Prediction: UNT will end its road losing streak at Rice

North Texas quarterback Mason Fine throws a pass while under pressure from Florida defensive back Marcus Maye in the Gators' 32-0 win last week. UNT opens Conference USA play at Rice on Saturday. (Associated Press/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

North Texas quarterback Mason Fine throws a pass while under pressure from Florida defensive back Marcus Maye in the Gators’ 32-0 win last week. UNT opens Conference USA play at Rice on Saturday. (Associated Press/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

North Texas at Rice

When: 5 p.m. Saturday, Rice Stadium (Houston)

Records: UNT 1-2, 0-0 C-USA; Rice 0-3, 0-1

Last week: No. 23 Florida 32, UNT 0; No. 21 Baylor 38, Rice 10

Last meeting: Rice 38, UNT 24 (2015)

What’s on the line?

Saturday’s game looms large for a pair of Conference USA teams looking to rebound from tough starts to make a run at a bowl game.

UNT is 1-2 and will face two of C-USA’s better teams in Middle Tennessee and Marshall following its showdown with the Owls. The Mean Green need all the momentum they can get heading into that stretch. There will be a whole lot more enthusiasm and hope about the remainder of UNT’s season if the Mean Green can come home with a 2-2 record.

Rice has also endured a tough start with losses to C-USA power Western Kentucky, an Army team that is 3-0 and No. 21 Baylor. The Owls desperately need to get something going after clearing the toughest part of their schedule. A win over UNT will make reaching the six-win mark look possible. A loss would all but end Rice’s bowl hopes.

When UNT has the ball:

UNT is coming off one of the worst offensive performances in recent program history. The Mean Green were not only shut out at Florida, also they managed just 53 yards of total offense, the lowest total the Gators have ever allowed. UNT finished with negative 13 yards rushing and managed just eight first downs.

The Mean Green will have a chance to get back on track against a Rice defense that has also struggled. The Owls are allowing 38.3 points a game. The Owls opponents are averaging 320 passing yards a game.

When Rice has the ball:

UNT enters C-USA play off an encouraging outing defensively against Florida. The Gators were never seriously threatened by UNT, but the Mean Green came up with two fourth-down stops and didn’t let the game get completely out of hand. Cornerback Nate Brooks had a terrific game with an interception, two pass breakups, a forced fumble and eight tackles.

The question for UNT is if it can build on that performance against Rice, which has run the ball well against good competition. The Owls are averaging 143.7 rushing yards a game and have a deep group of running backs, including Darik Dillard, who is averaging 65 rushing yards a game.

Prediction:

UNT is riding a 14-game road losing streak that dates back to the 2013 season heading into its game at Rice. The Mean Green desperately need to end that slide to have a chance to making their 2016 season interesting after starting 1-2. The Owls are also desperate after their 0-3 start. The game could do either way in a showdown between evenly matched teams. UNT will make one or two key plays to pull out its second win of the season.

UNT 23, Rice 21

Five things UNT fans should know about Rice

Rice running back Samuel Stewart caries the ball last season in a win over North Texas at Apogee Stadium. UNT will take on Rice in Houston on Saturday. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

Rice running back Samuel Stewart caries the ball last season in a win over North Texas at Apogee Stadium. UNT will take on Rice in Houston on Saturday. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas will face Rice on Saturday in its Conference USA opener. The Mean Green are 1-2 after falling to Florida last week.

It’s a big game for both teams as they look to jump into the C-USA title chase. And in a side note, it is also this week’s ESPN Bottom 10 Pillow Fight of the Week. Rice is No. 1 in this week’s Bottom 10, while UNT is on the waiting list.

UNT lost its previous Pillow Fight of the Week 34-21 to SMU.

Here are five things UNT fans should know about the Owls:

1. Rice could be better than its record indicates

Rice is 0-3 on the season, but might be better than its record indicates. The Owls have a brutal schedule and have already lost to Western Kentucky, Army and Baylor.

Western Kentucky might be the best team in Conference USA, Baylor is ranked No. 16 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll and Army is 3-0. Both Western Kentucky and Army received votes in this week’s coaches poll.

