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Littrell press conference notebook: UNT hasn't forgotten loss to UTEP

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

Brandon Garner hasn't forgotten what happened the last time North Texas faced UTEP.

The junior linebacker certainly isn't alone when it comes to UNT players and coaches, who watched as the Miners ran over the Mean Green on their way to a 52-24 win in El Paso in both teams' regular-season finale last fall.

That loss would have spoiled UNT's season had it not been for the reprieve the Mean Green received from the NCAA due to its score on the its Academic Progress Rate report.

UNT received a berth in the Heart of Dallas Bowl because of that exemption. That turn of events made giving up 301 rushing yards to Aaron Jones a little easier to take, but it didn't completely wash away the sting of a loss UNT is looking to avenge a year later.

"We definitely have a sour taste in our mouths from last year," Garner said. "We had a chance to get to 6-6 and become bowl-eligible; they ruined it. We got lucky and still got into a bowl. That is still fresh in our minds."

It's not like UNT needed any extra motivation heading into this weekend. The Mean Green's homecoming game is Saturday, the program is honoring UNT Athletic Hall of Fame coach Darrell Dickey and — best of all — UNT can clinch Conference USA's West Division title with a win.

The Mean Green (6-3) are 5-1 in C-USA play and need to win one of their final two conference games to clinch a spot in the league's title game.

The fact that UNT can pick up that win against a team that handed the Mean Green a tough loss a year ago only adds to the importance of the game.

"It had better be," UNT coach Seth Littrell said when asked if last season's game would be something that motivates the Mean Green. "They dominated us last year in every aspect of the game. They were more physical than we were and coached better than we did."

A lot has changed since then for UTEP, which has struggled all year. The Miners lost Jones to the NFL, where he has continued to excel.

Jones has rushed for 358 yards and three touchdowns for the Green Bay Packers as a rookie.

UTEP (0-9, 0-5 C-USA) has not been the same since Jones moved on and enters the weekend looking for its first win. Coach Sean Kugler resigned after the Miners lost their first five games.

Mike Price took over but hasn't been able to lead UTEP to that elusive first win.

UNT learned last season to not take UTEP lightly. The Miners didn't have anything to play for in their game against UNT last season after a 3-8 start, but they rolled by the Mean Green.

UNT isn't expecting an easy game this time around either.

"UTEP is going to come in here very motivated to play," Littrell said. "It will be a very competitive game."

Chemistry helping UNT make clutch plays

UNT has come through in the clutch over and over the last few weeks while extending its run of success to five wins in six games.

Last week's game that saw UNT's defense hold late and force Louisiana Tech to attempt a 53-yard field goal in the closing seconds was the latest example. Jonathan Barnes missed and the Mean Green won 24-23.

UNT also made clutch plays late to pull out wins over Old Dominion, Texas-San Antonio and UAB.

Littrell credited those wins to the chemistry UNT has developed.

"We are a very resilient group," Littrell said. "We have talked a lot throughout the season about finding a way to win. It's not always going to be perfect. Teams that overcome adversity the quickest usually win games. 

"Our team has done a good job of just playing the next play. Each unit has stepped up for each other. If the offense isn't moving the ball as well as it would like, the defense steps up. If something happens and we haven't played as well defensively, the offense has stepped up. That is what it takes."

UNT examining options for English

UNT is examining all of its options when it comes to the future of defensive lineman Bryce English.

The sophomore transferred to UNT from Kansas State to be closer to his father while he is battling cancer and hoped to receive a waiver from the NCAA that would make him immediately eligible last season.

English didn't receive that waiver and sat out the 2016 campaign. He used the time to get into better shape and appeared as if he would play a major role this fall during preseason practice.

Those hopes ended when English broke his foot before the season. UNT was hoping English would return at some point this year. Littrell confirmed that he won't be ready this week.

"It's frustrating with Bryce," Littrell said. "We are still working with compliance and looking at all the different options. I don't know if we can redshirt him or if he will come back and play with whatever [time] he has left."

Littrell doesn't see much change in UTEP

Littrell hasn't seen much of a change in what UTEP is doing offensively or defensively since Price took over before its game against Western Kentucky on Oct. 7.

UTEP was a run-first team that was struggling offensively before Price became the Miners' interim coach. Those struggles have continued. 

The Miners rank last in C-USA with an average of 11.4 points per game. UTEP has been better defensively but still enters the weekend ranked 12th in the league at 36.2 points allowed per game.

"Schematically there is not a difference with Price," Littrell said. "He has done an unbelievable job over the years and is proven to be an unbelievable coach and motivator. They are playing physical and have been close.

"If you look at the tape, the scores were not indicative of how the game went. Some of those games went down to the fourth quarter. The motivation is there. They are playing well and hard together but have not finished off a couple of games."

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