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USC reportedly set to remain in Texas Tech family by hiring Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator

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Clay Helton made a masterstroke hire the first time around in securing Kliff Kingsbury‘s services to be the next USC offensive coordinator. He got the top name on the market, one that would import a new offense to the Pac-12 South that also happens to mesh perfectly with the existing talent both inside Heritage Hall and in Southern California high schools.

Turns out, the hire was a little too good, because Kingsbury left six weeks later to become the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

So Helton went out and got, in football parlance, Kingsbury’s younger brother.

North Texas offensive coordinator Graham Harrell is set to become USC’s new offensive coordinator, according to Adam Maya of Trojan Sports.

The Los Angeles Times on Sunday night confirmed through Harrell’s father that the two sides were in negotiations and working toward a deal.

Harrell played quarterback at Texas Tech under current Pac-12 rival Mike Leach. He also forged a brief NFL career — Harrell backed up Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, while Kingsbury briefly did the same for Tom Brady in New England — before jumping into coaching. He spent two seasons as Leach’s outside receivers coach at Washington State before returning to his native Texas as UNT’s offensive coordinator ahead of the 2016 season.

While working alongside Seth Littrell, Harrell has transformed the Mean Green offense in his three seasons in Denton. UNT leaped from 118th nationally in total offense in 2015 — the year prior to Harrell’s arrival — to 20th in 2018. North Texas also went from 124th to 26th in scoring, 119th to 30th in yards per play and 115th to 12th in passing offense.

Mean Green quarterback Mason Fine is on pace to shatter every North Texas passing and total offense record in the book. He’ll have to work similar magic with JT Daniels for Helton and company to stick around in 2020 and beyond. In starting 11 games as a true freshman, Daniels completed 59.5 percent of his 363 passes for 2,672 yards with 14 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. As a point of comparison, Fine connected on 64.6 percent of his 469 throws for 3,793 yards with 27 touchdowns versus five picks. His 291.8 yards per game were ninth nationally, while two Mean Green receivers (Rico Bussey, Jr. and Jalen Guyton) topped the 800-yard mark, something no USC receiver did in 2018.

While no deal is complete as of this writing, it certainly appears headed that way.

Utah State bowls over North Texas in New Mexico

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As if there was ever any doubt, players are more important than coaches in college football. Despite the fact Matt Wells and the majority of his coaching staff bailed early, Utah State rolled over an overmatched and undermanned North Texas team, cruising to a 52-13 win in the New Mexico Bowl presented by Progressive.

The win was a fitting close to one of the best seasons in school history for Utah State. The Aggies (11-2) tied a school record for wins and will likely become the fourth team in school history to finish the season ranked in the AP poll, joining John Ralston‘s 1960-61 teams that went a combined 18-3-1 and former and future head coach Gary Andersen‘s 2012 squad that also went 11-2.

The points started early for the Aggies, finding pay dirt on their third play of the game — a 72-yard strike from Jordan Love to Aaren Vaughns — and ripped off 31 unanswered points over the first and second quarters to break the game open for good.

In addition to the 72-yarder to open the game, Utah State scored touchdowns from 26, 37 and 67 yards in the first half (plus another score on a 10-play, 78-yard drive), as the nation’s No. 3 scoring offense played to its paper throughout the day. Love completed 21-of-43 passes for 361 yards with four touchdowns (plus one rushing) and an interception inside the UNT end zone that robbed him of a sixth score, while Gerold Bright and Darwin Thompson combined to rush 37 times for 196 yards and two touchdowns.

In all, the Aggies rolled up 556 yards of total offense — 360 of them in the first half.

As the score indicates, the game was a complete nightmare for North Texas. The Mean Green entered the game without leading receiver Rico Bussey (1,017 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns) and played the majority of the day without franchise quarterback Mason Fine. Visibly hobbled by a bum hamstring, Fine threw only 12 passes and left the game in the second quarter when he had to limp his way to recover an errant snap — a theme for UNT during the game — near his own goal line.

Fine was replaced by senior backup Quinn Shanbour, who completed 2-of-8 passes for 24 yards with three interceptions. Shanbour was replaced by freshman Jason Bean, whose only completion in his two passes was to Utah State safety DJ Williams, setting up a field goal on the final play of the half that pushed UNT’s deficit to 38-7.

Fellow freshman Kason Martin played the bulk of the second half, and hit Jalen Guyton for a 75-yard touchdown on his first pass. After that throw, Martin went 6-of-11 for 36 yards.

The loss served as a bitter end to a bittersweet season for North Texas. Though the Mean Green (9-4) increased or matched their win total for the third time in as many seasons under Seth Littrell, North Texas saw three double-digit leads turn into losses and then closed with a second consecutive bowl loss in which the opponent hit half a hundred, following a 50-30 loss to Troy in the 2017 New Orleans Bowl.

