DENTON, Texas — This was the Battle of Highway 82 all over again. Locust Grove versus Salina. Mason Fine to Jason Pirtle. Easy touchdown. Easy money.
On this night, it was a Locust Grove throwback.
In the 2019 season opener on Saturday night at Apogee Stadium, a 51-31 North Texas victory over Abilene Christian, Fine and Pirtle hooked up three times for three touchdowns in the first half.
Although it was routine for Fine, they were Pirtle’s first career college touchdowns.
It looked like homecoming at Locust Grove’s Leonard Yarborough Stadium.
“People were joking on the sideline about that Locust Grove connection,” Fine told The Franchise after the game. “Maybe it’s back, who knows?”
“I knew I was always capable of it, so getting to do it was great,” Pirtle said. “And obviously having all my teammates around me. I can’t do it without them.”
While Fine during the past three years has blossomed into one of college football’s most prolific quarterbacks, his high school receiver, his Mayes County partner in aeronautics, has patiently waited for his opportunity.
“Yeah, you can’t get frustrated,” Pirtle said. “We work 24/7 all year, so not having any success up ‘til now, it can be frustrating, but you just keep working. It’s more about success for the team. We have some good years coming. Just keep working, and you get your opportunity eventually. Hard work always pays off.”
Fine, now starting his senior season at UNT, set every passing record in Oklahoma high school history, and Pirtle, now a fourth-year junior, set every receiving mark. But Fine was too short, remember, and Pirtle was too slow to play FBS-level college football.
That is, until Seth Littrell was hired at North Texas and gave them their shot.
“I think he’s very competitive,” Littrell said of Pirtle. “He wants to make plays. Yeah, Mason’s made a lot of plays, and I think he’s very happy for Mason. That’s his teammate and I think they’re very close. But he’s very competitive. He wants a role on this team, and he wants to make plays in order to help us win.”
Littrell and his coaching staff have indeed flown in the face of convention in turning Fine into a passing star — he’s thrown for more yards than any other active player in FBS and is regarded as one of the nation’s 10 best college QBs — but it’s been a tougher climb for Pirtle.
He came to UNT as a preferred walk-on, then was put on scholarship after redshirting his first season. Even after that scholarship, however, Pirtle labored down the depth chart behind some of North Texas’ most dynamic receivers ever.
Coming into this season, Pirtle — who caught a state-record 249 passes during in his Locust Grove career, including a then-Oklahoma record 99 as a junior — had but five receptions in college. He hadn’t been in the end zone since the 2015 high school playoffs.
Eventually the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Pirtle added 35 pounds of muscle — 20 in the past year to bulk up to 225 — and switched from wide receiver to tight end.
That’s where he enjoyed his breakout game Saturday night.
“We knew Pirtle’s gonna get some more playing time being a tight end in this new system,” Fine said. “We were actually at the hotel this morning, we’re hotel roommates, and I was like, ‘Hey man,’ I kept giving him crap, ‘You nervous? You nervous?’ I knew he was gonna play a lot more and had some plays designed specifically for the tight end. He went out there and got open and he made it easy on me.”
“Even though he kept bugging me about it, I wasn’t really nervous,” Pirtle said. “Until before kickoff, when I learned Kelvin (Smith) wasn’t gonna go. Like, right as we ran out of the tunnel and I got on the sideline, they told me and I was like, ‘Oh. Well, guess it’s time.’ We’ve been preparing for this, you know?”
On the Mean Green’s first offensive snap, Pirtle filtered through the Wildcat defense and found himself wide open in the secondary. The result was a 32-yard touchdown and an emotional celebration in the end zone. Pirtle bounced around and his teammates practically dogpiled him.
“That was the most tired I’ve ever been,” Pirtle said. “The entire game, I was exhausted after that because everybody was happy for me, and I was trying to celebrate with everybody. But I was tired. That was such a great feeling, honestly, because it’s been such a long time. That felt really good.”
On the second play of the next drive, he ran another sharp route and got behind the defense again, this time for a 17-yard touchdown.
Then in the second quarter, as North Texas was building a 31-0 lead, Pirtle beat his man off the line, cut across the back of the end zone and brought down a contested, 12-yard touchdown.
“After the second and third, I didn’t celebrate quite as hard because I knew I had to go back out there,” Pirtle said. “Yeah, that felt really good. It was nice to have that.”
Late in the third quarter, Pirtle got free down the right sideline for a 27-yard catch, bringing his total to four catches for 88 yards (matching his jersey number) and three TDs.
“I’m just proud of the fact that he’s willing to do whatever it takes for us to be successful,” Littrell said, “and for him to have a role. He did a great job of that.”
Fine finished the night about like he usually does: 28-of-37 for 383 and four touchdowns. It was his 14th career 300-yard passing day, and he took over the school record for most total touchdowns (73) and now stands second in school history in passing TDs (68).
“It was a great feeling to kind of see that Locust Grove connection again,” Fine said. “It was a really cool feeling.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.