North Texas' offense, Troy's defense square off in New Orleans Bowl
Troy and North Texas, two former Sun Belt Conference foes with close ties on their coaching staffs, face each other Saturday in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Trojans hold an 8-2 edge in their series against North Texas, last played in 2012, the Mean Green's final year in the Sun Belt.
Troy (10-2) shared this year's Sun Belt championship with Appalachian State. North Texas (7-4) won Conference USA's Western Division title but fell 41-17 to East Division champion Florida Atlantic in the championship game on Dec. 2.
Trojans head coach Neal Brown and members of his staff share a bond with North Texas coach Seth Littrell. Troy defensive coordinator Vic Koenning held the same title at North Carolina when Littrell was the offensive coordinator with the Tar Heels.
"He's a really good friend of mine. I respect what he's done," Brown said of Littrell. "Vic's got an understanding of who Seth is and what he's about.
"Their defensive coordinator (Troy Reffett) was at ULM (Louisiana-Monroe) -- played them at Kentucky and when I was here before. The wide receiver coach, Tommy Mainord, I got to work with him for five years at Texas Tech and Kentucky."
Brown has an appreciation for North Texas' offense. The Mean Green are 18th in the nation in total offense, passing for 291 yards per game and rushing for 176.
Mean Green quarterback Mason Fine has thrown for 3,749 yards and 28 touchdowns in helping the team average 35.9 points per game.
It is no coincidence that North Texas is making its second consecutive bowl appearance after Littrell was hired before the 2016 season. Littrell was a candidate for the SMU job recently before Sonny Dykes, part of the Mike Leach coaching tree, like Littrell, was hired by the Mustangs.
"I really like what those guys do on offense, so I've watched them quite a bit as the years have gone on," Brown said of North Texas. "I've got a good feel for what they're trying to do offensively. The Fine kid ... they recruited him hard here at Troy. He's doing a really good job."
Troy scored one of the biggest upsets of the season with its 24-21 win over LSU in Baton Rouge, La., on Sept. 30.
As potent as North Texas' offense is under Littrell, Troy's defense is just as dominant.
Troy enters the New Orleans Bowl ranked 11th in the country in scoring defense, allowing 17.5 points allowed per game. The Trojans are the only team in the country to not allow more than 25 points in a game this season.
The Trojans' defense has 15 interceptions and 36 sacks. The unit ranks fifth nationally with an average of 8.4 tackles for loss per game.
"Their defense is very multiple and is good up front," Littrell said. "They mix things up very well. They are very competitive in the back end and pose a great challenge for us. There is a reason they are ranked 11th in the country. Vic does a great job of putting those guys in position to be successful."
Fine added that Troy is "good up front with physical players" and that the Trojans "play some funky coverages at times."
"They are a great football team," Fine said. "It will be a great matchup and challenge for us."
Linebacker Tron Folsom leads Troy with 77 tackles, nine for loss, and he has an interception. Freshman cornerback Marcus Jones has four touchdowns, three on kickoff returns and one on an interception return. The pick-six went for 100 yards in the fourth quarter of Troy's Sun Belt title-clinching, 32-25 victory at Arkansas State on Dec. 2.
Jones has returned 24 kicks for 789 yards for an average of 32.9 yards, which ranks fourth best in the FBS this season.
He is third nationally with three all-purpose plays of 90 or more yards.
Troy has a productive offense as well, led by senior quarterback Brandon Silvers. The four-year starter enters the New Orleans Bowl having thrown for more than 10,000 yards in his career. Silvers has passed for 2,985 yards and 13 touchdowns with just six interceptions this season.
North Texas running back Jeffery Wilson, who has produced 1,215 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns this season, is doubtful for the bowl game because of a foot injury, according to Littrell. If he doesn't play, he would finish his career ranked third in Mean Green history in rushing touchdowns (32) and fourth in rushing yards (3,205).
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