Date: Saturday, September 29, 2018
Kickoff Time: 6:30 p.m. CT
Location: Denton, Texas
Stadium: Apogee Stadium
Series Record: La Tech leads 9-7
Last Meeting: North Texas won 24-23 in 2017
Betting Line: North Texas -7.5, O/U 64
The best team in C-USA through four weeks has been the North Texas Mean Green, who have completed non-conference play with a 4-0 record. They have yet to play in a close game, dominating SMU, Arkansas, Incarnate Word, and Liberty.
Now, however, they start conference play Saturday against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, one of their biggest contenders for the division title.
Although the Bulldogs are 2-1, they forced a top 10 team to sweat a week ago. This matchup of the previous two C-USA West champs should be a fun one.
Louisiana Tech Overview
The Bulldogs are coming off a valiant effort on the road against LSU, but they have to turn the page very quickly. Their second straight road game sees them travel to the west division favorites, North Texas. The Mean Green are honoring legend Joe Greene, and there is a lot of buzz around this game. Although there won’t be as many people in Apogee as there were in Tiger Stadium, the fans will come ready to play. Tech has to be ready, too.
Through the first three games, more of the load has been placed on J’Mar Smith each week. Against USA, Smith attempted 29 passes as opposed to 48 rushes by the offense. Against Southern, Smith threw the ball 37 times. Tech only rushed 33 times in that game. Last week against LSU, Smith threw 50 passes for only the second time in his career. He completed 27 of those, while the Tech offense only ran the ball 26 times.
In the opener against South Alabama, Tech collected 231 rushing yards. This makes it all the more curious that they keep emphasizing the pass more each week.
As it stands, it’s clear who Smith’s favorite targets are. Adrian Hardy is the leader with 19 grabs and three scores. Rhashid Bonnette has 14 catches and a touchdown, while last year’s C-USA newcomer of the year, Teddy Veal, has 11 catches. Nobody else has more than five receptions. If Smith is going to continue to be asked to air it out, he has multiple places he can go with the football. It will be hard for UNT to shut down all three of them, so they may have to choose their poison. If they do find a way to stop all three, perhaps another receiver can have a breakout game.
As for the rushing game that does exist, Jaqwis Dancy finds himself promoted to starter this week. Although he has seven fewer touches than former starter Israel Tucker, he has double the yards. His average yards per carry sits at 9.0, which towers over the other backs. Dancy is no longer just a feel-good story about a cancer survivor; he is a real threat carrying the ball that UNT will have to account for.
If they want to win Saturday, Tech has to play a complete game. They started fairly well against USA, but the Jags made a run late to make it a close game. Tech started and finished well against Southern, but they seemed to fall asleep for a quarter in the middle. Against LSU, they started awful. They got it going later, but it was too late. If the Bulldogs are going to come out on top in Denton, they have to play to their potential for a full 60 minutes.
They also have to be multi-dimensional. J’Mar Smith isn’t a gunslinger. He can throw the ball, but Tech needs more than that to win. The run game needs to be a part of this offense, unlike last week. Smith can add a third dimension if they get his legs involved, as well. The defense will have to play a good game. The Bulldogs will have to be firing on all cylinders if they want to cool off the red-hot Mean Green.
North Texas Overview
As previously mentioned, North Texas has looked great so far this season, smashing their first four opponents and making some national highlight reels. Mason Fine has thrown for 1,328 yards in only four games, and RB Loren Easly looked great against Liberty last week, rushing for 177 yards and two touchdowns. Kicker Cole Hedlund has been near perfect as well, going 10/10 on field goals and 21/22 on extra points.
On top of this, and happily for 2018, the defense has only been improving. Its worst game so far was giving up 23 points to SMU in week one, all of which were essentially in garbage time. The 17 points it gave up to Arkansas were very real, but a number that low is an accomplishment no matter what SEC team you’re playing (yes, even Vanderbilt).
Coming into this weekend, this team has the momentum and the swagger, and has looked nearly flawless on the field. But unlike their Sun Belt days, where a 1-3 non-conference schedule was the price of admission, C-USA conference play will prove to be a whole other animal.
Those four teams in the rearview mirror are a combined 4-10. North Texas had such a great run game against Liberty because Liberty was shutting down UNT’s passing game, holding Mason Fine to 185 passing yards, after he threw 400+ in each of his first three games. This is worrisome, and something Seth Littrell and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell will no doubt be working on this week.
On the defensive side of the ball, there seem to be no negatives at all, and that’s some good news. But back on the offensive side, Loren Easly did not look nearly as good in the first three games and will really have to put up some big numbers in this game if North Texas has any hope of keeping this historic run going.
Another cause for concern is that for all we do know about North Texas, we still don’t have any idea how good or bad this Louisiana Tech team is, or how they will fare in conference play. They had huge passing numbers against LSU, but their running game was non-existent, albeit against a top ten SEC team. The Bulldogs other wins were South Alabama and FCS Southern, a combined 3-7.
Despite the impressive record, this was a one-point game last year, and for my money, the most important game for North Texas between now and FAU. This will not look like any of those first four games, and the entire team will be tested against a veteran FBS head coach.
Tanner: North Texas hasn’t played a close game yet. It’s still not completely clear how good this La Tech team is, but there’s a possibility that the Bulldogs could be their toughest opponent so far, so perhaps this is the first close game for the Mean Green. Tech played a close game against South Alabama on the road and came out victorious. North Texas is much better than USA, but that experience could come in handy. Last year, UNT made a living on winning close games, while Tech infamously lost three one-point games, including to UNT. Could those roles reverse?
Only time will tell, but this may be the biggest game of the year in C-USA West. Whichever team emerges on top will be in the driver’s seat to win a division title. North Texas is, and should be, the favorite, but a Tech upset isn’t a crazy thought.
Adam: For all the excitement surrounding this Mean Green team, for all the enthusiasm and team spirit, there are still some glaring flaws with this team that will be more on display once conference play begins. This is not to take anything away from their exemplary accomplishments, but a year ago this Bulldog squad gave the Mean Green all they could handle.
This game will be an outstanding showcase for both teams, as we will start to see the rest of their seasons come into focus and what to expect in conference play down the line. More importantly, the Bulldogs are probably the first bowl team that UNT is playing this year, realistically. There’s a lot to like about both of these teams. While we’ll forgo a final score prediction here, the receiving corps for this squad will likely get the job done. But for the first time in a while, the spread looks dead on.