UNT-MTSU lead shot

North Texas wide receiver Jaelon Darden hauls in a touchdown pass over Charlotte cornerback Lance McMillan during the 49ers’ win over the Mean Green last week. UNT will face Middle Tennessee on Saturday.

North Texas has had three cracks at posting its first win of the season against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent at Apogee Stadium, a place the Mean Green have enjoyed a whole lot of success.

UNT came up empty each time and will now look to break through where it hasn’t fared nearly as well recently — anywhere but Apogee.

The Mean Green have lost seven straight games away from their home turf, a slide that began with a loss to Utah State in the New Mexico Bowl at the end of the 2018 season.

UNT will look to snap that skid in its first road game of the year on Saturday when it faces Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro.

Seth Littrell

Seth Littrell

“It’s about who you play and competing,” UNT coach Seth Littrell said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s home or away. Good teams find ways to win football games. Right now, we are struggling everywhere.”

UNT (1-3, 0-2 Conference USA) has lost three straight games since opening its season with a win over Houston Baptist, a member of the Southland Conference. That slide includes the Mean Green’s first two games in C-USA play.

That drought has UNT’s coaches and players hungry to turn their season around heading into their game against the Blue Raiders (1-4, 1-2 C-USA).

“Once you’ve lost three games in a row, you really want to win,” UNT linebacker KD Davis said. “We came into practice this week looking to get better every day and change things around.”

UNT was scheduled to face both Texas A&M and Houston on the road earlier this season. Those games were wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Mean Green will have their first of several opportunities to show what they can do on the road when they face the Blue Raiders.

Four of UNT’s last six games will be played on the road.

The Mean Green will look to capitalize after a series of tough losses at home, where they are 19-9 under Littrell. UNT fell to Southern Miss 41-31 in their C-USA opener and were blown out 49-21 by Charlotte last week.

UNT knows turning its season around will be a challenge. The Mean Green will be traveling for the first time during the pandemic and won’t have a home crowd behind them.

“You have to bring your own energy on the road,” Littrell said. “That’s part of the game. The energy starts to happen when you execute on offense defense and special teams. It’s about going out and making routine plays over and over, which gets your energy going on the sideline.”

UNT has struggled in that regard for most of the year, especially defensively. The Mean Green have given up at least 41 points in each game during its three-game slide and are allowing 46.5 points per game.

UNT’s offense hasn’t been able to keep up and is coming off a season-low scoring output in its loss to Charlotte. Quarterback Austin Aune has thrown for 1,108 yards and eight touchdowns with two interceptions and has been a bright spot for UNT.

The Mean Green will lean on Aune on a day it will likely be without running back Oscar Adaway III in addition to wide receiver Jyaire Shorter. Adaway has missed consecutive games after clearing the 100-yard mark rushing in each of UNT’s first two games and is questionable to play.

Shorter was injured in the Mean Green’s loss to Southern Miss. He didn’t play last week and won’t be back when UNT faces the Blue Raiders, who enter the weekend off a breakthrough win.

MTSU lost its first four games of the season before pulling out a 31-28 win over Florida International last week. Quarterback Asher O’Hara hit with Jarrin Pierce for a 12-yard touchdown with 1:20 left and the Blue Raiders hung on for their first win of the year.

O’Hara has thrown for 1,012 yards and also leads MTSU with 328 rushing yards.

Littrell spoke highly of O’Hara and has also been impressed with the Blue Raiders’ defense.

“They have a solid group and have a good pressure package when you get behind the chains,” Littrell said. “They will heat you up. It’s hard to have enough blockers for them.”

UNT will tackle that challenge when they aim to end their road woes on Saturday.

“We understand that it’s a business trip,” running back Nic Smith said. “We need a win.”

Key matchup UNT LB KD Davis vs. MTSU QB Asher O’Hara

UNT has struggled all season defensively and enters its game against MTSU ranked last among C-USA teams in both scoring defense (46.5 points allowed per game) and total defense (578.8 yards allowed per game).

KD Davis

KD Davis

The Mean Green could have a chance to turn the tide when they take on the Blue Raiders, who haven’t fared much better offensively than UNT has defensively.

MTSU is putting up just 19.4 points per game even after a solid showing in a 31-28 win over FIU.

The Blue Raiders depend heavily on Asher O’Hara to power their offense. The junior has is averaging 202.4 passing yards and 65.6 rushing yards per game.

Asher O'Hara

Asher O'Hara 

MTSU goes as O’Hara goes. UNT’s hopes to contain the Blue Raiders leading player will fall in part on linebacker KD Davis. The junior ranks second among UNT players with 23 tackles and is among the Mean Green’s most important playmakers.

UNT will look to Davis to slow O’Hara in the running game and keep him contained in the pocket. MTSU is at its best when O’Hara can keep defenses guessing and hit receivers downfield in the play action passing game.

Matching up UNT’s offense vs. MTSU’s defense

UNT is coming off what Littrell described as a subpar performance offensively in its loss to Charlotte. The Mean Green rolled up 479 yards but managed just 21 points on a night when they failed to cash in on several opportunities.

Running back Tre Siggers was cut down for no gain on a run up the middle on fourth-and-1 from the Charlotte 4 and UNT kicker Ethan Mooney missed three field goals.

MTSU has struggled most of the season defensively and ranks 11th in C-USA with an average of 34.8 points allowed per game.

Senior safety Reed Blankenship is one of the top defensive players in C-USA and enters the weekend with 269 tackles in his career.

Edge: UNT

UNT’s defense vs. MTSU’s offense

UNT has struggled defensively all season and enters its game against MTSU ranked last in C-USA in scoring defense (46.5 points per game), rushing defense (237.0 yards per game) and passing defense (341.8 yards per game).

UNT has dealt with a series of injuries, COVID-19 infections and contact tracing issues among its top defensive players but could be getting healthy at just the right time.

Linebackers KD Davis, Tyreke Davis, Kevin Wood and Larry Nixon III have all missed at least one game. All four are expected to be available Saturday, when the Mean Green will look to contain O’Hara and the handful of playmakers around him.

Jarrin Pierce has 31 catches for 366 yards and is O’Hara’s favorite target.

Edge: MTSU

UNT-MTSU four downs

Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds (3) glides into the end zone untouched for a touchdown during the 49ers' win over North Texas last week. UNT will look to rebound defensively after allowing 49 points to the 49ers. 

Four downs: Keys to today’s game Contain MTSU QB Asher O’Hara

UNT has struggled all season defensively and has just one main task in its game against MTSU. The Mean Green must contain Blue Raiders quarterback Asher O’Hara. The junior has thrown for 1,012 yards and rushed for an additional 328.

Capitalize on offensive opportunities

UNT squandered a host of scoring chances in its loss to Charlotte. The Mean Green failed to convert on fourth-and-1 from the 49ers’ 4-yard line and also missed three field goals. UNT will have opportunities again against MTSU and must capitalize.

Find a way to get on track defensively

UNT has allowed at least 31 points in each of its games this season and is coming off a tough outing in a loss to Charlotte. The 49ers put up 599 yards of offense against the Mean Green. UNT can’t afford a repeat against the Blue Raiders.

Avoid special teams mistakes

UNT has struggled on special teams all season and continued to make key mistakes in its loss to Charlotte. Ethan Mooney missed three field goals. The Mean Green must get back on track in what could be a close game against MTSU.

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

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