The Owls have played what might be the toughest part of their schedule already and will be looking to get something going this week.

2. Rice can run the ball

The strength of Rice’s team is its running backs and running game in general. Darik Dillard has rushed for 195 yards this season and is averaging 6.3 yards a carry. Austin Walter, Jowan Davis and Samuel Stewart are also talented.

The Owls are averaging 143.7 rushing yards a game and will look to get their offense going behind their running game.

3. Former Lake Dallas standout Graysen Schantz is back

Former Lake Dallas standout Graysen Schantz is back in the Owls lineup after missing nearly all of last season due to injury. The junior was an All-C-USA Freshman Team selection in 2014. He has 7 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, this season. He could be a key factor in this weekend’s game. UNT’s offensive line has struggled at times and has given up 12 sacks this season.

4. Rice has turned to Tyler Stehling at quarterback

Rice has turned to Tyler Stehling at quarterback this season following the graduation of Driphus Jackson. The senior saw time as a backup in each of the last two seasons.

Stehling has thrown for 416 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for an additional 109 yards and a touchdown.

5. Rice is not particularly big defensively

Rice does not have a lot of size in its defensive front seven. Starting nose tackle Zach Abercrumbia weighs 290 pounds and is the Owls biggest defensive lineman. Middle linebacker Alex Lyons is 225 pounds. Rice has speed on defense, but could be vulnerable to a power running game.

Littrell presser news — Coach addresses Wheeler hit that took out Del Rio

Littrell

Littrell

North Texas coach Seth Littrell conducted his weekly press conference today in advance of the Mean Green’s Conference USA opener at Rice on Saturday.

Littrell addressed a host of subjects, including linebacker Joshua Wheeler’s hit on Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio.

Wheeler knocked Del Rio out of UNT’s 32-0 loss to Florida with a sprained left knee that will also keep him out of this week’s game against Tennessee. Littrell said after the game that Wheeler tripped on his way to the quarterback, that the hit was not dirty and Wheeler didn’t intend to hurt Del Rio.

Wheeler was flagged for roughing the passer on the play.

Wheeler also made the hit that resulted in SMU quarterback Matt Davis tearing his ACL earlier this season.

Wheeler has since been the target of criticism from Florida coach Jim McElwain and Florida fans. McElwain came out nearly to midfield and yelled at UNT’s sideline while Del Rio was down.

“These people know nothing about the kid,” Littrell said of the people who have criticized Wheeler. “That is what is frustrating. He takes it personally. He is an unbelievable person. If anyone knew him who was saying those things, they wouldn’t be saying them.

“He didn’t mean to do it. He was playing hard and trying to make a play. To be honest with you, if you look at it closely, he was pushed in the back and tripped. He was on his way down anyway. There is nothing he could have done. It is what it is.

“I understand their coaching staff and their frustration. That is their quarterback and their player. We don’t want to see anyone get hurt.

“Afterward he [McElwain] said the we have had a couple of  targeting calls. Those are not the facts. We haven’t had any targeting calls. He brought up that we took out  the SMU quarterback. No, the SMU quarterback was running in the open field. He got hit. His cleat got stuck. It is what it is. It’s football. We are not trying to hurt anyone.

“I feel bad for both of those young men and want them to get healthy, but trust me. I am going to take care of my guys, too. No one is going to come over and yell at me or my sideline and say that we don’t have integrity or play the game the right way. That’s not the facts. I am not going to allow that to happen.”

And in other news and notes:

– Littrell was happy with the way UNT’s defense played against Florida. The Mean Green made two fourth-down stops and kept the game close throughout the first half.

– What Littrell wasn’t nearly as pleased with the play of the Mean Green’s offense that managed just 53 yards. Littrell blamed UNT’s struggles largely on a poor week of practice.

“We didn’t have a good Tuesday or Wednesday,” Littrell said. “I told them that after Tuesday. I told them that they wouldn’t have very much success on Saturday if we continue to do this. We are not going to have that issue anymore. I was not pleased with the way we prepared this week offensively.”

