IOWA CITY, Iowa – Seth Littrell has experienced both sides of it. He’s been part of heavily-favored Power 5 team hosting the small conference opponent. Now, after taking over as North Texas head coach before last season, he’s seen it from the other perspective.
While fans and folks in Las Vegas may view his Mean Green as a sacrificial lamb heading to Iowa Saturday (2:30 p.m. CT, ESPN2), he doesn’t believe that.
“To be honest with you, I don’t really look at the underdog, over-dog, spreads or any of that,” Littrell said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to get your team ready to go out and compete. It doesn’t matter what the spread is or who’s the underdog. We’ve been in this position.”
North Texas lost 32-0 at Florida last season. Despite the setback, the program experienced the second-best turnaround in the FBS during ’16 and played in a bowl game. It suffered through a 1-11 campaign a year earlier under former Hawkeye Dan McCarney, whose team fell 62-16 at Iowa in ’15.
The Mean Green has gotten out to a 1-1 start this season. They beat Lamar, 59-14, before losing, 54-32, at SMU last Saturday. Vegas has installed them as a 22-point underdog this week.
“I look at it as an opportunity. You go in there and compete and see exactly how you match up. I promise you we’ll build the confidence throughout the week. If we play disciplined football and we go out there and compete, I feel like we have a chance to win,” Littrell said.
“I’m excited to go watch them play and coach in this game. It’s a great opportunity against a very good football team. What do we have to lose?”
Littrell, 39, is considered a bright offensive mind in the coaching community. His team ranks ninth nationally in total offense (580.5) and 16th in points per game (45.5). It averages 79 offensive plays per contest.
It’s an air-raid attack (four receivers, one running back) Littrell learned while working as an assistant for Mike Leach at Texas Tech from ’05-08. He served as Arizona’s offensive coordinator from ’09-11, during which time the Wildcats beat Iowa, 34-27, in ’10. He left the desert for Indiana, where he ran the offense in ’12-13 before moving on to North Carolina.
“They play at a high tempo. They know what they’re doing. They know where to go, pose a lot of threats with quarterback runs. They’ve got a really well-conceived offense, but most importantly the quarterback’s a really good trigger guy,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Sophomore Mason Fine ranks 14th nationally in points responsible for with 38. Iowa signal caller Nate Stanley, also a sophomore, is tied for fourth with 48.
North Texas has split up its running back carries. Jeffrey Wilson leads the way with 25 rushes for 212 yards and four scores. Nic Smith has 133 yards and a touchdown on 23 attempts. He also has caught four passes for 35 yards and a score.
While they can run the ball, the Mean Green prefers to throw it. Michael Lawrence paces the squad with 11 catches for 160 yards and a TD. Jalen Guyton leads the team with 172 yards and two scores on seven receptions. Jaleon Darden has five grabs for 67 yards and a touchdown.
It will be interesting to see how the Hawkeyes defend the four-receiver sets. They prefer the base 4-3 but is getting more comfortable in nickel and dime packages after Iowa State spread them out last week.
“It’s not something where they’re going to out-scheme you or anything. They’re going to do what they do. There’s only so much you can do to try to expose them and they’ve seen it all,” Littrell said.
The North Texas offense has been susceptible to turnovers. SMU scored 21 points off three takeaways last week, which was the difference in the game.
Defensively, the Mean Green and their 3-4 alignment is allowing 34.0 point per game, which ranks 105th nationally. They also yield 379.5 yards per outing.
“We’ve got to be more disciplined. We have to have our eyes in the right spots, make sure our eye discipline is really good because they’re going to pound it, pound it and take some play-action shots. You have to be very disciplined with what you do on the back end. That’s something we really need to work on this week,” Littrell said.
The North Texas coach said his team would be preparing for Kinnick Stadium’s crowd noise, working on non-verbal communication on both sides of the ball. He’s familiar with the environment having coach there with Arizona in 2009 under former Hawkeye Mike Stoops. He played for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and has developed great respect for Ferentz.
“He’s an unbelievable coach. Having played against him, having known him through Coach Stoops, kind of through that Iowa tree. He does an unbelievable job. His teams are always well coached. They’re sound in their schemes and they’re not going to beat themselves. They’re going to play a physical brand of football. They’re going to force you to make competitive plays in order to be in the game with them,” Littrell said.
