Fresh off the bye week, their Mean Green football team (2-3, 1-0 Conference USA) will travel to challenge the Southern Miss Golden Eagles (3-2, 1-0 C-USA). This will be North Texas’ second conference matchup and the beginning of their 7-game C-USA stretch. The Golden Eagles currently sit in second place in the Western Division of C-USA and are coming off their first bye week of the season, like the Mean Green.
Head coach Seth Littrell is looking forward to the matchup, believing it will give the Mean Green an opportunity to go 2-0 in conference and get the season back on track.
“We’re excited to see where we stack up against the Western Division,” Littrell said. “We’re 1-0 right now. It’ll be a great opportunity to go on the road against a team that’s playing very well.”
Southern Miss’ sole win in conference came on Sept. 28 against Texas-El Paso 31-13. Their 2-2 non-conference schedule features wins over Alcorn State (38-10) and Troy (47-42) and losses to Mississippi State (15-38) and No. 1 Alabama (7-49). The combined win-loss record of their opponents is 15-11 (6-4 conference), compared to the Mean Green’s 16-12 (5-7 conference). Littrell believes that despite what the record shows at face value, the two losses to SEC teams show a lot about the character of their program.
“They’re playing as good as anybody in the league,” Littrell said. “Their only two losses [are] against two SEC teams. They’re wanting to see where they stack up within the conference as well.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Jack Abraham was named the C-USA Offensive Player of the Week following his performance against Texas-El Paso — 351 yards on 67.9 percent throwing for three touchdowns. Abraham has thrown for more than 230 yards in four games and thrown one passing touchdown in each matchup. With the prospect of going against a solid quarterback straight out of the bye week, junior defensive tackle Dion Novil is putting stress on the defensive line to do their jobs and contain.
“We’re just focusing on the pass rush, making them uncomfortable, getting him off his spots,” Novil said. “It’s not really all about him, it’s about what we do. So as long as we execute what the coaches tell us to do, then we should be good.”
On the ground, the Golden Eagles have 538 rushing yards compared to their opponents at 616. Southern Miss has a 10 percent advantage on third down conversions over their opponents (48 percent vs. 38 percent), while the Mean Green have been outperformed in that statistic by 5 percent (36 percent vs. 41 percent).
Historically, the series has been close, with North Texas coming out on top 7-6 since the matchups began in 1954. In the Seth Littrell era (December 2015-present), the Mean Green are undefeated against the Golden Eagles and have outscored Southern Miss 102-58 in three contests. The first of these matchups was a 29-23 victory without then-freshman quarterback Mason Fine, who was out due to injury. In the past two games against the Golden Eagles, Fine has completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 658 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Despite his success, Fine doesn’t view this as different from any other game.
“If you go in there, ‘Oh, I’ve had past success so you know we’re going to [win]’, that’s where it’ll get you,” Fine said. “That’s where it’ll bite you in the butt. It’s reset and attack, because if you don’t, they’ll heat you up and you’ll have a bad game.”
Since a knee injury knocked out receiver Rico Bussey Jr. for the remainder of the season, the Mean Green have looked to their other receivers to step up and fill the void. Senior receiver Michael Lawrence had a career game against Houston, catching nine passes for a career-high 120 yards the week before the bye week. Heading into this week, Littrell spoke highly on Lawrence’s progression since his arrival at North Texas.
“Mike’s been solid since he’s been here,” Littrell said. He has always played a big role. Week in and week out, different guys are going to make different plays. There’s one thing with Mike, he’s played a lot of football here, he’s been very productive [and] he has great chemistry with Mason.”
The ESPN Power Index has North Texas as 3.5-point underdogs with a 40.4 percent chance of winning Saturday’s matchup. The two teams will face off at M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg, Mississippi at 6 p.m.
“Conference is where it’s at,” Novil said. “Conference is [what] we hang our hat on. Just 1-0 each week. We set goals before the season and we want to accomplish [them].”
Featured Image: Sophomore safety Alex Morris runs onto the field before the game against Houston at Apogee Stadium on Sept. 28, 2019. Image by Jordan Collard