Ben Kercheval's Mean Green Talk
North Texas came from behind to beat Louisiana-Lafayette on Tuesday night, 30-23. What does it all mean? Glad you asked...
Feels pretty good to win a game like that, huh? Go on. Enjoy it. The players and coaches are back to work preparing for Middle Tennessee, but you have another week to savor.
There's simply no way to overstate just how big of a win this was for North Texas with ESPN in the house. Exposure is king in college football and NT hasn't had much of it over the past several years that didn't taste sour.
Props to the student section for showing up and making its presence felt. They knew what was at stake. In time, those students will become alums and fill up the rest of the stadium.
Louisiana-Lafayette is a heck of a team. NT needed to play its best football of the season to have a chance, and it did.
The defense gave up some big plays early, but rebounded and played generally lights-out in the second half. Swarming to the ball has been this team's strength this season.
Specifically, kudos to cornerback Zac Whitfield, who got burned a couple of times in the first half. He came back and played much better after halftime, and forced the eventual game-clinching fumble.
You can point to a dozen things this program needs to continue to improve upon, but there is no doubting its fight.
Okay, enough of the gooey stuff. North Texas still needs to work on its suddenly woeful red zone offense.
I've said before that this team isn't built to come from behind. Tuesday night showed they could, but the game was also never out of hand. Additionally, NT had a handful of explosive plays that had been lacking in the first half of the season.
On Second Thought
Longtime college football analyst Beano Cook passed away last week at the age of 81 after a battle with diabetes and other health issues. Cook, a beloved member of the sports media, was particularly celebrated for his commentary and wit. Perhaps Cook's most famous one-liner came in 1981 when the Iranian Hostage Crisis ended and MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn offered the Americans lifetime passes to major league games. Cook's response? "Haven't they suffered enough?"
To be a North Texas fan is to suffer -- at least that's been the case since I arrived at UNT as a freshman in 2005. Eager to attend Mean Green football games as an undergrad, my only prior knowledge about North Texas football was watching the 2004 New Orleans Bowl (a 31-10 loss to Southern Miss) on TV.
But, because my past life was apparently a sinful one, the football gods determined that my time at NT would coincide with what I referred to as the Dark Ages. Five years. Ten wins. As forgettable as those lean and generally miserable times were, they somehow etched themselves so deep in my psyche that no amount of therapy could ever rid them.
That's what I thought anyway.
Time will determine if Tuesday's win over Louisiana was truly a turning point for this program, but it sure feels like one right now. Last week's Mean Green Talk emphasized how important this game was not only for the exposure, but for swinging momentum in NT's favor to start the second half of the season, which, if you've glanced ahead, is no Easy Street. Middle Tennessee already has a win against Georgia Tech and Louisiana-Monroe was college football's most fascinating story through September thanks to an upset over a previously top-10 team in Arkansas and a pair of close games against Auburn and Baylor.
The road back to a .500 record and a possible bowl berth, which NT has not captured since the '04 season, is difficult, but not out of reach.
Not that anyone's getting ahead of themselves here. To win more key games down the stretch, NT has to play like it did against ULL every week because of the scheduling disadvantage this team faces with only five home games. But what Tuesday showed is that, yes, this team is capable of putting everything together and winning against a favored opponent. The strides have been visible under Dan McCarney, but as the coach said in his post-game press conference, no one notices those improvements if you don't win.
But on Tuesday, a national audience saw Derek Thompson play probably the best game of his career. It saw NT's defense hold one of the top-25 scoring offenses in the country to 15 points below its season average. It saw a highlighted version of what this university has to offer. It saw a mentally tough team come from behind and win a football game. Everything came together at the right time.
Thompson said it best afterward: "We wanted to showcase our university, our team. We were the only game on. We had one shot."
NT took advantage of it. Now, the next step the program needs to take is winning two games in a row. That seems like a reasonable feat until you consider that the Mean Green hasn't done it since '04. Will it happen against Middle Tennessee? That's a steep order, but so was beating ULL.
Like ULL, Middle Tennessee is 4-2 and up near the top of the Sun Belt standings. Unlike Tuesday's game, though, NT will not have the luxury of playing a formidable opponent at home.
However, NT has won the last two games against MTSU, including a 59-7 rout to finish the 2011 season. The Mean Green beat MTSU in Murfreesboro two years ago under then-interim coach Mike Canales. The Blue Raiders went on to win three straight to finish 6-6 and appeared in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
MTSU lost its leading rusher Benny Cunningham to a knee injury he suffered last week against FIU. Cunningham had rushed for 600 yards on the season and went over the 200-yard mark in a game twice. You never want to see any player go down with a season-ending injury like that, but Cunningham was a playmaker and likely would have been a nightmare for NT's defense to try to contain.
By The Numbers (with the help of NT Sports Information)
Before NT's third quarter offensive explosion (by relative standards), the Mean Green had come away with just three touchdowns in the previous 12 trips into the red zone.
Derek Thompson climbed into the top-10 all-time in career passing yards at NT following the Mean Green's game against Houston.
Cornerback Hilbert Jackson's 15-tackle performance against Cougars was not only a career high, it was only the second time since 1999 that a player from the secondary has had 15 tackles in a game.
NT's 524 yards against ULL was the highest total for the offense this season.
The offensive line has allowed only three sacks this season, good enough for fourth-best in the country. Incidentally, all three came against Kansas State. NT allowed no sacks against ULL.
Zach Orr's interception of ULL quarterback Terrance Broadway was only Broadway's second pick of the season. It was also Orr's second pick of the year.
Third down conversions has been a struggle for NT this year. Heading into Tuesday, NT was converting 32 percent of its third downs; against ULL, NT converted 47 percent (9-of-19). Conversely, it held ULL to roughly 33 percent on third downs.
NT hasn't been 2-1 in league play since 2005.
Ben Kercheval is s 2009 graduate of North Texas and is a writer for and co-manager of the NBC Sports website, CollegeFootballTalk.com.