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Football: Southern Miss defense will pose new challenge for UNT

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

North Texas has been on quite a tear offensively early in Seth Littrell's second season.

The question heading into the weekend is whether UNT can maintain its torrid pace Saturday when it heads to Southern Mississippi. UNT exploded for 59 points in a season-opening win over Lamar, scored 32 in a loss to SMU and came up with the key plays it needed late in a 46-43 win over UAB  in its Conference USA opener last week.

Even when one takes a 14-point down day at Iowa into account, UNT is averaging a whopping 37.8 points per game to lead C-USA.

Southern Miss will present a different, and decidedly tougher, challenge.

The Golden Eagles (2-1) have been just as good defensively as the Mean Green (2-2, 1-0 C-USA) have been offensively. Southern Miss is allowing just 13.7 points per game.

"They are good across the board on defense," Littrell said. "They are very good at what they do and make it hard to run the ball. Their safeties are aggressive."

Southern Miss held Louisiana-Monroe in check in a 28-17 win last week and shut out Southern 45-0 in the second week of the season. Kentucky slipped by the Golden Eagles 24-17 in the opener for both teams.

The Golden Eagles rank fourth nationally with an average of 122.0 passing yards allowed.

"They are playing really well this season and have a lot of great players on the defensive side," UNT quarterback Mason Fine said. "They are a lot like our defense and blitz a lot. We have to make sure we execute."

Southern Miss hasn't made an overwhelming number of big plays in its three games. The Golden Eagles have five sacks and two interceptions.

Where Southern Miss has made its mark is by being solid across the board and getting off the field on third down. The Golden Eagles' opponents have converted just 15 percent (six of 41) of their third downs.

That's an eye-popping stat for UNT, which has struggled to convert on third downs. The Mean Green failed on all six of their third-down tries in their loss to Iowa in the third week before bouncing back to convert on six of 13 against UAB.

UNT bumped up to eighth in C-USA with a third-down conversion rate of 33.3 percent (15 of 45) after a solid outing against UAB.

The Mean Green say the improvement they made in a win over the Blazers is a sign that their explosive offense will continue to excel, even against a stout Southern Miss defense.

"They execute their scheme well defensively," UNT wide receiver Turner Smiley said. "We have watched them. As long as we do what we do, we will be all right."

Littrell expecting defensive backs to improve

UNT continued to struggle with giving up big plays in the passing game defensively in its win over UAB.

The Mean Green gave up a 48-yard touchdown pass and a 58-yard scoring strike, continuing a season-long issue. UNT gave up a 68-yard touchdown pass against Lamar and four touchdown passes that covered at least 35 yards in a shootout loss to SMU.

UNT gave up multiple deep balls on double moves against UAB.

"We have to get back to the base fundamentals of what we are trying to accomplish on the back end," Littrell said. "We have some guys doing good things, but we have to play with all 11 and can't be greedy. We have to play the defense the way it was meant to be played and the techniques the way they are coached."

Littrell: UNT, Isadore mutually agreed to part ways

Backup quarterback Devin Isadore was removed from UNT's roster this week.

Littrell said he and the former Navarro College standout agreed to part ways after he didn't figure into the Mean Green's plans.

Isadore hoped to battle for the starting job when he arrived at UNT last spring, when he was expected to compete with returning starter Mason Fine and former walk-on Quinn Shanbour.

Fine retained the starting job, while Shanbour has served as UNT's top backup. Shanbour came on in UNT's loss to Iowa and threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Guyton after Fine was knocked out with a sprained knee.

"He wasn't happy with his situation here," Littrell said. "We had a meeting and mutually agreed that it would be better if he looked for other opportunities. We worked hard to create a winning culture here. You have to be a great and selfless teammate. I am not going to compromise for anybody."

Fine has thrown for 1,076 yards and nine touchdowns.

The departure of Isadore gives UNT one fewer option at quarterback and moves freshman Cade Pearson up on the Mean Green's depth chart. UNT is hoping to redshirt Pearson.

Darden should be ready this week

UNT is expecting wide receiver Jaelon Darden to be ready to play a larger role this week after he was limited by injury in the UAB game.

Darden has emerged as a key member of UNT's wide receiver corps and has taken over as the Mean Green's primary punt returner. 

Littrell was not sure if Darden would play at all against UAB. He recovered in time to return two punts for 12 yards.

UNT is expecting Darden to rejoin the rotation at slot receiver. The freshman has caught eight passes for 97 yards and a touchdown.

"I was surprised Darden was ready last week. Our trainers and doctors did a great job with him," Littrell said. "He felt good at the end of the week. We felt confident enough to put him back there to return punts."

UNT was not as comfortable with putting Darden in on offense because he had missed extensive practice time and was not well versed in what the Mean Green were planning to do.

Darden has returned to practice this week.

Wilson, Moore pick up honors

Running back Jeffery Wilson and kicker Trevor Moore were named the C-USA offensive and special teams players of the week, respectively, for their performance against UAB.

Wilson rushed for a career-high 211 yards and a touchdown, while Moore made four field goals, including the winner from 22 yards out with seven seconds left.

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