Utah State all over North Texas in New Mexico Bowl

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Utah State is without head coach Matt Wells and six of his assistant coaches, but quarterback Jordan Love, running back Gerold Bright and the rest of the Aggies players are still in uniform, and that has proven more than enough so far at the New Mexico Bowl. Utah State leads North Texas 38-7 at the half in Albuquerque.

Love completed 13-of-26 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns while Bright carried seven times for 59 yards and a touchdown, allowing the Aggies to roll up 360 yards of total offense in the half.

The Aggies offense started rolling early. On a 3rd-and-7 on the game’s opening possession, Love found Aeren Vaughns for a 72-yard touchdown toss.

After two punts and a North Texas score, Utah State started in UNT territory after a 48-yard kickoff return, and five plays later Bright strolled in untouched for a 26-yard touchdown run.

Most of Utah State’s scores came via explosive plays. Love again found Vaughns, this time from 37 yards out, to put the Aggies up 28-7, and then hit Jalen Greene for an easy 67-yard pitch-and-catch score to push the lead to 35-7 at the 8:55 mark of the second quarter.

While Utah State’s offense did anything and everything it wanted, the UNT offense sputtered without its two most important players. The Mean Green entered the game without leading receiver Rico Bussey (68 catches for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns) and played most of the game without quarterback Mason Fine. He was visibly hobbled by a hamstring issue and left the game for good when he could not run after an errant snap — a theme for the Mean Green — sailed over his head.

Senior backup Quinn Shanbour replaced Fine and went 2-of-7 for 24 yards and two interceptions, and he was replaced by freshman Jason Bean, whose second pass was intercepted and returned 31 yards by Utah State’s DJ Williams to the UNT 48-yard line.

That final pick led to yet another Utah State score, a 42-yard Dominik Eberle field goal as time expired in the first half.

Fine did manage to engineer one North Texas scoring drive. Aided by two Utah State personal fouls, the Mean Green moved 78 yards in 10 plays to tie the score at 7-7 at the 2:52 mark of the first quarter.

Barring a miraculous turnaround, that will go down as the highpoint of the day for the Mean Green.

Biletnikoff Award watch list highlighted by 2017 finalist David Sills

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You know how I know we’re getting closer to the start of a new season?  Yet another watch list.

The latest to release theirs is the Biletnikoff Award, with the honor going to the nation’s top receiver issuing a list consisting of 50 players from all nine FBS conferences as well as one independent (UMass).  Headlining this year’s preseason list is West Virginia’s David Sills, who was a finalist for the 2017 award claimed by Oklahoma State’s James Washington.  One other 2017 semifinalist is included as well, Ole Miss’ A.J. Brown.

A total of seven teams placed two receivers each on the watch list: Cal (Kanawai Noa, Vic Wharton III), Louisville (Dez Fitzpatrick, Jaylen Smith), Nebraska (Stanley Morgan Jr., JD Spielman), North Texas (Jalen Guyton, Michael Lawrence), Oklahoma (Marquise Brown, CeeDee Lamb), Toledo (Diontae Johnson, Cody Thompson) and West Virginia (Gary Jennings Jr., Sills).

Three conferences totaled seven players apiece, the ACC, Big 12 and MAC.  That trio is followed by five each from Conference USA and four apiece for the AAC, Pac-12 and Sun Belt.  The Big Ten and Mountain West each placed three.

Below is the complete list of 2018 Biletnikoff Award preseason watch listers:

JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Stanford
Tyre Brady, Marshall
A.J. Brown, Ole Miss
Marquise Brown, Oklahoma
Trevon Brown, East Carolina
Ryan Davis, Auburn
Greg Dortch, Wake Forest
Terren Encalade, Tulane
Dez Fitzpatrick, Louisville
James Gardner, Miami-Ohio
Jonathan Giles, LSU
Marcus Green, ULM
Jalen Guyton, North Texas
Emanuel Hall, Missouri
Justin Hall, Ball State
Kelvin Harmon, North Carolina State
N’Keal Harry, Arizona State
Penny Hart, Georgia State
Justin Hobbs, Tulsa
Andy Isabella, Massachusetts
Gary Jennings Jr., West Virginia
Anthony Johnson, Buffalo
Collin Johnson, Texas
Diontae Johnson, Toledo
KeeSean Johnson, Fresno State
CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
Michael Lawrence, North Texas
Ty Lee Middle, Tennessee
McLane Mannix, Nevada
Scott Miller, Bowling Green
Denzel Mims, Baylor
Stanley Morgan Jr., Nebraska
Kanawai Noa, California
James Proche, SMU
T.J. Rahming, Duke
Ahmmon Richards, Miami
Deebo Samuel, South Carolina
David Sills V, West Virginia
Steven Sims Jr., Kansas
Jaylen Smith, Louisville
Kwadarrius Smith, Akron
JD Spielman, Nebraska
Cody Thompson, Toledo
John Ursua, Hawaii
Teddy Veal, Louisiana Tech
Jamarius Way, South Alabama
Nick Westbrook, Indiana
Vic Wharton III, California
Malcolm Williams, Coastal Carolina
Olamide Zaccheaus, Virginia

