NT Survives FAU, Looks To Houston

Ben Kercheval's Mean Green Talk

Ben Kercheval
Ben Kercheval

North Texas survived FAU on Saturday, 20-14. What does it all mean? Glad you asked...

First Impressions

 NT's schedule is almost unfairly difficult this year, so 2-3 is not a terrible place to be coming up on the halfway point of the season.

 It doesn't always look fancy, but to steal a line from Dan McCarney earlier this season, "We'll take a win every time."

 For better or worse, this team is sticking to a grind-it-out, pound-the-rock approach. It just didn't work in terms of yardage this time around.

 But when you're talking about an entire game plan, this was how NT wants to approach every game.

 Not in the game plan was allowing FAU to swing momentum in a tight game by scoring immediately after a NT touchdown. For as improved as the defense has been, allowing an opponent to respond right away has been a bad habit this year.

 How about some props for kicker Zach Olen, who rebounded from two missed field goals against Troy to make a pair against the Owls.

 Getting pressure on FAU's quarterback was almost too easy at times. Red Zone defense was impressive too.

 Remember when defense was a liability just a few years ago?

 You have to commend FAU for making solid halftime adjustments. They took the ball out of Graham Wilbert's hands and let running back Damian Fortner do what he does best in the Wildcat formation.

On Second Thought

An average Mean Green Talk column is about 1,200-1,300 words. Multiply that by 12 games and I'm using about 15,000 words over the course of a season to (attempt to) break down the good and the not so good when it comes to everything North Texas football.

The job of a sports writer is complex like that because we tend to overthink things as we look for reasons behind, well, everything. For McCarney and Co., it's much simpler. Just establish an identity. Know who you are and what you do well, and stick with it. Of all the words typed about this 2012 Mean Green team, the following might be the most pertinent:

Good or bad, this team knows who it is, what it values, what it can (and can't) do and it will keep doing it every game thank you very much.

When Todd Dodge was hired six years ago to revive a struggling program, the idea was to take a page from the books of Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. Spread offenses scoring 40 points a game were erupting around college football, especially in Big 12 territory, and North Texas wanted in on the fun. While the Dodge era proved to be unsuccessful, that was the identity NT chose for itself.

Things are a bit different under McCarney. Great coaches adapt their playbooks based on the personnel they have at their disposal, but McCarney and offensive coordinator Mike Canales have employed a more pro-style approach to the offense. After five games, it's clear - beyond clear, really - they're content committing to the run as the cornerstone for moving the ball.

It's a K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, stupid) approach. Run the ball to open up the pass, control the clock, play fundamentally sound defense, don't hurt yourself with penalties and don't play from behind. This is all admittedly cliché - something we try to avoid here at MGT when possible -- because this is what every team tries to do more or less, but this is NT's approach right now.

It's what happens when you have a young team.  

It's not sexy and it's not what a lot of Texas high schools run, but it's what NT is committed to doing. Sometimes, it works out great. NT ran all over Texas Southern in Week 2 and was able to establish a solid run games against Kansas State and Troy. Sometimes, it doesn't work. The Mean Green had just 56 yards on 30 rushing attempts Saturday against FAU.

NT made no mystery about what it wanted to do. And FAU knew that. And NT knew that FAU knew that. And we all knew that NT knew that FAU knew that. On 21 first downs, NT called a run more than two-thirds of the time. So the Owls loaded the box and generally won the battle upfront on first and second down.

There was one time the Owls didn't. On a 68-yard touchdown pass from Derek Thompson to Brelan Chancellor, FAU showed a Cover 0 - basically where both safeties are brought up into the box, forcing corners to play man coverage with receivers. Put Chancellor one-on-one with just about any corner in the Sun Belt and you have to like your chances. Thompson made a better throw against what was honestly solid coverage and Chancellor did the rest.

That's one advantage of leaning on the run. One disadvantage is 1.9 yards per rushing attempt. It was a Charles Dickens "best of times, worst of times" sort of day.

Looking Ahead

Talk about your reversal of fortune. Not even a year removed from a 13-win season on the arm of the most prolific passer in school history, Case Keenum, Houston has fallen out of the gate in 2012. Last Saturday's 35-14 win over Rice was the Cougars' first win of the year. Tony Levine, who succeeded new Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, has already had to fire - excuse me, "accept the resignation of" - his offensive coordinator, Mike Nesbitt.

Houston's defense isn't much better, allowing just over 34 points again. That's good enough to rank among the 20 worst teams in points allowed this season, and offense at UH isn't nearly as explosive as it has been in recent years.

NT kept it close for one half against Houston last season before eventually losing 48-23 in the first game at Apogee Stadium. Traveling to Houston this time gives the Mean Green an opportunity for its first marquee win of the season. That's strange to think about given Houston's 1-3 record, but the Sun Belt competes directly with Conference USA. Of course, none of that is going to mean much for NT starting in 2013. The Mean Green will move to C-USA while UH will move on to the Big East, but going on the road to beat a rising brand name like Houston would do wonders for NT's confidence heading into the heart of conference play.

By The Numbers (with the help of North Texas sports information)

 NT is 2-3 after five games for only the third time since 1997.

 The Mean Green defense has forced eight turnovers this year. The three turnovers NT forced against FAU was the second-most in a game this season.

 Keeping with the defense, the 113 total points allowed through the first five games of the season is the fewest through that span since 2002, when NT allowed 80 points through five games.

 Third time has not been the charm. Heading into Saturday's game, NT was only converting 33 percent of its third down chances. Against FAU, NT converted just 21 percent.

 Heading into Saturday, North Texas ranked third in the Sun Belt in rushing yards (191 yards/game); FAU ranked last in rushing defense (252.5 yards allowed).

Ben Kercheval is s 2009 graduate of North Texas and is a writer for and co-manager of the NBC Sports website, CollegeFootballTalk.com.

Previous Ben Kercheval Columns
Week 1 - LSU (9/4/11)
Week 2 - Texas Southern (9/10/12)
Week 3 - Kansas State (9/17/12)
Week 4- Troy (9/26/12)



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