Ben Kercheval's Mean Green Talk
|Ben Kercheval |
North Texas lost to Middle Tennessee 38-21 on Saturday. What does it all mean? Glad you asked...
Let's make one thing abundantly clear: Middle Tennessee is a fine football team that's going to have a chance to make a bowl game this season. The Blue Raiders defeated Georgia Tech earlier this year. Granted, the Yellow Jackets stink something fierce, but wins over BCS teams are considered major accomplishments for the Sun Belt.
The Blue Raiders have some great athletes. They'll pose match-up issues in their final four games this year.
Now that I'm done slobbering over Middle Tennessee, I'll cry over Brelan Chancellor. Losing him for the season with a broken collarbone is disheartening, and it happened on the first offensive play too. Ouch.
When you lose a guy like Chancellor, your playbook suddenly gets a lot smaller.
NT needed to ride the momentum from the Louisiana win into a tough final stretch of the year. It didn't.
One of the things NT did well against ULL last week was run the ball well in space. The Mean Green had a hard time done that on Saturday. Great discipline on MTSU's part.
Again, this team isn't built to come from behind. Losing 24-0 at the half feels insurmountable.
NT's defense played uncharacteristically out-of-place and did not tackle well at times - and it cost 'em.
The scary part is that things aren't getting easier in November.
On Second Thought
Well, that was unexpected.
If you want to talk highs and lows, NT just went from Everest to Death Valley in a matter of 11 days. Beating ULL in dramatic fashion on national television was the best win for this program since beating Baylor 52-14 in 2003. To turn right around and come out that flat against Middle Tennessee is disappointing.
And it's not just about the final box score. NT executed its game plan almost perfectly in the second half against the Ragin' Cajuns last week - it was the most complete this team looked all season on both sides of the ball - so to regress a week later was tough to watch. Even if Saturday's game was to result in a loss anyway, the proverbial light looked like it came on against ULL. At some point after, a fuse apparently shorted.
It didn't help that Chancellor was hurt on the first offensive play of the game. He's the most explosive and versatile player this Mean Green offense has at its disposal. To lose him not only hurts your scoring efforts, it limits what Mike Canales can use in his playbook. Having Chancellor is like being given a $1,000 for a shopping spree - it's yours to do with it as you please.
As lucky as NT is to have Chancellor, injuries - especially season-ending ones - are about the unluckiest thing to plague a team. There's no rhyme or reason behind them, and despite preventative efforts, there's usually nothing you can do to avoid them. Lose a key player and a season can change *snaps* like that.
Speaking of season-changing, NT enters a defining stretch in which the Mean Green will face the three teams currently atop the Sun Belt. Arkansas State visits Apogee Stadium this Saturday before the final game of the year at home against South Alabama on November 10. NT then hits the road against Louisiana-Monroe and Western Kentucky to end the season.
Brutal. Utterly brutal. I mean, that has to be illegal in at least 10 states.
When NT toppled ULL last week, there was a buzz that perhaps the Mean Green could get back to six wins and bowl eligibility for the first time since 2004. But Saturday was a sobering reminder that getting back to .500 meant this team had to continue to play its best football and get a couple of things to go its way in the process. Neither of those happened against Middle Tennessee. In fact, the opposite happened. Granted, those goals aren't out of reach yet, but margin of error is becoming significantly smaller.
Dan McCarney and his coaching staff won't be talking bowl games, though. They'll be talking here and now, and what NT has to do this week to be successful against the Red Wolves. The good news is that this team has already shown it can put the pieces together to be successful. It's not like NT has yet to see any visual proof that things are moving in the right direction. The ULL win might seem long ago now after Saturday's loss, but it's not. There's confidence that McCarney can point to in preparation this week. Now it's about executing again.
As for the hole left by Chancellor? Someone's going to have to step up and make plays, perhaps running back Antoinne Jimmerson.
Arkansas State is in its first season under former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and he's brought all the excitement of his high-scoring offense from The Plains with him to Jonesboro. The Red Wolves are averaging just under 34 points a game this season. If any of you watched Arkansas State this past Tuesday against ULL, you know just how explosive this team can be. Like Middle Tennessee, ASU has no shortage of athletes.
If you haven't seen ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin, you're missing out on one of the most exciting guys to watch in the Sun Belt. Tennessee transfer David Oku already has eight rushing touchdowns on the season.
The pressure is once again going to be on NT's defense to lock down the skill guys ASU has on offense. The Mean Green will need a big day out of its secondary and guys like Marcus Trice. With Chancellor out, NT needs to do a good job of keeping this game close. If ASU gets out to a big lead like MTSU did this past weekend, the outcome won't differ too much.
By The Numbers (with the help of NT's Sports Information)
North Texas still leads the all-time series against Middle Tennessee 7-5
Derek Thompson's 221 yards against MTSU gives him six straight games with at least 200 yards passing.
Thompson's three interceptions, however, were a season-high in a single game.
Middle Tennessee won the turnover battle 4-0.
How important were explosive plays for Middle Tennessee? NT actually held on to the ball five minutes longer than the Blue Raiders in time of possession Saturday.
MTSU quarterback Logan Kilgore's 45-yard touchdown run was his longest run of the year.
I'm a bit behind on this one, but North Texas got its first win under Dan McCarney when trailing at halftime against ULL.
Zach Orr's Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Week honor after the ULL game was the first time a NT defender won the award since Craig Robinson, now with the Cleveland Browns, in 2009.
Ben Kercheval is s 2009 graduate of North Texas and is a writer for and co-manager of the NBC Sports website, CollegeFootballTalk.com.