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UNT aiming to solve third-down issues as it prepares for C-USA opener

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

North Texas has spent a lot of time reviewing what transpired over the first three weeks of the season as it prepares for its Conference USA opener Saturday against UAB.

Plenty has gone right over that time, even though UNT has dropped its last two games to Iowa and SMU.

Quarterback Mason Fine has thrown six touchdown passes, as many as he threw all of last season. A rebuilt wide receiver corps has played well, and UNT's defense allowed just 17 points to Iowa through three quarters before giving up a couple of late touchdowns in last week's 31-14 loss.

That success has made UNT's coaches and players wonder just how much better the Mean Green could be if they can address their one big bugaboo — third down.

UNT has struggled on those critical downs most of the season and hit rock bottom with an 0-fer last week at Iowa. The Mean Green offense lined up six times to try to convert a third down and came up empty every time.

UNT wasn't a whole lot better on third down defensively against the Hawkeyes. Iowa converted 11 of 18 third-down tries and all but one of its five fourth downs.

Those struggles have become a recurring theme early in the season that UNT (1-2) hopes to correct as it enters league play against UAB (2-1).

"We just have to do a better job and execute," UNT coach Seth Littrell said. "It's been one guy, a different guy, on every play and [Iowa] exposed it every time. Some of it is learning how to win, get off the field and having a winning mentality. We will get there."

UNT has converted nine of its 32 third downs for a dismal 28 percent, a total that ranks 11th out of 14 teams in C-USA. The Mean Green are faring a little better defensively, allowing 24 third-down conversions on 54 attempts for 44 percent to rank 10th in the league.

UNT's performance on third down defensively has dipped after the Mean Green held Lamar to four third-down conversions on 18 attempts. SMU converted on 10 of 19 third- and fourth-down situations. Iowa held on to the ball for a whopping 40:45 in its win over UNT, largely because of the Mean Green's third-down struggles.

UNT knows it will have to be better on third down in C-USA play if it is to play in a bowl game for a second straight season.

The Mean Green's lone win so far this season came in a 59-14 blowout of Lamar. UNT didn't have to worry a whole lot about converting on third down or preventing the Cardinals from doing the same.

Third down has become a huge concern since and looms large this week as UNT prepares to face what it expects to be a solid team in UAB. The Blazers are back after a two-year hiatus after their program was shut down, and have already won two games.

"UAB is a great team offensively and defensively," Fine said. "They are coming off a couple of years of being off, but they look strong."

UNT knows it can't afford to see its third-down struggles continue if it wants to challenge for the C-USA title.

"On third downs it's always one guy out of the 11 on the field," UNT linebacker Brandon Garner said. "One person is not executing. We have to get that fixed."

Iowa kept several scoring drives alive with third- or fourth-down conversions, including a couple of backbreakers.

UNT appeared to make a key stand while leading 14-10 in the third quarter when Nate Stanley's pass to running back James Butler on third-and-3 fell incomplete. That play was nullified when UNT was flagged for being offside.

Iowa went on to score when tight end Noah Fant caught a 23-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-5. The Hawkeyes put UNT away on their next possession after converting on a third-and-7 situation when Ivory Kelly-Martin broke free for a 23-yard run.

UNT could have used a couple of key conversions against Iowa offensively but came up empty every time. Littrell attributed the Mean Green's struggles largely to the situations they faced.

UNT needed 31 yards on one third down, 23 on another and 13 on a third.

"You are not getting very many of those," Littrell said.

UNT will look to improve against UAB by taking a simple approach.

"We have to try to not do too much on third down," Fine said. "We are pressing a little bit. We have to continue to do what we do on first and second down."

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

Featured photo: North Texas cornerback Kemon Hall breaks up a pass intended for Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the Hawkeyes 31-14 win last week at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (Matthew Holst)

UNT on third down

The following is a look at where North Texas stands in terms of converting on third down and stopping opponents from doing the same:

Offense
Conversions Attempts Percent C-USA rank
9 32 28 11th
Defense
Conversions Attempts Percent C-USA rank
24 54 44 10th