C-USA Media Day Football

North Texas coach Seth Littrell answers questions in a broadcast interview during Conference USA college football media day this summer in Frisco.

North Texas entered the season with some lofty goals.

The Mean Green were picked to win Conference USA’s West Division. Fulfilling that expectation was among those goals, along with winning a bowl game.

The Mean Green are well aware of how important Saturday’s game at Southern Mississippi is to their hopes of getting there.

UNT (2-3) struggled at times during a tough nonconference season but is 1-0 in conference play heading into its game at Southern Miss.

Southern Miss (3-2) is also 1-0 in conference play. UNT and Louisiana Tech (4-1, 2-0) are widely seen as two of the other serious contenders in C-USA’s West Division.

A win would put the Mean Green a whole lot closer where they envisioned themselves being a few weeks ago. Falling at Southern Miss would undoubtedly put UNT in a tough spot.

“There is a lot of urgency,” UNT cornerback Cam Johnson said. “Conference play has started. We are trying to step up and go undefeated.”

UNT’s coaches and players see the conference season as a way to get back on track after a tough few weeks. The Mean Green had three shots to post a milestone nonconference win only to come up short in losses to California, SMU and Houston.

“It has been frustrating at times with the win column, but that doesn’t mean I am not enjoying this group,” UNT coach Seth Littrell said. “We have to continue to grow and get a week better. We have to have some better outcomes.”

The Mean Green are hoping that a bye week will help them get there.

UNT hasn’t played since falling at home to Houston a week and a half ago. A break from the grind of a long season is something the Mean Green believe will help them.

“It was good to get a little extra time to rest our bodies and heal some bumps and bruises,” Littrell said. “These guys have been going since the beginning of August. Hopefully this off-week helped us reenergize, get our focus back and focus in on Southern Miss.”

UNT zeroed in on improving its execution level during its bye week. The Mean Green gave up kickoff and punt return touchdowns in their loss to Houston.

“It’s easier with extra time to correct mistakes,” Littrell said. “When you get into the season, it’s challenging to focus on fundamentals and corrections we need to make.”

The Mean Green believe they will have to be at their best to knock off Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles’ only losses have come at Alabama and Mississippi State.

Southern Miss beat UTEP 31-13 in its conference opener.

“We are excited to see where we stack up against the West Division,” Littrell said. “We are 1-0 right now. It will be a great opportunity to go on the road against a team that is playing very well. Southern Miss is playing as good as anyone in the league.”

Mason Fine among semifinalists for Golden Arm award

UNT quarterback Mason Fine was among 20 quarterbacks nationally who were named semifinalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award on Tuesday.

The award goes to top senior or fourth-year junior quarterback set to graduate with their class each season.

Fine is the active leading passer at the Football Bowl Subdivision level with 10,708 yards and has 75 career touchdown passes. The Oklahoma native has thrown for 1,291 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.

UNT hoping Houston second half a good sign for offense

UNT’s passing game, which hasn’t lived up to expectations so far this year, showed some of the explosive power many anticipated in the second half of the Mean Green’s loss to Houston.

Fine finished with 227 passing yards after halftime in a 46-25 loss. The Mean Green came into the game with 247.2 passing yards per game.

UNT’s coaches and players attributed that performance largely to settling in and relaxing. The Mean Green have several young players filling key roles after losing Rico Bussey Jr. to a knee injury in a loss to Cal on Sept. 14.

“We found a groove throwing the ball in the second half against Houston,” Fine said. “We have a lot of young guys trying to step up. They have to relax and go play ball. That third quarter we relaxed and played ball. That is why we had success.”

Redshirt freshman Jyaire Shorter caught a 33-yard touchdown pass from Fine in the third quarter, when freshman Deonte Simpson caught a 21-yard pass.

Southern Miss QB Abraham has UNT’s attention

There are not many quarterbacks in C-USA who have been as productive as Fine in the early stages of the season.

Southern Miss standout Jack Abraham is one of them. The junior leads C-USA with an average of 303 passing yards per game and is completing 69.4% of his passes.

“Abraham manages the game very well,” Littrell said. “He doesn’t put them in bad situations. When a play is not good, he’s smart enough to throw the ball away and play the next down. He is very comfortable getting the ball down the field to his receivers.”

UNT is hoping to disrupt Abraham by pressuring him.

“We have to make Abraham uncomfortable,” UNT defensive lineman Dion Novil said. “We have to have a great pass rush and do our jobs. We can’t give him all day to throw. We have to knock him off his spots and get after him.”

Mean Green aim to address kick coverage issues

UNT gave up an 82-yard kickoff return and a 60-yard punt return in its loss to Houston.

The Mean Green spent time during their bye week working to make sure they correct the mistakes that resulted in those big plays.

“We had a miscommunication on a kickoff and then skyed it to the wrong spot and gave their [punt] return guy an opportunity,” Littrell said. “Those are communication things we have to clean up. On punt, we need to place the ball where it needs to be and do a better job of getting down the field. We knew they had dynamic returners. You can’t give them those opportunities.

“We have been solid on special teams this season and can’t give up those type of explosive plays.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

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