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SERIES: In 2015, the Hawkeyes defeated North Texas, 62-16, in the teams’ only previous meeting. Iowa is 5-1 all-time against members of Conference USA. The Hawkeyes defeated UTEP, 69-7, in 1986, and are 3-1 all-time against Tulsa.
BETTING LINES: Iowa was listed as a 22-point favorite at the Wynn casino in Las Vegas as of Wednesday morning. VegasInsider.com set the total at 51.5.
-North Texas is 5-1 Against the Spread in its last 6 non-conference games.
-Over is 4-0 in Mean Green’s last 4 games overall.
-Iowa is 4-10-1 ATS in its last 15 home games.
-Under is 4-1 in Hawkeyes’ last 5 non-conference games.
NORTH TEXAS PLAYERS TO WATCH
–Mason Fine, QB – The sophomore is coming off a game during which he completed 32 of 47 passes for 424 yards and three touchdowns. He did also toss two interceptions. He has a 172.4 pass efficiency rating, which ranks 19th nationally.
–Kishawn McClain, S – A second-team All-Conference USA pick last season, McClain led the team in tackles with 91 a year ago. He moves around a lot and his reads will be key for North Texas in trying to slow the Hawkeye attack.
–Jalen Guyton, WR – Fine spreads the ball around but when he’s looking for a big play, Guyton often is on the receiving end. He’s averaging 24.5 yards per catch and leads the team with two scoring grabs.
KEYS TO VICTORY
North Texas: If the Mean Green can’t slow down Iowa’s running attack, it will be a long day.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes should be able to score. The key will be the defense improving against another team that will spread it out and throw the ball.
-North Texas ranks 14th nationally in time of possession, holding the ball for 35:28 per game, which is second-best in C-USA.
-North Texas has posted 53 first downs over the first two weeks, which ranks 16th-best in the country and the most in Conference USA.
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-The Mean Green had six plays through the air of 20-yards or more last week at SMU.
-North Texas Senior kicker Trevor Moore has never missed an extra point. His 110 PATs in a row rank fourth nationally among active players.
-North Texas is 5-0 under head coach Seth Littrell in games where it leads at halftime. Conversely, its is 1-9 when trailing at
-Iowa QB Nate Stanley has eight touchdown passes in his first two career starts, more than any other quarterback in the Kirk Ferentz era. The eight touchdown passes lead the Big Ten and rank third nationally.
-Hawkeye LB Josey Jewell leads the team and ranks third in the Big Ten with 21 tackles. He has lead the team in tackles in each of the last two seasons (126 in 2015, 124 in 2016).
-Iowa RB Akrum Wadley ranks 15th in career rushing yards (336-1,997). He is three yards shy of becoming the 15th player in program history to rush for 2,000 career yards.
-Former Iowa head coach Hayden Fry compiled a 40-23-3 record from 1973-78 at North Texas. Fry left Denton, Texas, for Iowa City, Iowa, in 1979 and won 143 games as the Hawkeyes’ head coach from 1979-1998. Fry is Iowa’s all-time winningest coach (143-89-6).
– Kirk Ferentz teams have finished in the Associated Press top 10 on five occasions, and in four of those seasons the Hawkeyes were led by a first-year starter – Brad Banks in 2002, Nathan Chandler in 2003, Drew Tate in 2004, and C.J. Beathard in 2015.
North Texas – Dr. Phil McGraw
Iowa – Robin Green
HOWE I SEE IT: I want to believe that Iowa will roll to victory in this game. That’s what it’s supposed to do, right?
Then I experience flashbacks to Iowa State slicing through the Hawkeye defense with a pass-heavy, up-tempo offense. I wonder if Iowa will apply a better pass rush and if not how the secondary will hold up. Will we see linebackers on receivers?
The good news is that the North Texas doesn’t offer the same level of skill players as the Cyclones did last week. Iowa also should find more success against the Mean Green offensive line than it did against ISU.
The Hawkeyes will be able to run the ball effectively Saturday. They’ll control the clock and limit North Texas’ offensive plays.
PREDICTION: IOWA 45, North Texas 21.