– Littrell is excited about the opportunity to start over again in Conference USA play after a 1-2 run in nonconference play. UNT lost to SMU and Florida. The Mean Green picked up their only win of the season against Bethune-Cookman.

– UNT came out of its loss to Florida healthy.

– Mason Fine will start at quarterback again this week. Alec Morris could play, depending on how the game unfolds. Morris did not play against Florida.

– Littrell said he could look at personnel changes heading into Saturday’s game in the hopes of improving UNT’s offensive production.

 

Is it time to start worrying about UNT’s offense?

North Texas quarterback Mason Fine (6) recovers his own fumble in front of Florida defensive lineman Joey Ivie (91) after mishandling the snap during the Gators' 32-0 win on Saturday. (Associated Press/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

North Texas quarterback Mason Fine (6) recovers his own fumble in front of Florida defensive lineman Joey Ivie (91) after mishandling the snap during the Gators’ 32-0 win on Saturday. (Associated Press/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

North Texas is now at the quarter pole of the 2016 season. Three games are in the books. One was a game against an FCS team UNT bought in for an easy win (Bethune-Cookman), one was UNT’s annual body-bag game (Florida) and one was its first game under a new staff (SMU).

The point is it’s far too early after a 1-2 start to draw any kind of conclusion as to where UNT is at or where it’s going heading into a game Saturday at Rice.

One has to wonder, though, is it time to be at least a little concerned about UNT’s offense?

At this point in the year, UNT has switched starting quarterbacks, has two touchdown passes and five interceptions. The Mean Green rank 12th out of 13 teams in Conference USA in passing efficiency (87.1 rating), 11th out of 13 teams in passing yards per game (166) and ninth in scoring (20.1 points per game).

UNT managed just 53 yards in their 32-0 loss to Florida, the lowest total the Gators have ever allowed.

The Mean Green also managed just 14 points against SMU until scoring a touchdown late.

UNT knew it was going to take some time to make the transition to a spread offense, but expectations were pretty high heading into the season.

“We have to do much better on offense,” UNT coach Seth Littrell said after the Mean Green’s loss to Florida. “We got dominated up front. There is a reason they are one of the best defenses in the country. Overall, we just didn’t execute and get through the adversity on offense.”

This week’s game could be telling. Rice has played a tough schedule and is allowing 38.3 points a game. The Owls have faced Baylor, Western Kentucky and Army.

Rice has struggled on defense just like UNT has struggled offensively.

We could know if there is reason to worry about the Mean Green’s offense after this week.

Monday afternoon notes — Holden named C-USA Player of the Week

North Texas has moved its press conference to Tuesday, which has changed the nature of the week a smidgen. What was once a big news day is suddenly the deadest day of the week.

With that being said, there is always something going on in the land of the Mean and Green.

Here are a few notes and thoughts …

– UNT soccer standout Rachel Holden was named the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week today. Holden scored both goals in UNT’s 2-1 win at Rice. That was a huge win for the Mean Green. UNT was the pick to win the league in the preseason coaches poll. Rice was picked to finish second.

– Just in case you missed it, here’s a link to my column this morning on new AD Wren Baker taking a look at switching up UNT’s schedule and the impact of the annual body bag game. I’m always curious to see what the reaction will be.

Quick point here, the idea has been floated that UNT needs to schedule Top 25 teams and just go beat them. That’s a nifty concept, but it’s not the way college football works. There are upsets every year, but the big dogs win the vast majority of the time.

UNT is 1-47 all-time against ranked teams for a reason.

UNT has pulled a few upsets against Power Five teams in the past. The Mean Green beat Indiana back in 2011 and Baylor in 2003.

Winning those games is tough to do.

Key point here. Those wins over Indiana and Baylor came in home games.

The Sunday leftovers — More info on CB commit, big win for UNT soccer

It’s Sunday night and time for the leftovers, where we pick back through the events of the weekend, reheat the good stuff — and some of the bad — while hopefully putting it all in perspective.

