Every now and then during Mason Fine’s remarkable North Texas career, the Mean Green have gotten a glimpse of the future.
The senior quarterback has been extraordinarily durable while milking every ounce of production out of his four seasons. Fine’s great. He just isn’t indestructible and has been forced to the sideline long enough for UNT to have no other choice than to consider the future once or twice.
Saturday was one of those times.
What transpired illustrates why there is a sense of angst among the UNT faithful these days.
The Mean Green were locked in a tight game with Louisiana Tech when UNT coach Seth Littrell pulled Fine due to injury.
Nothing went right for the Mean Green the rest of the way in a 52-17 loss that brought one of the greatest eras in program history one step closer to its conclusion.
Two more games, maybe three if the Mean Green (4-6) can win their last two games to become bowl eligible, and it’s going to be UNT “Post Mason Fine.”
How that is going to look is anyone’s guess, but the recent returns don’t look all that promising.
UNT was blown out by Louisiana Tech without Fine and were smoked by Utah State in last season’s New Mexico Bowl after losing him to a pulled hamstring early on.
A concussion appeared to sideline Fine this time.
Littrell said he could sense something wasn’t right with his quarterback and had him checked out.
School officials said Fine was exhibiting signs of a concussion. Littrell didn’t provide any details after the game.
“It stinks seeing him go down,” UNT wide receiver Michael Lawrence said. “He’s our dude. He was still out there cheering our offense, defense and special teams and was giving it everything he has. He was pushing us even though he wasn’t playing. That’s what we love about him. He gives it his all.”
Fine has helped spark one of the best runs of success in UNT history in the process. The Mean Green have played in bowl games in each of the last three seasons and won nine games in the last two.
There are plenty of people who deserve credit for that run, including Littrell. He’s done a remarkable job building a program. UNT’s play on the field and reputation in the state have improved dramatically.
Fine has been at Littrell’s side each step of the way, throwing darts on his way to becoming statistically one of the great quarterbacks in college football history. He’s the active leading passer in college football with 12,074 yards, a total that places him among the top 40 players in major college football history.
Fine’s impact in UNT’s loss to Louisiana Tech was easy to see.
The Mean Green were down just 10-3 when Littrell pulled Fine in the second quarter.
The game was over in a flash after that. UNT didn’t score again until Austin Aune found Lawrence for a 74-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter after the Bulldogs had extended their lead to 45-3.
UNT played both Aune and fellow backup Jason Bean, who combined to throw for 217 yards. Bean threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
Both will have a chance to show that they are the answer heading into next season, as will Will Kuehne, a freshman who is redshirting.
Kade Renfro, a highly regarded senior at Stephenville, will arrive before the beginning of next season.
“I am confident in all those guys,” Littrell said of his current crop of backup quarterbacks. “We have a good group. We are allowing them to get some game-time experience that will help them.”
UNT has been down this road before.
Derek Thompson enjoyed a tremendous career at UNT and led the Mean Green to one of their three bowl wins in program history as a senior in the 2013 season, a victory over UNLV in Heart of Dallas Bowl.
UNT wandered the quarterback wilderness for two seasons before Fine arrived ahead of the 2016 campaign, formed a terrific partnership with Littrell and put the Mean Green on course for their current run of success.
Fine will leave some huge shoes to fill. UNT doesn’t have to find another generational talent to succeed going forward, although it certainly would help.
There is so much Fine does for UNT. He won’t be easy to replace.
That reality continued to settle in following UNT’s loss to Louisiana Tech.