Fun fact of the day: Texas’ state motto is “Friendship.” For me, at least, this came as a surprise, only because Texas has a way of going big or going home, so much so that the phrase would probably be a more fitting state adage. North Texas’s football program certainly conforms, especially when we’re talking about the “going big” part.
The Mean Green of North Texas have a knack for putting points on the board with a high-powered offense manned by returning quarterback Mason Fine, tallying 78 points in only two games. Projected to win the Conference USA and currently basking in the glory of their consecutive nine-win seasons, the FBS team has walked back between the lines with swagger and talent to back them up.
The Mean Green haven’t faced a Pac-12 opponent since they beat Oregon State in 1995, and this week’s matchup against Cal will be the first time that the programs have ever met on the gridiron. Although the Mean Green are heavily favored to take the Conference USA West division, North Texas is hot off of a 49-27 road loss to beatable in-state opponent SMU, a team currently headed by former Cal head coach Sonny Dykes.
Even given what will likely be a successful season trajectory, North Texas showed hardly a glimmer of any defensive capability against SMU, allowing three touchdowns in the first quarter as the Mustangs galloped in circles around them for a total of 503 yards by the time the final whistle blew.
Despite North Texas’ initial flightiness, senior Mason Fine remains one of college football’s best- kept secrets and the Mean Green’s leg-up on most opponents — the quarterback has thrown for 9,952 career yards, the most in program history. Deadly both inside and out of the pocket, Fine has many reliable receiving targets to hit, including senior Rico Bussey Jr., who leads the team in receiving yards this season with 156. The team leans on Fine like a crutch for their success, however, and if he has a below-average showing on Saturday as he did against SMU, the Bears will undoubtedly take advantage.
Even though “Drive friendly — the Texas way” being penned on some signs marking state lines, the Mean Green certainly doesn’t abide by it — in their season opener win over Abilene Christian, nine of their 14 drives resulted in points for North Texas. Even in their loss against SMU, the Mustangs and the Mean Green both rushed for 211 yards, showing how tough it is to put the North Texas offense to bed even on one of its bad days.
North Texas’ recent success is meaningful, but past seasons don’t win you games against teams on the brink of the AP Top 25. Even though the Mean Green are good at scoring, Cal’s defense is really good at not getting scored on.
Cal quarterback Chase Garbers is playing a much smarter game than he did last season, a fact that he made clear in last weekend’s game against Washington. Although he spent much of the first two quarters scrambling for his life, Garbers eventually connected with his receivers. The entire Cal offense began clicking, firing off 228 total yards in the last two quarters.
Cal’s wideouts, along with a duo of talented running backs, have proved to be an invaluable weapon so far this season. Kekoa Crawford and Nikko Remigio continue to impress with their combined 10 receptions this season, while running backs Christopher Brown Jr. and Marcel Dancy burst onto the scene and led the team to victory last week against Washington. Accruing 286 total rushing yards already, Brown Jr. has yet to find an opponent that can withstand his pernicious stiff arm.
The offensive line lost a key player in left tackle Will Craig, who is out for the season with a leg injury and played only against UC Davis. Offensive tackle Henry Bazakas and the rest of the line, like the entirety of Cal’s offense, overcame their shaky starts and controlled the second half of the Washington game to pave the way for Dancy’s two touchdowns.
Consistency on both sides of the ball is all the Bears need to breeze past the Mean Green — this shouldn’t be a challenge for the defense, which has allowed just 612 total yards thus far. Headed by inside linebacker Evan Weaver, whose whopping 18 tackles — two of them for loss — earned him multiple National Defensive Player of the Week awards, the defense brought their A-game to Seattle and should only be better back home in California Memorial Stadium.
Cal will be sure to not let its second victory over the ranked Huskies be too much of an ego boost, however. The team recognizes that the key to navigating such a difficult schedule is to improve every week and to never let off the gas.
“For me, personally, it’s just playing hard every single snap, bringing that intensity and fanatical effort, and just trying to make every single play,” said inside linebacker Kuony Deng. “If I make 70 snaps, I’m trying to make 70 plays.”
The Mean Green scoring machine is on its way to Berkeley, but Cal fans rejoice — the Bears have been looking as solid as gold lately.