Seth Littrell knew North Texas would experience growing pains in his first season as head coach after he installed a spread offense.
Those issues have cropped up more in the last two weeks than they have at any other point in what has been a successful transition from a run-first system.
UNT managed just 289 yards in a 45-24 loss to Louisiana Tech on Saturday. That outing came a week after the Mean Green turned the ball over four times in a 31-17 loss to Texas-San Antonio.
That slide has dropped UNT into last place among Conference USA schools in total offense with an average of 346.7 yards per game heading into a game at Western Kentucky on Saturday.
“I anticipated being better offensively,” Littrell said. “This isn’t the standard any of us have on offense, including the players.
“You have to continue to grow and develop the men you have. They have worked hard.”
Littrell has lamented UNT’s inconsistency on offense all season and pointed to that as the main issue in the Mean Green’s recent slump. UNT put together two of its better outings of the season offensively before its two-week slide.
UNT beat Marshall 38-21 and Army 35-18 before running into two of C-USA’s better defenses. UTSA ranks third in the league with an average of 28.3 points allowed per game, while Louisiana Tech ranks fourth in total defense at 404.2 yards allowed per game.
The Mean Green’s path to a turnaround doesn’t appear like it will be an easy one, at least not this week. Western Kentucky has won four straight and hasn’t given up more than 24 points in its last three games.
The Hilltoppers blasted Florida Atlantic 52-3 on Oct. 29 and lead C-USA in scoring defense with 25.6 points allowed per game.
Littrell said the Hilltoppers’ biggest strengths are their overall size and physical approach.
UNT knows it is in for a challenge against the Hilltoppers. The Mean Green say the key to pulling off an upset will be avoiding mistakes.
“We have points in the game where we don’t perform to our level,” UNT running back Jeffery Wilson said. “In games late in the season, those are the kinds of mistakes you can’t have.”
Jenkins’ status in doubt
UNT could be without one of its top defensive players against WKU.
Cornerback Eric Jenkins went down with an undisclosed injury in the Mean Green’s loss to Louisiana Tech and did not return.
Littrell said Tuesday that the junior’s status for the Mean Green’s game against WKU was in question heading into practice.
“I wish I could give an answer on Jenkins,” Littrell said. “As of now, I would say he’s doubtful. I will have to see how he moves around today. Until you can get out, practice, move and go full speed, you never truly know how people recover.”
Jenkins leads UNT with nine pass breakups and has three interceptions, a total that puts him in a tie with safety Kishawn McClain for the team lead.
Having Jenkins available would give UNT a lift on a day when it will face one of C-USA’s elite wide receivers in Taywan Taylor. The senior has 71 catches for 1,174 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Taylor ranks 39th in Football Bowl Subdivision history with 3,678 receiving yards and 33rd in receiving touchdowns with 34.
“Our guys are going to attack the ball in the back end, and we are going to get after the quarterback up front,” UNT defensive end Jarrian Roberts said. “We are going to try to make enough plays to come out with a win.”
Littrell on McClain ejection: ‘It is what it is’
Littrell and his assistant coaches had a chance to take a look at the hit safety Kishawn McClain laid on Louisiana Tech quarterback Ryan Higgins that resulted in the ejection of one of UNT’s top players.
Littrell wasn’t about to second-guess that call Tuesday.
“Agree or disagree, it doesn’t matter,” Littrell said. “It is what it is.
“Whether I think it was a good call or not, I don’t know. I am not an official. We have discussed it. They think it’s a good call and they know the rules. I’m good.”
Losing McClain was a key blow for UNT. He entered the game leading the Mean Green with 63 tackles and added three more before being tossed after hitting Higgins as he went into a slide in the second quarter.
“Anytime you lose a player like Kishawn on defense, it’s hard to fill those shoes,” Littrell said. “He has done a great job, is our most consistent player, is a great player and has made a ton of plays for us.”
UNT does not have many options on offensive line
UNT gave up five sacks in its loss to Tech and enters the week ranked 127th out of 128 FBS teams with an average of 4.22 sacks allowed per game.
Only San Jose State has given up more with an average of 4.30.
Littrell has said throughout the season that not all of the sacks UNT has allowed have been the fault of its offensive line. There have been times when freshman quarterback Mason Fine has taken sacks when he had the opportunity to get rid of the ball.
Fine has said he can do a better job of avoiding negative plays.
UNT will focus on improving its offensive line with the lineup it has in the hope of reducing the number of sacks it allows.
“The offensive line combination is what we have — right, wrong or indifferent,” Littrell said. “They have been getting better every week. [Offensive line coach Brad] Davis does a great job with those guys. They are building chemistry and are a tight group. When you are working as hard as they had to all season and being constantly challenged, you are going to come together.
“I am proud of the way they have worked and am proud of coach Davis and the way he has continued to coach those guys. We will continue to get better.”