PonyFans.com Preview: SMU kicks off 2022 at North Texas
Mean Green won its opener, 31-13, at UTEP
Posted on 08/30/2022 by PonyFans.com
It’s that time … finally.

The Rhett Lashlee Era kicks off Saturday at 6:30 in Denton, Texas, when the Mustangs head up I-35 to take on North Texas — 100 seasons after the teams met for the first time.

The game will be the Mustangs’ first of the season, while the Mean Green (1-0) opened its season by rolling over UTEP, 31-13, Saturday in El Paso, making it six years in a row in which UNT opened the season with a victory.

Quarterback Austin Aune threw three touchdowns in the season-opening UNT win at UTEP, earning Conference USA Player of the Week honors (photo by meangreen.com).
When asked if his team has any kind of advantage because it already has a game under its belt, while the Mustangs head north without having played yet, North Texas head coach Seth Litttrell sidestepped the question.

“I don’t know if it does or not,” Littrell said. “Honestly, I don’t really think about it. I focus on each opponent that week. Obviously, it’s (SMU’s) opener — they’ve been preparing for us, they’ve been getting after it in fall camp, like we have. So, at the end of the day, it’s (the) next opponent.”

The Mustangs lead the all-time series with North Texas, 34-6-1.

UNT quarterback Austin Aune is nothing if not experienced. The 2022 season is his fourth in Denton … after a season at Arkansas … after six years in the New York Yankees’ minor league system as the 89th overall pick in the 2012 MLB First-Year Player Draft. When he started his post-high school athletic career, most of the current true freshmen were 8 years old. Aune is only a junior, meaning he could return next year as a 30-year-old senior.

Make all the “old man” jokes you want, but Aune is a good quarterback. He completed 16 of 29 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions at UTEP, earning Conference-USA Player of the Week honors. The 6-2, 221-pound Aune runs fairly well and has a live arm, and ranks eighth in UNT history with 4,013 career passing yards.

“He was solid,” Littrell said of his quarterback after the win over UTEP. “He’s had a really solid camp, and like I said, he’s really improved. (Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks) Coach (Mike) Bloesch has done a really good job with him and all those quarterbacks, and understanding where to go with the ball and what he want to accomplish. He was solid there.”

Against the Miners, Aune connected with eight different receivers, led by tight end Jake Roberts, who had four receptions for 54 yards and a touchdown. Roderic Burns and Damon Ward snagged three passes apiece, for 72 and 45 yards, respectively, while Tommy Bush and Isaiah Johnson each ended a single catch with a trip to the end zone.

The UNT ground game accounted for 163 yards on 41 carries — nearly 4 yards per carry — at UTEP, led by sophomore Ayo Adeyi, a 5-7, 197-pound pinball-style runner with excellent quickness and the elusiveness to spin through defensive traffic. A member of the C-USA All-Freshman team last year, Adeyi rushed 17 times for 80 yards against the Miners.

Any offense, of course, can only be as good as its offensive line, and UNT’s is excellent. The Mean Green’s defense piled up 23 more sacks (38) than the offense allowed (15) — partly because of a solid pass rush in 2021, but four of the five starters are back on on the offensive line that was among the best in the country at protecting its quarterback a year ago. Leading the group is senior center Manase Mose, who has 49 starts on his résumé.

If the North Texas defense looks a little familiar to PonyFans, it should — former SMU head coach Phil Bennett is in his second year as the Mean Green’s defensive coordinator, former SMU defensive coordinator Jim Gush is Bennett’s co-DC and linebackers coach, and Bennett’s son, Sam, is senior analyst for the UNT defense. Bennett is leading a defense in a version of a 3-3-5 stack defense, with three down linemen, three linebackers (one of which is called the “DEVIL”) and five defensive backs, one of which, the so-called “EAGLE” is a version of the linebacker/safety hybrid that many teams employ in order to get more speed on the field for improved pass coverage.

The Mean Green allowed 22 first downs in the opener and were actually outgained by a yard — 400-399 — by a relatively pedestrian UTEP offense before pitching a shutout in the second half to extend a one-point halftime lead into the final 18-point margin. The Miners were more effective passing than running the ball, racking up 293 yards and their only touchdown through the air.

Linebacker KD Davis — along with Mose, a team captain in 2022 — led the UNT defense in the opener with eight tackles, one more than EAGLE Quinn Whitlock’s seven. Davis piled up 121 tackles a year ago, earning first-team All-CUSA honors and becoming the first UNT defender to reach 120 or more in the last four seasons. Fellow linebacker Larry Nixon finished second on the team last season with 71 tackles.

The UNT defensive line looks a little like three interchangeable parts, at least in terms of size: defensive end Tom Trieb, nose Roderick Brown and defensive tackle Enoch Jackson tip the scales at 275, 275 and 288 pounds, respectively.

Littrell said the UNT defense is well aware of the challenge presented by SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai, who has been named to the preseason watch list for numerous awards.

“Well-deserving — he’s a really good football player,” Littrell said. “He has played a lot of football, under a couple of different staffs. He’s an experienced guy, who has a lot of talent around him. He has weapons. He does a great job managing the game, getting the ball to (his) playmakers. So, again, it’s going to be great challenge for us.”

Littrell obviously couldn’t offer much to the media about how the Ponies will play under Lashlee, but that did not stop him from praising the SMU players.

“Personnel-wise, a very talented football team — obviously, you can see that,” he said. “Defensively, up front, they’re very physical. It always starts up there, and I think they do a great job up there, being physical. Last year, they did a good job of making it hard for us to run the football. Offensively, they’ve got a lot of weapons — running backs, receivers, obviously Mordecai at quarterback manages the game very well and can make all the throws — and then I think they’re very solid on special teams, due to their talent.

"So new scheme, new system, new coaches — obviously guys that have been there. Rhett has been there before, he understands their personnel — they’re familiar with him, so I don’t think it’ll be that much of a transition.”

While his coach dodged the question about whether UNT gains an advantage by having played a game, Adeyi faced the question head-on.

Linebacker KD Davis led the North Texas defense in 2021 with 121 tackles (photo by meangreen.com).
“For sure, it does,” he said. “Getting a game in early, it lets us make our mistakes early. We’re learning from that, so going into SMU, I hope we’re learning from that and can come out much better than we did last week.”

Littrell said he and the UNT staff are not unfamiliar with the styles and tendencies of the Mustangs’ first-year coaches, but that doesn’t mean the Mean Green coaches have a clean blueprint of what to expect Saturday.

“We’ll see,” he said. “They’re going to have some wrinkles. The one thing … we’ve played against each other, both offensively and defensively. The defensive coordinator (Scott Symons) having been at Liberty, so we’re all familiar with each other, in a sense. But again, opening game … you never know the wrinkles people are going to throw out there, so we’ll see as we get in there. We’re going to have to do a good job of game-planning, and then we’re going to have to make adjustments throughout the game, like any team. So that’s what it will come down to.”

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