Southern Miss

‘Our Achilles’ heel.’ Inside USM’s respect/hate relationship with UNT QB Mason Fine.

In his last two games against the Southern Miss football team, North Texas star quarterback Mason Fine has taken some violent licks.

USM linebacker Jeremy Sangster put a pair of hits on the 5-foot-11, 190-pound gunslinger a year ago that at first-glance seemed sure to take Fine off the field for at least a few plays.

After the game, Sangster admitted that his goal was to somehow find a way to get Fine out of the game. Each time, Fine lifted himself off the turf and went about his work of picking apart the USM defense.

“We put pressure on him every year, I’ve felt like,” USM defensive coordinator Tim Billings said. “Boy, you hit him and he gets back up and goes again.”

Even with all the creative blitzing, the Golden Eagles have come up with just three sacks of Fine over the last two seasons. In the face of intense pressure, he usually finds a way to get the ball down field.

“Last year, I got a couple of hits on him and he’s still getting it off,” USM redshirt junior defensive end Jacques Turner said. “It’s like you didn’t even hit him. We’ve just got to try to get him with the ball.”

At 6 p.m. on Saturday, Southern Miss (3-2, 1-0) will look to end a three-game losing streak to North Texas (2-3, 0-1) and Fine has played a major role in deciding the last two contests.

Fine has had bigger statistical days than the two games he has played against USM, but he has consistently come through in the clutch and avoided mistakes. He has completed 48 of 78 passes for 658 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

The USM defense as built an admiration for Fine and that respect goes both ways.

“Southern Miss is a great defense and if we go in there relying on past success, then that’ll bite you in the butt,” the North Texas QB told local media this week. “It’s reset and attack, because if you don’t they’ll eat you up, so you have to be dialed in at this point.”

A balanced scheme

On top of Fine, UNT features two of the best running backs in Conference USA in Gautier product DeAndre Torrey, a junior, and redshirt sophomore Tre Siggers, who has 64 rushes for 507 yards and four touchdowns. Torrey has 41 carries for 222 yards and two scores.

“They can run the ball,” Billings said. “It’s so tough on you because you’re going to try to slow down Mason when you’ve got to play both the run and play his passing game. As a defense, it puts a lot of stress on you. (Fine) has been our Achilles’ heel, my Achilles’ heel so I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep the last two weeks.

“It doesn’t get any better next week (against Louisiana Tech and redshirt senior J’Mar Smith). We’ve got two quarterbacks in a row that are four-year starters. As a defensive coordinator and a secondary coach, life isn’t that fun around the house right now.”

In Fine, Billings believes his defense will take on the best quarterback it has faced this season other than maybe Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. He admitted Monday that he actually enjoys watching film of Fine as he prepares to face the Mean Green offense.

“I’ve said from day one that I think he’s an NFL guy,” Billings said. “I went against Russell Wilson (during his time at North Carolina State) and I think he throws the ball better than him. He’s just a really good football player. He’s savvy. He’s got a little Baker Mayfield in him.

“I call him the magician. He just pulls rabbits out of his hat all the time. He’s just a really, really good football player. He’s a true gym rat. He makes things happen. You think you’ve got him and he disappears. You think you’re going to sack him and he throws it right in the guy’s hands on the sideline 50 yards away. I love watching him except game day when I’m playing him.”

While losses to SMU, Houston and California have the Mean Green on the wrong side of .500, Fine has again played a high level through five games. He has completed 59.4 percent of his passes for 1,572 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions.

Bringing the blitz

So far in the 2019 campaign, the USM defense has fallen short of expectations and not gotten as much pressure on the quarterback as they’d hoped.

A total of 16 sacks is a respectable number, but the Golden Eagles’ front seven hasn’t been the group getting to the QB.

“I don’t think anybody on the defensive line has had a spectacular year,” Billings said. “I give them a hard time that our leading sack guy is D.Q. Thomas and he’s our nickel. He’s got more tackles for loss than the rest our defensive line.”

Thomas is tied for the team lead with two sacks and has a total of seven tackles for negative yardage.

Turner has long been regarded as USM’s top pass rusher on the defensive line, but he has only half a sack through five games.

“To be honest, I’ve got to play more dominant,” Turner said. “Even if I get double-teamed, I’ve got to affect the game.”

While the defensive front isn’t quite meeting expectations, the part of the USM defense that has struggled the most this season is the secondary. The lack of a pass rush has contributed to opponents averaging 267 yards a game in the passing game, but USM head coach Jay Hopson has pointed out that the defensive backs have to do a better job of staying with receivers.

Fine and a strong group of UNT receivers will offer USM’s secondary one of its stiffest challenges of the season.

“The thing about North Texas is that they’re a balanced football team,” Hopson said. “You have to respect them in all areas; you have to respect their run game, you have to respect their pass game. We know we have to play well and prepare well this week.”

The USM defense held its own with North Texas a year ago before the Mean Green began to pour it on the fourth quarter, turning a 10-7 UNT lead late in the fourth into a 30-7 victory behind three rushing scores from Torrey.

“The deal is this time is we’ve got to go four quarters, try to slow him down and limit the amount of touches (Fine) gets and see what happens,” Billings said. “The difference this year is their running game is a little better than in the past. That makes it that much tougher. It doesn’t matter how well you cover them if you can’t stop the running game so we’ve got to make sure we can slow that down and get them in passing situations because the tough thing is (Fine) can run it or throw it at anytime. That’s when you’ve got issues.”

Patrick Magee is a sports writer who has covered South Mississippi for much of the last two decades. From Southern Miss to high schools, he stays on top of it all.