NT Tries To Build On Senior-Day Victory
NBC Sports columnist Ben Kercheval's writes about North Texas football each week during football season, only on MeanGreenSports.com.
Ben Kercheval's Mean Green Talk
North Texas beat South Alabama 24-14 on senior day this past Saturday. What does it all mean? Glad you asked...
Senior day is always a special occasion. To get a win cannot be overstated for these players.
This is the second year in a row that North Texas has won on senior day. These are the kind of steps a rebuilding program like NT must take.
It's been tough sledding for South Alabama in its first year as a Division 1-A school and the Sun Belt, being a much better conference than it used to be and certainly better than it's given credit for, hasn't been forgiving to the Jaguars.
Holy big plays, Batman!
Thanks to those big plays, the NT ground game got back on track. Despite having three solid players in the backfield, the Mean Green rushing attack was limited last week against Arkansas State.
NT didn't have many red zone opportunities this week - an area in which the Mean Green have struggled lately - but the offense did better in that part of the field. Executing a two-minute offense to get a touchdown before halftime was a huge momentum swing.
After getting down early 7-0, NT did a good job of shutting South Alabama down for the rest of the game. The Jaguars had no second-half points.
The defense has been this team's strength all season, but Saturday's performance had some of the hardest hits I've seen all year.
Wide receiver Darnell Smith only had two receptions in a game that didn't much of a passing attack, but that was still good enough to be second on the team. He's really stepped up nicely since Brelan Chancellor was lost for the season with a broken collarbone.
On Second Thought
So much of what we've covered here at Mean Green Talk this season has been about building. Building momentum, building a program, but sometimes you just have to look at the present.
Senior day is one of the things that make college football so great. Ties to the program run deep, and when a player's time is done, it's done for good. For almost all of NT's 17 seniors, this is the end of the line as far as their playing days are concerned. If they've made it this far, it means they've likely been playing football for at least a dozen years. That's a lot of two-a-days and a lot of hits. Sure, some will try their luck in the pro game, but others are content to hang up the cleats.
But no one wants their final college home game to end in a loss. For two straight years, that hasn't been a problem under Dan McCarney. As we opined last week at MGT, it's been a frustrating ride at times over the past several years, but there have been positives. Beating South Alabama to end the home schedule on the right note is one of them.
One of the things McCarney has emphasized since coming to Denton is creating a true home field advantage. A few things need to happen for that to work. For one, you have to market aggressively. This is an area where McCarney's done a great job. UNT's students have been targeted early and often. Secondly, you have to give fans the avenue to be supportive. Apogee Stadium is state of the art, but the new parking lot and "Friday night on the hill" tradition gives fans a place to congregate. Finally, and this is the most important part, you have to give people a reason to come back. Back-to-back winning seasons at home helps.
Fans want offense too. They want excitement. Outside of the Louisiana-Lafayette win last month, the Mean Green offense has struggled to produce big plays. Not against the Jaguars. Two of NT's three touchdowns last Saturday came on running plays of 50 yards or more. That's the first time all season that the Mean Green offense has had two plays go the distance from their end of the field in the same game - and without Brelan Chancellor no less.
NT will need more big plays on offense this weekend against Louisiana-Monroe. The Warkhawks are among the most explosive teams in the Sun Belt. If nothing else, the road to a .500 record is still hanging on by the thinnest of threads.
If you had looked ahead to the Louisiana-Monroe game two months ago, it would have been easy to be worried. The Warhawks were one of the most talked about teams in college football after upsetting previously eighth-ranked Arkansas in Little Rock in early September. ULM followed that up with two closes losses to Auburn and Baylor. Had a few things gone differently, ULM could have had three wins against BCS programs in the same season.
So it shouldn't have been a surprise that the Warkhawks won their first four Sun Belt games. Then, quarterback Kolton Browning went down with a foot injury against Louisiana-Lafayette two weeks ago. ULM is 0-2 since. Browning is back on the depth chart after missing last Thursday's loss to Arkansas State, but his playing status is undetermined. Senior Cody Wells has played well filling in for Browning. Wells isn't a big player - he's listed at under 6-feet and 193 pounds - but he's been productive, throwing for well over 500 yards and four touchdowns in significant playing time.
Still, this is an opportunity for NT to take advantage of a sliding team and match last year's win total at the same time. If NT can get five wins, it would be one of Dan McCarney's best coaching jobs considering the youth of this team and the schedule.
But just as we talked about NT's senior day, ULM will be playing its final home game of the season against the Mean Green. There's going to be an added edge there for the Warhawks.
By the Numbers (with the help of NT's Sports Information)
NT had 17 seniors honored on Saturday -- 11 are on scholarship - making NT the eighth-youngest Division 1-A college football team in the country. In fact, 44 percent of this year's team is made up of freshman.
There's something about the third quarter for North Texas' offense. The Mean Green has scored at least a touchdown during the third quarter in six straight games.
Kicker Zach Olen had made six straight field goals before missing a 54-yard attempt against the Jaguars last Saturday.
NT needs just 45 yards to surpass 4,000 yards on offense for the sixth straight year.
NT averaged over 19,000 fans at home games for the fourth time in school history.
Winning helps attendance, and NT finished its home schedule with a 3-2 record. The Mean Green now has consecutive winning records at home since 2003 and '04.
If there was any team worse at third-down conversions than NT, it was South Alabama. Yet the Jaguars went 8-for-20 on third down attempts on Saturday. The Mean Green? Just 2-of-15. Yikes.
Derek Thompson's seven straight 200-yard passing games came to an end against South Alabama; he threw for 106 yards against the Jaguars on 12 completions.
How important are turnovers for NT? In games where the defense has forced and recovered a fumble this year, North Texas is 4-1. In games where the defense hasn't forced and recovered a fumble this year, the Mean Green is 0-5.
ULM is the Sun Belt's top scoring offense at 36.1 points a game. However, NT's defense allows only 26.7 points a game, second-best in the conference.
Ben Kercheval is s 2009 graduate of North Texas and is a writer for and co-manager of the NBC Sports website, CollegeFootballTalk.com.