North Texas Aims To Avenge Bowl Loss To Army
Familiar Foes Square Off To Settle 13-Month, Three-Game Series
DENTON – When the Mean Green host Army Saturday at Apogee Stadium, there is a lot at stake. It’s Senior Day for North Texas, it’s a chance to finish the home season undefeated for the first time since 1994, and it’s an opportunity to pick up a fourth consecutive win and keep momentum toward the postseason.
With no conference or bowl implications, it also boils down to good, old-fashioned pride.
The Mean Green and the Black Knights are back at it for the third time in the last 397 days. Each side has one win to its name, and Saturday will settle the three-game series.
Each side has a very different style, especially on offense. North Texas is an air-raid team that has exercised balance in 2017. Head coach Seth Littrell and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s offense is fast-paced and designed to create and exploit mismatches in space. They’ve been putting points up at a high rate, ranking 18th nationally at 36.8 points per game.
Army and head coach Jeff Monken are the opposite, operating at a much more deliberate pace. Methodical, clock-chewing drives from the kings of the triple-option attack grind opponents down, powering Army to an 8-2 start.
They meet again Saturday to settle the score.
Chapter 1 – Turning Over A New Leaf In New York
When North Texas ventured to West Point, New York, in the cool autumn air of late October on Lusk Reservoir overlooking the Hudson River, it was a team off to a surprising 3-3 start. With a new head coach and a new philosophy on both sides of the ball, the Mean Green opened some eyes nationally with a dominant win at historic Michie Stadium.
Army struck first, taking advantage of a North Texas turnover. The Black Knights had a nearly six-minute march capped by a rushing touchdown to grab an early 7-0 lead that turned out to be Army’s last.
The Mean Green tied the game, courtesy of a seven-play, 76-yard drive in just under two minutes. Then-freshman quarterback Mason Fine tossed a 34-yard scoring strike.
That’s when Army did something it doesn’t do very often: it opted to throw. In 13 games a year ago, the Black Knights threw just 123 times. Twenty-one of those came against the Mean Green in October.
On his first pass attempt of the day, Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw took a three-step drop and looked to his left for Edgar Poe, who ran a five-yard hook. Pressure applied by linebacker Joshua Wheeler forced an errant throw, and the pass fell into the waiting arms of cornerback Eric Jenkins, who took it down the sideline for a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown.
North Texas never looked back. Turnovers were a big part of the story, as the Mean Green forced seven on that rainy, chilly day.
Another key component to the Mean Green’s success was the strong running of Jeffery Wilson, who carried 15 times for 160 yards and three scores, including a game-changing 41-yard touchdown scamper on the first drive of the second half.
Down 21-7, Army stuck to its identity. The North Texas defense stuck to its assignments as well, holding down the triple-option on the next Black Knights’ possession, forcing a turnover on fourth and short. Another Wilson score came moments later, and midway through the third quarter, the Mean Green were on top 28-10, with precious time ticking away for Army.
The Black Knights again stayed within their comfort zone, methodically marching 70 yards in 13 plays and nearly seven minutes to pull within 10 after a touchdown and two-point conversion.
Army then forced a missed field goal, but turned it over for the fourth time on a fumble deep in Mean Green territory. North Texas capitalized with a third Wilson rushing touchdown, pushing its advantage to 35-18.
The Black Knights were forced to throw to try and come back, and on that day Army’s air game did not go well. Bradshaw was picked off on Army’s final three drives, finishing 7-for-21 with four interceptions, as the Mean Green left West Point with what at the time was a signature win for Littrell.
Chapter 2 – The Rematch
Both teams earned bowl berths, and, as fate had it, were pitted against each other in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. North Texas was there by virtue of a five-win season and some help from its strong academic progress rate, while Army did so in a more conventional fashion, with seven wins.
What ensued in Dallas in front of 39,000-plus, mostly green-clad fans was nothing short of a bowl-season classic. Army exacted revenge and did so in its preferred method: by pounding the run. The Black Knights rolled up 480 rushing yards on 74 carries, completing just 2-of-4 passes.
Army jumped on the Mean Green early, leading 24-7 midway through the second quarter, taking advantage of a North Texas defense that wasn’t as sound in its assignments as it was two months prior.
Wilson helped lead the Mean Green back, however, catching a 22-yard touchdown pass from graduate transfer Alec Morris, who started for the injured Fine, with just 2:26 left in the half to pull within 10 at 24-14. The defense then forced a quick three-and-out, utilizing all three timeouts effectively to gain possession with 1:50 to play in the second quarter.
North Texas marched 68 yards in just six plays to cut the deficit to a field goal when Morris connected with Rico Bussey, Jr., for a 27-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone. Game on.
A long drive to open the third quarter looked to set the Mean Green up nicely to either tie or take the lead, but the turnover bug that was so fruitful for North Texas in West Point bit back, as Morris was intercepted deep in Army territory. The Black Knights struck on a 65-yard run by Bradshaw to extend the lead back to 10, 31-21.
The Mean Green came back to force overtime, courtesy of a Morris touchdown pass and a Trevor Moore 37-yard field goal to tie things with just 37 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
North Texas could not get the win, however, as Army scored on a fourth down play in the first overtime possession. The Mean Green failed on fourth down, and failed to achieve their preseason mission of winning a bowl game.
Chapter 3 – The Here and Now
That taste of bowl defeat is still fresh in Denton. Littrell and the Mean Green again have that same mission in mind this season. But first, they can avenge that 2016 disappointment with a win Saturday at Apogee Stadium.
Each team will look to impose its will. North Texas aims to cherish each possession because it knows they may be limited. Army wants to try and keep the athletic skill-position players of the Mean Green in check, and grind out possessions.
Fine missed the bowl due to a late-season injury in 2016 and has grown immensely since the meeting in New York. He also has a stable of offensive weapons that were not present in that game, in receivers Jalen Guyton, Michael Lawrence, Rico Bussey, Jr. (who missed the October meeting due to injury), freshman Jaelon Darden and more. Wilson, who played a major role in both contests last season is having the best year of his career, and is coming off of back-to-back games of 165 and 144 yards rushing.
The Mean Green’s offense has grown in many ways from the past two meetings, and should present new challenges for the Army defense, which is having another strong campaign, allowing a shade under 350 yards of offense per game.
Bradshaw has continued to grow in the triple-option, and he engineers a rushing attack that ranks second in the country (351.8 yards per game). His decision-making within the constructs of the Monken offense figure to challenge a North Texas defense who has had growing pains this year.
Both programs are in good shape heading into this week’s matchup. Army is off to its best start since 1996, when it finished 10-2. North Texas has a shot at its first conference title since 2004.
The third installment of the mini-series features a lot of respect on both sides, but, make no mistake, this one has likely been circled by players and coaches in both locker rooms.
Pride is on the line Saturday.