A showdown between North Texas and Houston this Saturday looked like it would be one of the biggest games of the week in college football at the Group of Five level not all that long ago.
Expectations were sky high for Houston heading into the first season of Dana Holgorsen’s tenure as the Cougars’ head coach, especially with quarterback D’Eriq King returning for his senior season. Hopes were just as high for UNT with quarterback Mason Fine leading a team that is projected to win Conference USA’s West Division.
The teams’ showdown on Saturday at Apogee Stadium is still important but has clearly lost some of its luster.
Houston is 1-3 and announced this week that King will sit out the remainder of the season as a redshirt to preserve a season of eligibility.
UNT is 1-0 in Conference USA play, but is 2-2 overall after dropping games at SMU and California. The Mean Green aren’t in a bad spot but clearly aren’t where they hoped to be a month into the season.
UNT’s coaches and players spent the week talking about not losing focus heading into their showdown with the Cougars.
“Don’t let their record fool you,” UNT coach Seth Littrell said. “What you see on tape is that they are an explosive team. They will be a great challenge for us. We will have to be locked in and ready.”
Houston fell in its season opener at Oklahoma and also lost to Washington State, a pair of national powers.
The Cougars’ struggles reached a critical juncture when they fell in the closing seconds to Tulane in their American Athletic Conference opener last week.
King and wide receiver Keith Corbin announced just a few days later that they would sit out the remainder of this season, use their redshirts and return to Houston in 2020.
Clayton Tune, who played his freshman season at Ryan, is expected to start at quarterback for the Cougars. The question now is if Houston will rally around Tune or fold.
“I expect them to rally,” Fine said. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from Houston, their players and coaches. I am sure they are going to adapt and move forward with a great mentality.”
UNT did just that after a tough stretch. The Mean Green couldn’t keep pace with SMU in 49-27 loss and saw their comeback from a 20-point deficit come up short in a 23-17 loss at Cal.
UNT responded in a big way by blowing out UTSA 45-3 last week, while rolling up 290 rushing yards.
The Mean Green know replicating that performance won’t be easy against Houston.
“Houston has a good defense, but we have a good offense,” UNT wide receiver Jyaire Shorter said. “They will give us a run for our money, but if we execute, we will be fine.”
Fine enters UNT’s game against Houston with 940 passing yards and is on the verge of breaking the 1,000-yard mark for the fourth straight season.
Running back Tre Siggers has rushed for 395 yards and three touchdowns.
UNT’s defense is also on a roll and has not given up a touchdown in seven straight quarters.
That streak will be tough to keep alive against Houston, even though the Cougars will be shorthanded.
“It’s not about one or two guys,” Littrell said. “They have great players and coaches. Dana does a good job of putting points on the board. He understands how to attack and will have his team ready to play.”
Tune started two games last season in place of King and threw for 795 yards to go along with eight touchdowns. He will also have several talented players around him. Kyle Porter has rushed for 273 yards, while Marquez Stevenson has 17 catches for 234 yards and three touchdowns.
“They are explosive and have a bunch of talent,” UNT linebacker KD Davis said. “They have three good running backs, a couple of receivers and a physical offensive line.”
Houston will lean on those players without King and Corbin in the lineup.
The situation is not what UNT was expecting at the beginning of the season, but the Mean Green still see their showdown against Houston as a golden opportunity.
UNT has lost four straight games to Houston since their last win over the Cougars in 1975. While Houston has gotten off to a slow start, the Cougars have played in a bowl game the last six seasons and finished 13-1 in 2015.
Beating Houston would be a milestone for UNT and give the Mean Green a win over a team from the American Athletic Conference. Games against AAC teams are often seen as a measuring stick for UNT and other members of C-USA.
UNT is already 0-1 in games against members of the AAC after falling at SMU.
“We look at them being an in-state team more than their conference,” Fine said. “Our coaches are always talking about going undefeated in Texas and being state champs. SMU got us earlier in the season. We are looking to rebound against a great opponent.”
Key matchup UNT LB KD Davis vs. Houston RB Kyle Porter
Houston will likely lean on its running game and Kyle Porter while easing backup quarterback Clayton Tune into the starting lineup in its game against the Mean Green.
Porter has rushed for 273 yards and two touchdowns this season. The junior has good size at 5-9 and 210 pounds and will run behind a big and talented Houston offensive line.
Porter rolled up 60 yards and a touchdown on just five carries last week against Tulane. He began his college career at Texas before transferring and is a highly regarded back.
UNT will turn to linebacker KD Davis and a defense that has shown signs of improvement the last two weeks to try to slow down Porter and the Cougars.
Davis leads UNT with 41 tackles, 17 more than any other Mean Green defender. The sophomore has been remarkably consistent and has finished with at least nine tackles in each of UNT’s games this season.
The Mean Green will need another solid performance from Davis to knock off Houston.
Matching up UNT’s offense vs. Houston’s defense
UNT coach Seth Littrell says he likes his offense to take what a defense is giving up. In some games, the opportunities have come in the passing game. Last week, UNT’s best bet was a running game that rolled up 290 yards.
The Mean Green have been up and down early in the season. UNT scored just 17 points in a loss to Cal but has thrived in both the running game and passing game at times this season.
Mason Fine threw for 383 yards in a season-opening win over Abilene Christian.
Houston is allowing 33.8 points and 301.5 passing yards per game.
The Cougars’ totals are deceptive due to the fact they have played Oklahoma and Washington State, but UNT has played better overall.
UNT’s defense vs. Houston’s offense
The Mean Green enter their game against the Cougars on a roll defensively and have not allowed a touchdown in their last seven quarters.
UNT held UTSA to 295 yards of offense last week while forcing four turnovers. The Mean Green have several key players in their first seasons as starters. Those players appear to be settling in after a tough couple of weeks against Cal and SMU.
Houston’s offense is something of a mystery considering the Cougars will be without quarterback D’Eriq King and wide receiver Keith Corbin. Both are sitting out the rest of the year as redshirts.
Houston still has plenty of talented players to turn to, including wide receiver Marquez Stevenson, who has three touchdown catches on the year.
Four downs: Keys to today’s game Don’t let Houston get comfortable
Houston enters its game against UNT reeling after D’Eriq King and Keith Corbin announced they are spending the rest of the year as redshirts to preserve a season of eligibility. The Cougars are still dangerous without the pair. The Mean Green can’t let Houston gain confidence early.
Continue the roll offensively
UNT posted its most impressive performance of the season offensively last week in a 45-3 win over UTSA. The Mean Green rushed for 290 yards behind Tre Siggers, who rolled up 143 yards. UNT will be tough to beat if it can get its offense rolling again behind Siggers and quarterback Mason Fine.
Stop Houston’s running game
Houston showed the ability to grind out rushing yards with King on the field. The Cougars won’t have King against UNT but will have plenty of other weapons, including Patrick Carr and Kyle Porter. Carr is averaging 70.0 rushing yards per game, while Porter is adding 68.2.
Pressure quarterback Clayton Tune
Sophomore Clayton Tune is expected to start at quarterback in place of King. Tune started two games last season and has experience. He will be under a ton of pressure to come through and help the Cougars turn around their season. UNT needs to put pressure on Tune and force him into mistakes.