Mean Green look to remain on roll

By Bob Holt

FAYETTEVILLE – North Texas has beaten Chad Morris’ old team. Now the Mean Green will try to beat his new one.

North Texas (2-0) pounded SMU – where Morris was coach the past three seasons – 46-23 and Incarnate Word 58-16 going into Saturday’s game against Morris’ Arkansas Razorbacks.

It’s the first time the Mean Green have won their first two games since 1994.

North Texas is 3-37 against SEC teams, but 1-39 on the field. Mississippi State forfeited games in which the Bulldogs won 7-0 in 1976 and 17-15 in 1977.

The Mean Green’s lone victory on the field over an SEC team came Oct. 4, 1947, when North Texas won 20-12 at Florida.

“SEC opponents are a big challenge,” North Texas Coach Seth Littrell said. "So we’ve got our work cut out for us.

“All I can focus on each and every week is making sure we do the right things to have confidence going into the game. I can promise you that no matter what – I don’t care where I’ve been or where I am or where I go – we’re always going to be ready to compete and do the best that we can and hopefully win the football game.”

This isn’t the same program that played Arkansas on Sept. 29, 2007, when the Razorbacks won 66-7.

Littrell, who is from Muskogee, Okla., and played fullback at Oklahoma, took over as the North Texas coach in 2016 after being offensive coordinator at Arizona, Indiana and North Carolina.

The Mean Green were 1-11 the season before Littrell arrived and improved to 5-8 in 2016 and 9-5 in 2017.

“He’s done a great job of establishing his culture,” said Morris, who was 3-0 at SMU against North Texas. "The guys have bought in over the time he has been there.

“Every time we’ve played them, you’ve seen them get better. Better through just growing and understanding the program. This is the best North Texas team I’ve seen over the past three years.”

Signing junior quarterback Mason Fine – whose only FBS scholarship offer came from North Texas, according to Littrell – has been critical for the Mean Green’s improvement.

Fine, a third-year starter, has completed 65 of 90 passes for 862 yards and 7 touchdowns with 1 interception. His average of 431.0 passing yards leads the nation.

“He took some bumps and bruises along the way,” Littrell said. "He’s just really grown and matured over the past couple of years.

“Things have started to slow down for him, and he’s learned how to mange the game better, as every quarterback has to do.”

Fine is among 17 returning starters for the Mean Green.

“We have confidence right now,” Fine said. “That comes from doing the right thing in practice every single day.”

The Mean Green are only seven-point underdogs against the University of Arkansas.

“It would put us on the national level and maybe earn a little more respect,” Fine said of what beating the Razorbacks would mean for North Texas. “I’m looking forward to going up there and playing in front of a lot of people.”

Senior Brandon Garner said the Mean Green want to approach Arkansas the same way they would any other opponent.

“We can’t think about it being an SEC team,” Garner said. “Then you will start getting nervous and overthink things. You have to think about it as a regular game and respect your opponent.”

The Mean Green lost 32-0 at Florida in 2016 and 31-14 at Iowa last season. Their last victory over a Power 5 conference team was in 2011 when the Mean Green beat Indiana 24-21.

“We have a lot of returners and experienced players who have been on the road and played in some big venues,” Littrell said. “Some of that will help. We’re not as young as we have been in the previous couple of years. We also have to understand that we have to feed off each other more than ever.”

Fine played at Locust Grove (Okla.) High School, which is about 60 miles west of Fayetteville.

“Every time I went home, people were talking about the game,” Fine said. "People have contacted me through social media and said that their families will be there.

“We’re going to have a pretty big crowd from northeast Oklahoma. Hopefully, we can go there and put on a show.”

The game also will be a homecoming for North Texas senior kicker Cole Hedlund, a graduate transfer from Arkansas. Hedlund hit 14 of 24 field goals over three seasons with the Razorbacks – he lost the job for good in the second game last season after missing from 23 and 20 yards against TCU – but he’s 7 of 7 with the Mean Green.

“Every situation is different,” Littrell said of Hedlund’s success after struggling at Arkansas. “I can’t speak to what happened in the past. All I know is since he’s been here he’s been a great teammate, and he’s worked extremely hard to buy into our culture and worked hard on the football field.”

Garner said Hedlund hasn’t talked about his return to Arkansas.

“In the spring, we didn’t know who he was,” Garner said. "The guys on defense called him ‘30.’ We didn’t know his name. The whole team knows his name now.

“When he makes a field goal, now everyone goes and loves on him. He’s a cool guy.”

Fine said he doesn’t believe Hedlund is stressed about playing against the Razorbacks.

“He will focus on his job and not think too much about it,” Fine said. "But it’s also a chance for him to go back and show what he can do.

“Hopefully, we can put him in great positions to show his talent and skills.”