This is an unusual Sunday in that there are a couple of big news items to get to. If you’ve been following along today, we mentioned earlier that North Texas picked up a pretty big commit in Houston Heights High cornerback Cameron Johnson.

Johnson is a three-star prospect who has offers from more than a half dozen schools, including East Carolina and Fresno State.

I will get into Johnson’s story more in Tuesday’s paper, but what really helped UNT was the relationship cornerbacks coach Nate Brown built with its newest 2017 commit.

“I really liked the coaches who showed me a lot of love,” Johnson said. “I formed a good relationship with coach Brown. He was really straight forward and won’t tell you any lies. He will look out for me.”

UNT has been recruiting Johnson for several months. Johnson (6-0, 175) participated in UNT’s satellite camp in Katy.

He missed non-district play and the first two games of the district season his junior year due to injury, which probably hurt his recruiting stock a bit. He has played well this season and has seven pass breakups, even though teams are not throwing at him much.

Check back for more on Johnson in Tuesday’s paper.

And in other news, the UNT soccer team picked up a big win today, knocking off rival Rice 2-1 in Houston in both teams’ Conference USA opener.

UNT was down 1-0 early before star forward Rachel Holden came back and scored two goals to give the Mean Green the win.

UNT is 5-3-1, but more importantly 1-0 in C-USA play. The Mean Green were picked to win C-USA again, because, well, they’re North Texas, but Rice was picked to finish second.

Like I said, huge win for UNT.

The UNT volleyball team was also in action over the weekend and went 2-1. UNT is 6-8 heading into a game at Baylor on Tuesday to wrap up nonconference play.

UNT picks up commitment from 3-star CB

Cameron Johnson, a three-star cornerback from Reagan High in Houston. committed to North Texas on Sunday.

Johnson had offers from more than a half dozen schools, including East Carolina, Fresno State and New Mexico State.

Rivals ranks Johnson No. 44 on its list of the best cornerbacks in the Class of 2017.

Check back for more. I should be able to get in touch with Johnson in the next day or so.

Five quick thoughts

North Texas linebacker E.J. Ejiya  tackles Florida running back Mark Thompson during the Gators 32-0 win over the Mean Green on Saturday. (Associated Press/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

North Texas linebacker E.J. Ejiya tackles Florida running back Mark Thompson during the Gators 32-0 win over the Mean Green on Saturday. (Associated Press/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

North Texas fell to Florida 32-0 on Saturday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Here are five quick thoughts on the Mean Green’s night:

1. This is what happens when a team like UNT plays a team like Florida on the road

UNT came into its game against Florida with high hopes to at least hang with the Gators, the No. 23 ranked team in the country. The Mean Green hung in for some time, but ultimately were drubbed. UNT finished with 53 yards of total offense, the lowest total the Gators have given up in a game — EVER. The Mean Green came up with two fourth-down stops and played well at times defensively, but still gave up 32 points. There were bright spots, but the bottom line is UNT was beaten badly.

2. UNT’s defense may have something

One can make an argument that this marks the second straight week that UNT’s defense has been a pleasant surprise. The Mean Green gave up just seven points last week against Bethune-Cookman, which scored on defense and special teams. UNT played pretty well again against Florida. UNT’s two fourth-down stops were impressive. Nate Brooks had a terrific game with an interception, a forced fumble and two pass breakups.

3. UNT appeared to get out of its body bag game without any major injuries

The whole key to the body bag game for UNT is to get the money and get out of town without having half the team broken in half. The Mean Green appeared to reach that goal in their loss to Florida. UNT received $1 million for playing the game and didn’t appear to have any devastating injuries.

4. You knew Mason Fine was going to take his lumps at some point

Quarterback Mason Fine was going to take his lumps at some point in his freshman season. UNT’s game against Florida was one of those times. Fine threw for 66 yards on 6-of-22 passing with an interception. He took a beating in the pocket.

5. UNT’s offensive line was completely over matched

The big difference between Power Five teams and those like UNT is often evident in the trenches. That was the case when it came to UNT’s offensive line taking on Florida’s front seven. UNT allowed seven sacks and struggled to open holes in the running game.

