In a rematch of the turning-point game of 2018, North Texas football (4-5, 3-2 Conference USA) will travel to Ruston, Louisiana to take on the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (7-1, 4-0 C-USA) this Saturday. The Bulldogs handed the Mean Green their first loss of the season in 2018 and halted 4-0 North Texas in its tracks.
Following the 52-26 win over Texas-El Paso on homecoming weekend, the Mean Green need to win two of their last three games in order to guarantee a bowl-game birth. If North Texas is unable to accomplish this, it must hope the academics of the players can secure its fourth-straight bowl game.
Head coach Seth Littrell is aware of the challenge that the Bulldogs will present and believes the Mean Green are prepared for the conference implications.
“We’re gonna have to play even better against a very talented Louisiana Tech team,” Littrell said. “Statistically, the game features two top offenses in Conference USA. In order to continue to do what we’ve been doing offensively, we’ve gotta have a great week.”
Louisiana Tech is coming into this matchup undefeated in conference play with four wins over Florida International (5-4, 3-3 C-USA), Rice (0-9, 0-5 C-USA), Southern Miss (5-3, 3-1 C-USA) and Texas-El Paso (1-7, 0-5 C-USA), which it played the week before North Texas did.
The Bulldogs sit atop the C-USA Western Division with a one-game lead over second place. At 3-2, the Mean Green sit in the middle of the pack in fourth place, half a game over fifth place. The Bulldogs have outscored their opponents by 102 points with their sole loss coming at the hands of the No. 10 (at the time) Texas Longhorns (5-3, 3-2 Big 12).
On the ground, Louisiana Tech’s leading rusher is redshirt junior tailback Justin Henderson, who currently has 654 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns, which is first in C-USA in rushing. His additional receiving touchdown puts him atop total touchdowns for skill players in the conference as well.
Three quarterbacks have attempted a pass for the Bulldogs in 2019: redshirt senior J’Mar Smith, redshirt freshman Aaron Allen and redshirt junior Westin Elliott. Smith has thrown for 2,220 yards on 66.54 percent passing with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions. Allen and Elliott have combined for 131 passing yards on 60 percent passing with one touchdown and four interceptions.
Facing an offense of Louisiana Tech’s potency doesn’t present any intimidation for the Mean Green defense, according to junior defensive tackle Dion Novil.
“In a sense, there is pressure, just because we know we need to win this game to get that bowl game,” Novil said. “We don’t have too many opportunities left so there’s a little bit of pressure but I don’t think anyone’s letting it affect them in any way.”
The Bulldogs have allowed 24 total touchdowns (third in C-USA) on the season compared to the Mean Green’s 38, giving them the advantage on defense. Louisiana Tech is also second in conference in interceptions (nine). The Bulldogs are top-5 in several other defensive stats, including yards per attempt allowed (6.7), rushing touchdowns allowed (13), yards allowed per carry (3.7), rushing yards allowed (1,150) and total yards allowed (3,178).
Coming off a career game, senior quarterback Mason Fine isn’t changing his mindset for a matchup against a top-tier C-USA defense.
“My mindset has never changed,” Fine said. “Especially after the presser after the Charlotte game. Like I said, not very many opportunities left. I know that, so I’m bringing the juice every day, I’m locked in in meetings, I’m asking questions. I’m going all out, leaving it all out there.”
Against Texas El-Paso, Fine threw for 332 yards and seven touchdowns – a career-high – on 61.5 percent completion.
North Texas is coming into this game as a 5.5-point underdog and is given a 32.7 percent chance to win the game, according to the ESPN Power Index.
Littrell has faith that his players will respond to the challenge that the Bulldogs present.
“It comes down to making sure that our guys are comfortable going in the game,” Littrell said. “Understanding their job throughout the week and then being able to go out there and just react.”
Featured Image: Redshirt junior wide receiver Jason Pirtle runs the ball for a touchdown against Texas-El Paso on Nov. 2, 2019. Image by Jordan Collard