Rice football seems to always find themselves in a shootout when they play North Texas. Will 2018 be any different when the Owls face the Mean Green?
Seth Littrell and the air raid offense have done wonders for the North Texas Mean Green. The team parted ways with former coach Dan McCarney midway through the 2015 season, falling to 1-11 before Littrell took over in 2016. After going 5-8 during his first season, Littrell continued the upswing with a 9-5 finish in 2017.
North Texas was the West representative in the Conference USA Championship Game last season. They fell to Florida Atlantic for the second time that season, ending the campaign 7-2 in conference play with both losses coming at the hands of Lane Kiffin’s Owls.
Their game against the Rice Owls turned out quite differently. Although Rice was able to slow down the Mean Green’s high-powered offense they didn’t have enough firepower of their own to catch up North Texas won at 30-14 at Rice Stadium. They’ll host the Owls in 2018.
North Texas returns their most important piece of their offense in 2018, junior quarterback Mason Fine. The 5-foot-11 passer amassed 4,052 passing yards, second-most in the conference to Mike White of Western Kentucky in 2017. Fine led CUSA in passing touchdowns with 31. He’ll have the proverbial green light to open up the passing lanes once more this season and will have the benefit of several familiar targets.
The Mean Green return five of their top six pass catchers from last season, losing senior Turner Smiley (35 receptions, 623 yards and five touchdowns) to graduation. Smiley will be missed, but Michael Lawrence (62 rec., 819 yd, four TD), Jalen Guyton (49 rec., 775 yd, nine TD) and Rico Bussey Jr. (47 rec., 677 yd, seven TD) are more than enough weapons to make Fine comfortable in the pocket.
All that’s left is to find a running back. Replacing Jeffrey Wilson will be the biggest challenge this offense faces next season. He toted the rock 188 times for the Mean Green in 2017, racking up 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns. Nick Smith, now a sophomore, saw meaningful action as a freshman but wasn’t nearly as effective as Smith, averaging 1.5 less yards per carry and scoring 10 fewer touchdowns on 50 fewer carries.
The defense is what has kept North Texas from breaking through. In seven meetings with the Mean Green from 2008 to 2017 the Owls have averaged 36 points per game. It wasn’t just Rice that has gotten the best of the North Texas defense. They’ve finished in the bottom three in CUSA in scoring defense twice in the past three seasons, becoming equally susceptible to the run and the pass in 2017. North Texas surrendered 431.4 yards per game last season, 12th worst in CUSA.
Hoping to right the decline in 2018 will be a collection of upperclassmen in the defensive backfield. Corner Kemon Hall led the unit with eight passes defended last season, also registering one interception and 73 tackles. That’s an elevated number of tackles for a corner, but that speaks to gaps in the front seven that let his opponents get to the second-level so quickly.
Up front North Texas will build around 2019 NFL Draft prospect E.J. Ejiya. The 6-foot-3, 223-pound outside linebacker should be the Mean Green’s biggest playmaker once again in 2018. Ejiya is coming off a career season in which he registered 108 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. A strong year for him would go a long way to easing the pressure on the secondary, but he’ll need some help. Look for fellow linebacker Brandon Garner to take some pressure off Ejiya, opening up holes for his teammate to get into the offensive backfield.
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