Southern Miss ran into a Mean Green buzzsaw Saturday night in the Conference USA opener.
North Texas (3-2, 2-0) thoroughly exposed the USM defense at Roberts Stadium, running away with a 43-28 victory before an announced crowd of 21,907.
One team was expected to leave Saturday night's game as a contender in the C-USA West and it was North Texas that looked the part, piling up 540 yards of offense behind the three-headed beast of sophomore quarterback Mason Fine, redshirt sophomore receiver Jalen Guyton and senior running back Jeffery Wilson.
"I'm not happy right now," USM head coach Jay Hopson said. "We know coaching and playing, we've got do a lot better. I knew North Texas was a good football team. I knew it would be a 60-minute battle."
Fine completed 24 of 40 passes for 366 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.
His favorite target was Guyton, who consistently beat USM corners to a tune of 14 receptions for 211 yards and one touchdown.
“He’s an explosive kid and I think he continues to gain confidence,” UNT head coach Seth Littrell said of Guyton. “Him and Mason (Fine) have great chemistry together. The great thing about it, he had a huge night tonight, but every single week some of those guys have stepped up.”
The USM defense fell back into the same issues that plagued it last season, giving up running plays to UNT senior Jeffery Wilson, who ran 30 times for 148 yards with three touchdowns. He had touchdown runs of 43, 46 and 8 yards.
USM's chances of competing for a C-USA West title are greatly diminished with road trips still remaining to UTSA on Oct. 7 and Louisiana Tech on Oct. 21.
Southern Miss (2-2, 0-1) jumped out to a 21-7 lead on Ito Smith's 65-yard touchdown run at the 10:00 mark of the second quarter, but that momentum proved to be a simple sugar buzz for the Golden Eagles.
UNT rolled off 26 consecutive points and led 33-21 on Wilson's 43-yard touchdown run with 2:49 left in the third quarter.
The USM pass rush got to Fine early, but it was the 5-foot-11 quarterback who set the pace for much of the contest after taking some early hits from the USM defense.
"They started chipping our ends, doing a lot of six-man protection, seven-man protection and max protection" USM senior defensive end Xavier Thigpen said. "They were just trying to slow our rush down. We've just still got to better."
Saturday night's game was set up as a contest between USM's strong defense and a potent North Texas offense. USM entered the game giving up just 241.3 yards a game while North Texas was averaging 503.5 yards a game.
Advantage: North Texas offense.
“I think it’s a huge momentum boost,” Littrell said of his team’s win. “You know, building that confidence and continuing to buy into what our culture is.”
The Mean Green were successful on all four fourth-down tries, including Wilson's 46-yard run on 4th-and-1 with 47 seconds left in the first quarter for UNT's first score of the game to cut the USM lead to 14-7.
"They did a good job on fourth-and-one," Hopson said. "They kept us on the field. The big one was the first one. I thought we were going to hit him in the backfield and stop them. That kind of opened the floodgate when they scored there. That's something we're going to have to work on."
Smith finished with 13 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown to lead USM on the ground while pulling in two receptions for 47 yards.
Griggs had his roughest outing as the USM quarterback, completing 19 of 42 passes for 270 yards, and one touchdown. Several of his incompletions were off the hands of his receivers, but he also missed wide on a few attempts.
"We were in it the whole game," Smith said. "We never lost hope. They made good plays. They're a good team. We'll come out next week ready to play UTSA."
Much like it did in the previous game against Louisiana-Monroe, USM raced down the field on the game's opening possession for a 75-yard scoring drive: Following a 45-yard toss from Griggs to Smith, Allenzae Staggers pulled in another short Griggs toss as he crossed through the backfield and ran 7 yards to the pylon for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead at the 11:44 mark of the 1st quarter.
Griggs was 4-of-5 passing for 67 yards on the game's opening drive.
Griggs came up with a 4-yard touchdown run, the first of his USM career, to make it 14-0 with 5:38 left in the first quarter.
North Texas hadn't even registered a first down Wilson ran 46 yards for UNT's first score on 4th-and-1.
North Texas drove the ball into USM territory on its next drive, but redshirt sophomore defensive end Paxton Schrimsher made a hit from behind on UNT receiver Rico Bussey, forcing a fumble that Delmond Landry recovered at the USM 23.
Five plays later, Smith ran 65 yards for a touchdown thanks to a nice cutback in the North Texas secondary to give the Golden Eagles a 21-7 lead with 10 minutes left in the first half.
North Texas followed with 10 consecutive points headed into the half – a 2-yard touchdown toss from Fine to Guyton with 2:42 left in the half and a 48-yard field goal by Trevor Moore as time ran off the clock at halftime.
Moore made three field goals, adding a 20-yarder and a 44-yard kick for the final score of the game with 4:30 remaining.
Aside from a 4-yard touchdown run by Smith on the final play of the third quarter, the second half belonged to North Texas.