Back To Boca
North Texas Seeks Redemption In C-USA Championship Game Saturday
DENTON – The third Saturday in October was a low point for the 9-3 Mean Green. They left Howard Schnellenberger Field at FAU Stadium earlier this season with a 38-point defeat that saw them surrender 69 points and 804 yards of total offense.
There’s no hiding from those numbers. Players and coaches didn’t hide in October and they aren’t hiding now.
“We’ve got our new game plan in,” linebacker E.J. Ejiya. “Last time we weren’t completely locked in or focused as a unit. We have learned a lot from that game and dealt with that humbling experience last time. I think we can increase our physicality as well this time around, and we’ve been popping the pads all this week to get ready for Saturday.”
North Texas used the defeat at Florida Atlantic as a turning point of sorts, winning five straight to set up the conference championship rematch in Boca Raton.
Both teams enter Saturday’s title tilt on long winning streaks and sit at 9-3. Both teams score a lot of points and roll up a lot of yardage. How North Texas approaches its second chance at the Owls will be key.
“We’ve got to learn from our previous mistakes and make sure we are completely focused, which we will be,” head coach Seth Littrell said. “Any time you have the opportunity to compete for a championship, the guys are going to be ready. We’ve had a terrific week of preparation. The biggest thing is learning how they tried to attack us last time and know how we will try to attack them. It’s a little bit of cat and mouse, they’re going to change some things and so will we.”
The Mean Green need to avoid a lot of the pitfalls they faced the first time, chiefly starting slowly. They dug themselves a hole they could not climb out of. Florida Atlantic led 24-0 after the first quarter, thanks in part to a fast start offensively, but several North Texas mistakes led to things snowballing.
Two Mean Green turnovers on their first two drives and a quick five-play drive that ended in a punt were debilitating. The Owls attacked early with tempo and took advantage of several big plays. The Mean Green should be ready for the pace and must limit explosive plays.
North Texas finished with three turnovers and since then, during the last five games, have turned it over just five times.
One key absence for North Texas is senior running back Jeffery Wilson, who suffered a foot injury in the win over Army on Nov. 18. That puts a lot on the shoulders of redshirt freshman Nic Smith. Though he’s been successful this season as a change of pace behind Wilson, Smith passed his first test as a starter with flying colors.
Smith carried 26 times for 178 yards, both career highs, and a score in the win at Rice last week. North Texas will need another strong performance from the Arlington native.
Another key for North Texas will be getting its playmakers more involved on the outside. Redshirt sophomore receiver Jalen Guyton was held without a catch for the only time this season, and the group of Guyton, Rico Bussey, Jr., and Turner Smiley combined for just three catches for just 34 yards. That group has been one of the biggest strengths for the Mean Green and will need to be again for them to succeed.
A few stops, a turnover, or a big special teams play could go a long way in turning the tide for the visitors, but in a game with the two most prolific offenses in Conference USA, the Mean Green offense will need to be firing on all cylinders.
Should the game come down to the wire, senior kicker Trevor Moore is one of the best in the business and he’s a big part of why the Mean Green are 5-0 in games decided by seven points or less. Moore is 18-of-20 field goals and has made 8-of-10 from 40-plus yards.
While playing for the school’s first conference title since 2004 and first 10-win season since 1977 should need no extra motivation, North Texas is sure to come in with a chip on its shoulder to show that Oct. 21 was nothing more than an aberration.