Troy makes Big Easy work of North Texas in New Orleans Bowl

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Troy jumped out to a big lead early, watched it dwindle to two points by halftime, then jumped out to another large lead to begin the second half and held onto it this time, exploding for a 50-30 win over North Texas in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

After watching a potential 29-7 lead in the second quarter turn into a 22-20 lead with North Texas getting the ball to open the second half, Troy intercepted North Texas quarterback Mason Fine at the Mean Green 27, which Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers capitalized on by hitting Damion Willis for a 24-yard fade and then scored one play later on a 1-yard keeper, giving Troy a 29-20 lead at the 13:33 mark of the third quarter.

The Trojans forced a three-and-out on UNT’s next drive, then moved 92 yards in just five plays, scoring on a 59-yard strike from Silvers to Tevaris McCormick. North Texas attempted to climb back in the game with a 13-play march, but Fine was sacked on a 3rd-and-3 play from the Troy 6-yard line and Mean Green head coach Seth Littrell elected for a 24-yard Trevor Moore field goal rather than a do-or-die fourth-down conversion, pulling the score to 36-23 at the 4:26 mark of the third quarter.

North Texas forced a three-and-out and accepted the ball at its own 33 with a chance to climb back in the game, but Tyler Murray effectively ended it by sacking Fine and forcing his third turnover inside UNT territory. The Trojans hopped on the ball at the Mean Green 13 and, after a penalty, scored on a 20-yard strike from Silvers (24-of-31 for 306 yards) to John Johnson, putting the game out of reach at 43-23 with 2:02 left in the third quarter.

The dagger came when North Texas coughed up its fourth minus-territory turnover of the game, a Michael Lawrence fumble at the UNT 47, and Silvers hit Willis for his fourth passing touchdown of the game and fifth total score, a 10-yard strike with 4:07 left in the game.

Fine completed the scoring with a 17-yard cosmetic touchdown pass to Turner Smiley with 28 seconds left. The Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, Fine completed 30-of-54 passes for 303 yards with three touchdowns while getting sacked six times and turning the ball over four times. Playing without leading rusher Jeffrey Wilson, North Texas mustered only 50 yards on running plays. Overall, Troy won the turnover battle 5-2 and out-gained the Mean Green 437-295.

The win allows Troy to conclude its best season since joining the Sun Belt in 2004. The Trojans claimed their first SBC crown since 2009, won their fourth bowl game ever and registered their first 11-win season since doing so as an FCS member in 1999. North Texas (9-5) dropped to 1-4 in its five New Orleans Bowl appearances, slunk to 2-7 all-time in bowl games, missed a shot at its first 10-win season since 1947 and fell to 2-9 all-time against Troy.

Troy accepted the ball to open the game and promptly rolled 80 yards in nine plays, capped by a 1-yard Josh Anderson scoring run. The Trojans immediately pushed the lead to two scores when North Texas quarterback Fine was sacked and fumbled at his own 14, setting up Anderson’s second touchdown run of the first half of the first quarter. Silvers hit Johnson for a 2-point conversion to stake the Trojans to a 15-0 lead at the 9:21 mark of the opening frame.

The Mean Green went three-and-out on their next possession but, facing the prospect of getting buried for the game in just the first quarter, the North Texas defense rose up when Joshua Wheeler sacked Silvers on third down at the Troy 39. The UNT offense awoke with an 11-play, 75-yard drive culminating in a 12-yard pass from Fine to Rico Bussey, Jr.

Anderson immediately responded with a 55-yard run on the final play of the first quarter, and Silvers completed the drive four plays later with a 7-yard strike to Willis at the 14:24 mark of the second quarter. North Texas attempted to return service with another touchdown, but Fine under-threw a wide open Bussey on 3rd-and-2 from the Troy 31 and his fourth down pass to Michael Lawrence was dropped.

Troy threatened to push its lead to three touchdowns on its next drive, moving to the North Texas 22, when disaster struck — a snap went over Silvers’s head and was scooped up by the Mean Green’s Colton McDonald, who returned the loose pigskin 56 yards for a touchdown. Fine’s 2-point conversion rush failed, but North Texas was still within 22-13 with 5:49 left in the first half.

North Texas had a golden opportunity to pull within one score of the Trojans when Kishawn McClain intercepted Silvers at the UNT 46 on Troy’s first play of the ensuing possession, but the Mean Green were forced to punt after just one first down.

But North Texas forced its third straight stop, this drive ended by another Wheeler sack, and Fine capitalized with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Lawrence with 49 seconds left before the break to pull the Mean Green within two.