Ben Kercheval's Mean Green Talk
(Writer's note: In last week's installment of Mean Green Talk, I said that North Texas would be playing on the road at Troy. Obviously, it was the other way around. Apologies for the mix up. I'll try to do better next time at knowing what I'm talking about, which is right now, actually.)
Of North Texas' three losses this season, this one definitely hurt the most.
Special teams, man. It'll get you every single time.
There were, however, a lot of things NT did right in this game, probably more than most realize (or maybe want to realize).
For one, NT's defense again did a good job of pursuing and swarming to the ball. Nice interception by linebacker Zach Orr too.
Despite the scoring struggles, the offense is beginning to jell. Antoinne Jimmerson and Brandin Byrd have become a good running back duo, and Ivan Delgado continues to compliment Brelan Chancellor at receiver. The O-line continues to do a good job up front in run blocking. It's not flashy, but it's an identity.
I loved the pair of double-pass trick plays called by Mike Canales; they just weren't executed like they needed to be.
Speaking of offense, Troy did a great job of getting the ball out quickly.
That final offensive possession by Troy to score before halftime was demoralizing.
NT isn't a bad team - far from it -- but they're right in that gray area where wins and losses can come down to a handful of plays.
On Second Thought
The name Kyle Brotzman might not ring a bell to the average college football fan, but his situation is one to which North Texas can relate.
Brotzman graduated from Boise State University following the 2010 season as the school's all-time leading scorer while holding the record for the most points scored in NCAA history by a Division 1 kicker. In the 2010 Fiesta Bowl against TCU, Brotzman was asked to throw a pass on a fake punt, which he completed. Boise State would go on to score the eventual game-winning touchdown on that very drive.
But Brotzman also missed two field goals in a 2010 34-31 overtime loss to Nevada that knocked the then fourth-ranked Broncos out of the BCS championship picture. It's that night for which Brotzman, who was as decorated as any special teams player in the country, will be remembered.
All because he had one bad night.
Just two weeks ago, Penn State place kicker Sam Ficken missed four - four - field goals and had an extra point blocked in a crushing 17-16 loss to Virginia. The NIttany Lions, clobbered by NCAA sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and subsequent Freeh report, couldn't buy a break at a discount.
There are few guarantees in football, but here's one of 'em: no one wanted to be Brotzman or Ficken on those days. Likewise, as bad as North Texas fans feel about Saturday's loss, as frustrated as this program must be right now sitting at 1-3, few people probably felt worse than kickers Zach Olen and Zach Paul.
That's what every fan needs to understand after a tough loss. Sometimes, it's just not your day. It happens.
It's easy to point the finger at NT's kicking game because, well, kickers are easy targets. They have one job to do, and as the old adage goes, no one knows the kicker's name until the game is on the line. But the fact is the Mean Green had ample opportunities to finish drives inside the 30-yard line and simply couldn't get it done. Rarely does a team win playing 70 yards of good football.
The stunning part of it all is the offense's inability to finish drives Saturday was an anomaly. NT's red zone efficiency has been fantastic this season at just under 91 percent heading into Saturday's game (10-of-11 conversions). But, miss a few field goals and the pressure turns to the offense to convert fourth downs. NT was 1-of-3 on the night in that category.
As a general rule, I don't believe in the excuse that your team, not the opponent, was responsible for losing (i.e. "They didn't beat us, we beat ourselves") because it discredits the preparation an opponent put toward the game. Like NT, Troy practiced the same number of hours during the week and prepared just as hard to win. The missed field goals are impossible to ignore, and there were self-inflicted gun shots to be sure, but a 50-yard touchdown pass from Derek Thompson to Chancellor in the first quarter showed NT's offense was plenty capable of scoring points in a big way. Besides, North Texas moved the ball all night on Troy's defense without so much as a single turnover.
But, when it mattered most, Troy's defense bowed up and held.
The past two weeks showed you can't underestimate the need for a good kicking game, but ideally it's something you would rather have in the back pocket. In other words, you could look back on Saturday's game and point to a number of things - perhaps as few as a handful, or as many as a dozen - that could have gone differently. That's the nature of close games.
And when you're a young, relatively inexperienced team like North Texas, those close games more often result in teachable moments rather than wins.
NT had the chance to record a solid win against Troy, but the Mean Green would gladly take one against, say, Florida Atlantic (or, FAU, as I believe they prefer to be called). If nothing else, a win over the Owls this Saturday would give NT its first road win of the season, and with only five home games, this team needs to grab a few of those on the road if it wants to think about bowl eligibility.
FAU may be in its first year under Carl Pelini, formerly an assistant for his brother Bo Pelini at Nebraska, but there's no confidence lacking in Boca Raton. FAU defensive end Cory Henry even went on the record last week saying Alabama, the No. 1 team in the nation, can be beat.
"They ain't what people think," Henry said to the Palm Beach Post last week. "They're good and everything but they can [be] beat, too. They just execute well. They just execute and beat you."
While that may be true, it wasn't the Owls who toppled the Tide - Alabama won 40-7 - but FAU did score a touchdown, ending a two-game shutout streak for Alabama's defense.
So, there's that.
FAU also has one win on the season (against Wagner, 7-3). If NT plays like it did against Troy without the special teams miscues, this is absolutely a win.
By The Numbers (with the help of North Texas sports information)
Troy's average third down distance to go was about five yards; NT's was about eight to nine. That's about all you need to know.
Ironically enough, two of Troy's third-and-10 conversions went for touchdowns.
NT's defense forced six three-and-outs in the first half against the Trojans compared to one in the second half.
In two previous games against Troy, NT's defense gave up an average of 43 points. NT gave up 14 in Saturday's loss.
NT ranked 14th in the nation in red zone defense heading into last Saturday's game against Troy.
North Texas' 353 total yards against Kansas State was the most against a Big 12 school on the road since racking up 507 yards against Colorado in 2004.
In 20 of the last 21 games, North Texas has forced at least one turnover.
With FAU and NT ranking at 121 and 111, respectively, Saturday's match could be another defensive struggle.
Ben Kercheval is s 2009 graduate of North Texas and is a writer for and co-manager of the NBC Sports website, CollegeFootballTalk.com.