IOWA CITY – In 2015, the North Texas Mean Green traveled to Kinnck Stadium. The Iowa Hawkeyes beat them 62-16 in true blowout fashion.
Many Iowa fans know very little about North Texas beyond the final score from week four of 2015. (If you don’t know, Hayden Fry coached in Denton from 1973-1978 before coming to Iowa).
That’s good news for the heavy underdog North Texas.
Make no mistake; this Mean Green team is not the same team that got rolled by the Hawkeyes two seasons ago. Here’s what you need to know about Iowa’s final non-conference opponent in 2017:
New Man at the Helm
When the Hawks met North Texas two seasons ago former Iowa player Dan McCarney was in his fifth season as the North Texas head coach. Following a 0-5 start, McCarney was fired and replaced by interim head coach Mike Canales.
After the season, the Mean Green went searching for a new coach. A coach that could turn things around after the team finished with an abysmal 1-11 season. They got their man in Seth Littrell.
Littrell, a former Oklahoma Sooner, has bounced around as an assistant coach since 2002 when he was a graduated assistant at Kansas. Since then, he has coached at Texas Tech, Arizona, Indiana, and most recently at North Carolina under Larry Fedora.
In 2015 as the Tar Heels’ offensive coordinator, Littrell led his offense to an 11-3 record and an ACC Coastal Division title. In his first season leading the Mean Green, the team went 5-8, including an appearance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl against Army.
The differences between 2015 and 2017 are quite obvious. North Texas had virtually no offense two seasons ago, but Littrell has implemented a new air-raid offense he adopted from Mike Leach at Texas Tech.
“I don’t even know if I can find my notes from two years ago, they’re back there somewhere,” Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz joked at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “You don’t really need them. That’s a whole different deal.”
Littrell’s Mean Green air-raid offense is averaging 45.5 points per game so far this season (1-1 record). Through the air, they are averaging 328 yards per game, ranking them 17th in the country and first in Conference-USA.
“They come in here with a high-tempo offense that operates very efficiently and very effectively,” Ferentz said. “(It) certainly isn’t like the offense that they brought in here a couple years ago.”
Same name, different team. Thanks to Littrell and the offensive makeover, that whole “62-16” argument has no merit when discussing this week’s matchup.
Mighty “Fine” Quarterback
With such a high-powered passing offense, surely there must be a solid quarterback guiding the ship. That quarterback is Mason Fine, and he’s doing a fine job (awful pun, I know) leading the Mean Green.
Fine (5’11, 180-lbs) is in his first full season as the Mean Green starter after splitting time with Alabama graduate transfer Alec Morris. Fine was named to the C-USA All-Freshman team after making nine starts, completing 155 of his 261 passes, and throwing for 1,572 yards and six touchdowns.
This season, Fine is putting his name in the North Texas record books. Last week at SMU, Fine set a career-high with 424 passing yards and tied a career-high with three passing touchdowns in the 54-32 loss. The 424 yards is the sixth highest total for one game in school history.
“He’s a really good player. Watching him on tape, he reminds me of (Matt) McGloin form Penn State five years ago,” Ferentz said. “ He’s fast, efficient, he’ll run the ball, throws it where it needs to go.”
Fine’s six touchdown passes in the team’s first two games rank ninth in the country and first in C-USA. He also ranks first in the conference with 648 passing yards, 38 points, and is second in the conference with a 172.4 pass efficiency rating.
Getting pressure on Fine will be essential for Iowa’s front seven. If he stays comfortable in the pocket, he will find open receivers.
“If you leave somebody open, he’s going to find that guy and get it there pretty efficiently,” Ferentz said. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
Not-So-Big Passing Threats
Fine has to be throwing the ball to somebody after all. This season, 12 different players have caught passes for the Mean Green, but two receivers lead the way.
Sophomore Michael Lawrence leads the Mean Green with 11 receptions this season, after recording just one as a freshman in 2016. Lawrence’s 11 catches have gone for 160 total yards and a touchdown.
While not a big target, Lawrence (5-10, 180-lbs) has been Fine’s primary receiver out of the slot this season.
Redshirt sophomore Jalen Guyton leads the team with 172 receiving yards on seven receptions this season.
Last week against SMU, Guyton caught just three passes, but two of them went for touchdowns of 72 and 29 yards.
Guyton, who started his career at Notre Dame and played for Trinity Valley Community College last season, adds a big-play dynamic to an already high-powered offense.
Guyton isn’t the biggest receiver either (6’1, 194-lbs), but he finds ways to get open for his quarterback Fine. “Big-Play J-G” has to be on the secondary’s radar this Saturday.
After a lackluster performance against Iowa State last week Iowa is fortunate to have North Texas coming to town. The Hawkeyes should handle the Mean Green, but their passing offense is respectable enough to give the Hawkeyes a final tune-up before starting conference pay against Penn State.