North Texas has several of the same players in the same spots when it comes to what was a productive passing offense at the end of last season.
Derek Thompson is back at quarterback. So are Brelan Chancellor, Chris Bynes and Ivan Delgado atreceiver.
So far, that group has struggled to regain the chemistry it once displayed.
Addressing that problem is among the Mean Green’s highest priorities heading into a game at 15th-ranked Kansas State this week.
UNT has struggled to throw the ball in its first two games of the season and ranks last in the Sun Belt Conference in passing yards per game (144.0), passing efficiency (101.8 rating) and completion percentage (42.2).
Those struggles didn’t matter much last week when UNT ran over an overmatched Texas Southern team, and it didn’t make a difference in the Mean Green’s season opener when UNT was outgunned by a national title contender in LSU.
UNT knows those struggles could quickly begin to become costly, though, which is why correcting its problems in the passing game has quickly risen to the top of its to-do list.
“We have good systems, good concepts and good coaches,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “We have to improve, because right now we are dead last in the Sun Belt in passing offense. That is not where we want to be. We don’t have to be No. 1, but we don’t want to be last. We need to have balance and be able to keep people guessing.”
UNT has a more stable situation at quarterback than it has had in years with Thompson, a second-year starter.
The former Glen Rose standout threw for 1,759 yards and 11 touchdowns with only six interceptions in his first full season as a starter in 2011.
Thompson finished the season with a flourish a year ago, throwing for at least 250 yards in three of UNT’s last five games. He threw for 332 yards in a win over Louisiana-Monroe and 331 in a win against Troy in the last half of the season.
So far, Thompson has struggled to regain that form, despite solid protection. He has yet to be sacked this season.
Thompson has thrown for 288 yards, a big chunk of which came on touchdown passes to Chancellor against LSU that covered 80 and 15 yards.
“I know that sometimes it doesn’t look like it right now, but we are a step away,” Thompson said. “The other night there were four or five times when something small happened. We are one step away from making a lot of big plays. That is our emphasis this week, getting back on cue.”
McCarney blamed some of UNT’s struggles on facing LSU to open the season. The Tigers are expected to have one of the nation’s elite defenses and smothered UNT’s wide receivers in a 41-14 win. The Tigers limited UNT to 143 passing yards.
Washington didn’t have any better luck against that same defense in a 41-3 loss LSU last week. The Huskies threw for 157 yards and never reached the end zone.
There were not as many bright spots for UNT in its win over TSU in terms of throwing the ball.
“DT just misfired on some throws,” McCarney said. “He would be the first one to tell you that. He missed on some throws that he makes every day in seven-on-seven and in situational drills.He has made those throws countless times when we were open.”
One way in which UNT will look to adjust this week is finding a way to get Chancellor more involved in the offense again. The junior had four catches for 114 yards against LSU but didn’t have a reception against TSU.
McCarney said that UNT’s coaches talked immediately after the game about how Chancellor wasn’t involved the way the Mean Green needed him to be against TSU.
“Any time you can get the ball in Brelan’s hands, he can make a play,” Thompson said. “We absolutely have to get him the ball.”
UNT’s coaches and players believe they will be able to get back on track by making a few adjustments.
“We didn’t make some of the throws, complete some of the passes or execute like we need to,” McCarney said. “We were not as crisp as we needed to be on some routes. It’s all those things, but we are not looking for a new quarterback, we are not looking for a new system, and I am not looking for a new offensive coordinator or a new wide receivers coach. We know what we have, and we can fix it.”
McCarney praises fans
McCarney praised UNT’s fans — and especially the school’s students — for coming out in droves for the Mean Green’s home opener against Texas Southern.
The crowd of 22,259 fell short of ranking among the top 10 crowds for a UNT home game but was impressive considering the Mean Green played host to a team from the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision.
UNT drew a crowd of 28,075 for its home opener last season against Houston — the first game at Apogee Stadium. Houston brought a large contingent of fans to Denton.
“I appreciate our fans and students who were sensational from the start to the finish,” McCarney said. “When you look up there and see that sea of green with the students across the sideline from the beginning to the end of the game, it gives you hope for the future of this program.”
McCarney has named building a home-field advantage as an important step in the growth of the program.
Pro Football Hall of Famer and former UNT standout “Mean” Joe Greene served as an honorary captain against TSU.
McCarney thanked Greene for not only serving as a captain, but also for speaking to the team before the game.
Linebacker Derek Akunne continued to impress in UNT’s win.
The sophomore led the Mean Green with seven tackles against Texas Southern in his first start of the season at outside linebacker.
Akunne started the last three games of the 2011 season at middle linebacker in place of Zach Orr, who was lost for the year due to injury.
McCarney credited Akunne for showing quickness and a physical approach against TSU.
Akunne could become an even more vital player over the next several weeks due to the rash of injuries UNT has suffered at linebacker. Jeremy Phillips, a starter at outside linebacker, is day-to-day due to injury
McCarney does not reveal the nature of injuries unless they are season-ending.
UNT comes close
UNT posted a key result at home and nearly came up with a huge upset last week.
The Mean Green battled Baylor to a scoreless draw at home and then lost 3-2 to 16th-ranked Long Beach State on a controversial overtime goal.
UNT (5-1-1) came back from a 2-0 deficit against Long Beach State to tie the game on goals from Kelsey Hodges and Karla Pineda to send the game to overtime.
UNT head coach John Hedlund said the Mean Green controlled the game in the extra session until Long Beach State lofted a ball over UNT’s defense. UNT goalkeeper Jackie Kerstine made the initial save on the play, but Nadia Link put the rebound home for the game-winner.
Hedlund said that the Long Beach player who took the initial shot was clearly offside.
“Long Beach was the toughest loss I have ever been a part of since I have been here,” Hedlund said. “They scored a very questionable goal. Everyone thought the kid was offside.
“That would have been our best win ever. We have never beaten a team ranked that high. I am still trying to get over that.”
While that loss was tough to take, Hedlund was happy with the way his team played against Baylor.
“Baylor is a very strong team and will challenge Oklahoma State this year for the Big 12 title,” Hedlund said. “Obviously you want to win, but to tie a team at that level is a good result.”
UNT will get another shot at an upset when it faces seventh-ranked OSU on the road Friday. The Mean Green will play host to TCU on Sunday.
UNT sees positive signs
Ken Murczek wanted his team to be tested in its second home tournament of the year last weekend.
That was just what happened, and for the most part, UNT’s head coach was pleased with the way the Mean Green responded. UNT (9-4) split its four matches, sweeping Oral Roberts to open the weekend before falling to Eastern Michigan and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
UNT then bounced back to sweep Hofstra.
The Mean Green will face Prairie View A&M at home today.
“I was a little worried about how we would respond to losing back-to-back matches for the first time all year,” Murczek said. “We responded well.”
UNT was particularly sharp in the second set of its win over Hofstra, which it won 25-9.
“For 15 or 20 points we played our best volleyball of the season,” Murczek said. “The kids were engaged. It was really fun to see. They saw that they could play at a high level for more than just three or four points.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .