as UNT was only 2 years removed from winning their 4th Sun Belt title in a row under Dickey. He had also suffered a heart attack just a month prior in mid-October.
It seems harsh with the benefit of hindsight, and in real time McIngvale took great issue with the decision to let Dickey go. So incensed was Mack that he took out an ad in the Denton Record Chronicle to insist that his $1 million gift go to UNT’s nationally renowned music school/marching band, unless one condition of his was met.
That condition was they re-name the practice facility after Darrell Dickey. Even though Mack didn’t have much leverage, so great was UNT’s fear of upsetting a wealthy potential future donor that they didn’t hesitate to re-name the facility after their recently fired head coach.
At present time, the facility is still named the Darrell R. Dickey Football Practice Facility and it’s a story I couldn’t resist telling one more time.