Senior night will give North Texas one last chance to send this year’s seniors out on a high note. After losing to Rice, the Mean Green are eliminated from bowl chances and will close the season at home against the Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (8-3, 5-2 Conference USA).
The offshoot chance that North Texas (4-7, 3-4 C-USA) has is beating the Blazers and getting its record to 5-7. A team at 5-7 may fill an at-large bowl spot if voids are present and its Academic Progress Rate is high enough, according to NCAA rules, but chances are slim for North Texas.
The tone of Tuesday’s press conference was nothing short of somber. Head coach Seth Littrell was disappointed in how the season has unfolded but hopeful to give the seniors one last win at home.
“We haven’t had the success in terms of wins and losses that I believe we should have had this season,” Littrell said. “I don’t think it’s from a lack of effort or lack of talent — ultimately you have to do the little things right. This week provides a great opportunity to show what this team was capable of and it should be a great motivation for out team and our coaches to make sure we send the seniors out the right way.”
With this game most likely being the last game the class of 2020 will play in green and white, Littrell acknowledged the special bond that came with his first recruiting class.
“I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the senior class,” Littrell said. “We started this journey together. They’ve done some great things, they’ve accomplished a lot and they have helped us create a foundation [and] culture for our program.”
Four years has flown by for these seniors. Being the first recruiting class under Littrell, players such as receiver Michael Lawrence and quarterback Mason Fine have experienced three-straight bowl games, two-straight nine-win seasons and moments that have given North Texas national recognition. Despite this, emotions aren’t exactly running high for the most-decorated quarterback in school history.
“We’re guys, so we try to keep those emotions hidden and just do our job,” Fine said. “I think you can tell that a lot of guys know this is gonna be their last week so these guys are taking that in and [are] aware of that and making sure we’re carrying that into practice and practicing hard and smiling while enjoying the game we love.”
Every player on the Mean Green has a unique story. Lawrence is especially proud of the four years he’s put in at North Texas since walking on as a freshman out of Sweetwater, Texas.
“I’m blessed with the coaches who took a shot on me,” Lawrence said. “We were the first guys to come in under Littrell and there’s been a lot of highs and lows and I wouldn’t trade anything for it. It’s been special to be a part of this program. It’s always got to come to an end at some point and it’s sad to see it go so soon, but I’m just happy to be a part of this program.”
The Blazers are currently tied for first in the C-USA Western division with Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss. They average 25 points per game with their only losses coming to Western Kentucky, Tennessee and Southern Miss. Alabama-Birmingham has both out-rushed (1,729-1,087), out-thrown (2,326-1,862) and found the end zone more times (33-24) than its opponents.
Redshirt sophomore Tyler Johnstone III has maintained the signal caller position for the Blazers and has thrown 1,902 yards, 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions on 59.1 percent passing, but was hurt in the game against Tennessee. Following his injury, redshirt freshman Dylan Hopkins has been the leading passer the past three games even after Johnstone was expected to start in the 20-14 victory over Louisiana Tech.
The leading rusher is freshman tailback Jermaine Brown Jr. with 409 yards and two touchdowns. Junior running back Spencer Brown, who finished 2018 with the third-most rushing yards in C-USA (1,227), is second with 351 yards and four touchdowns. Redshirt junior receiver Austin Watson Jr. leads the team in receiving yards with 883, adding five scores on top of that.
The turnover margin narrowly stands in Alabama-Birmingham’s favor with four interceptions and 25 forced fumbles compared to 10 thrown interceptions and 17 fumbles lost (29:27). In comparison, the Mean Green have struggled in the turnover category, with their margin being wider. North Texas has forced 12 turnovers (eight fumbles and four interceptions) vs having 17 turnovers (seven fumbles lost and 10 interceptions thrown).
“I think it’s the best [defensive line] unit we’ve faced all season,” Littrell said. “Again, they’re the best defense. They’re gonna mix up the coverages but they like to play some man and they’re physical. [We’ve] got to be physical and protect the football.”
The Mean Green have a 55.2 percent chance to defeat Alabama-Birmingham, but are 3-point underdogs, according to the ESPN Power Index. The matchup will take place Saturday, Nov. 30 at 3 p.m.
Despite the turns in the season, Fine holds the same “fight-back” mentality that he showed before the first game of the year.
“No matter what, I’m gonna fight, I’m gonna practice the right way, I’m gonna practice hard and show these younger guys, no matter what, just keep fighting,” Fine said. “[Show them] how to respond when life hits you, respond back and fight back.”
Featured Image: Senior wide receiver Michael Lawrence evades Mustang defender at the game against Southern Methodist at Gerald J. Ford Stadium on Sept. 7, 2019. Image by Jordan Collard