UNT-Florida running blog

North Texas will take on Florida tonight at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

North Texas will take on Florida tonight at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

North Texas will take on Florida tonight in the Swamp, one of the great venues in college football — and another SEC stadium to add to the list of those I have been to.

There has been a lot of talk this week about the nature of these games. Make no mistake, UNT’s players love these opportunities. There is a reason the Mean Green’s future schedule is always a prominent part of UNT’s recruiting pitch.

The players UNT want grow up dreaming of playing in the Swamp, Death Valley, DKR and venues of that ilk.

UNT also gets a significant payday out of the deal. It’s a cool $1 million this year.

The only downside is that there is a reason we refer to these as Body Bag games. They just don’t go very well as far as the scoreboard goes for the Mean Green. UNT is 1-46 all-time against ranked teams.

Florida checks in at No. 23 this week.

What makes this game all the more interesting is that UNT is expected to start Mason Fine, all 170 pounds of him against an SEC-level defense that has given up 14 points all season and has top-end athletes.

If Fine tries to run over a Florida safety like he did last week against Bethune-Cookman, it won’t turn out well for the Mean Green.

UNT opens Conference USA play next week against Rice and desperately needs to go into that game healthy.

UNT is riding a 13-game road losing streak heading into tonight’s game.

Stay tuned, I will update the blog all night.

6:10 — UNT has no significant scratches heading into tonight’s game. Defensive end Jarrian Roberts is dressed out, but might not play. The Mean Green will really need him next week for their Conference USA opener at Rice.

6:30 — UNT was booed coming out of its locker room. Florida won the toss and will receive.

Kickoff — Eric Kenna kicked it into the end zone. Florida will have the ball at its 25.

14:13 — Florida picked up a first down on its first play of the game, but then threw three straight incomplete passes and will punt. Anthony Wyche dropped the ball. UNT has it at its 6.

10:28 — Mason Fine was sacked in the end zone on UNT’s second play from scrimmage. He didn’t have much of a chance. UNT is down 2-0. Florida has the ball at its 28.

7:06 – Florida has extended its lead to 5-0 with a short field goal. UNT has the ball back and has picked up a first down.

6:22 — UNT failed to pick up a first down on a third-and-10 situation. Florida has the ball back at its 18 after a good UNT punt.

1:56 — Florida has the ball at the UNT 5 and is facing a fourth-and-2 situation. The Gators just took a timeout to talk this over after lining up to kick a field goal.

1:49 — Florida ran the ball straight up the middle and didn’t get anywhere on fourth down. UNT has the ball back at its 5.

End of the first quarter — UNT went three-and-out on its last possession deep in its own end of the field. Florida has the ball at the UNT 37-yard line to start the second quarter. The Gators lead 5-0.

12:32 — Florida has finally punched the ball into the end zone after a couple of close misses. Jordan Cronkrite scored from 6 yards out. The Gators lead 12-0

9:56 — UNT picked up a couple of first downs on its last drive, but had to punt. Eric Keena got off a 52-yard punt that rolled out of bounds at the Florida 9.

6:45 — UNT’s defense held on Florida’s last possession. The Mean Green have the ball back at their own 20-yard line.

5:13 — UNT had to punt the ball away again on its last possession. Mason Fine was sacked again. Florida has the ball back at its 48 and is up 12-0.

Start of the second half — UNT will have the ball at its 25 to start the second half.

11:45 — UNT moved the ball and had it at the Florida 30 before a 10-yard loss on a reverse and a 7-yard sack forced the Mean Green to punt.

9:12 — UNT has the ball back after its defense made a stand to force a punt.

3:00 — Catching back up here after sending in a story. UNT had a golden opportunity to get on the board after Nate Brooks intercepted a Luke Del Rio pass. UNT had the ball at the Florida 26, but Mason Fine’s pass fell incomplete.

13:46 — Mark Thompson has added a 25-yard touchdown run. Florida is up 25-0.