There was a time a few years ago when North Texas would get to this time of the season and once again be the talk of the Sun Belt Conference.
There was 2003, when UNT headed into league play with a shellacking of Baylor on its resume, and 2005 when the Mean Green was riding a 25-game conference winning streak.
UNT doesn’t have the resume it did back then heading into its conference opener against Troy today at Apogee Stadium.
What it does have is a lot of confidence and a belief that its final season in the Sun Belt will be different, despite beginning the league race perceived as an underdog.
UNT will move to Conference USA next season.
“We think we can win the conference, especially with the defense that we have,” UNT defensive tackle Tevinn Cantly said. “We feel like we should have the most dominant defense in the league. We don’t have any weak links like we used to have.”
UNT is out to prove that is the case in a year several other league teams have already posted signature wins.
Louisiana-Monroe is the darling of the league after knocking off eighth-ranked Arkansas and taking Auburn to overtime. Western Kentucky also grabbed attention nationally by beating in-state rival Kentucky.
UNT (1-2) played well at times while facing a tough schedule that included games it dropped against nationally ranked opponents LSU and Kansas State.
Despite solid showings in those games, UNT doesn’t have to carry weight of expectations, not after posting seven straight losing seasons since winning its last conference title in 2004.
UNT knows it will be a challenge to contend in the Sun Belt, but believes it can be a factor this year.
“There is a tremendous pulse of improvement and competition running through this conference right now,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “We are going to do everything we can to be a factor in this race instead of like the last several years when come November the games don’t have a lot of meaning other than survival.”
UNT’s players believe they are capable of hanging in the Sun Belt race largely because of the way they played at times during their nonconference season.
UNT was down only 14-13 in the third quarter of its loss to Kansas State, and Derek Thompson threw a pair of touchdown passes to Brelan Chancellor against LSU.
“We are 0-0,” Thompson said. “That has been the big emphasis. All that matters is starting 1-0 [in Sun Belt play].”
UNT’s hopes to reach that goal could rest largely with Cantly and the rest of the Mean Green’s defense, which will face a monumental challenge against Troy.
The Trojans have featured one of the Sun Belt’s top passing attacks and are rolling once again behind Corey Robinson. The junior leads the Sun Belt with an average 337.3 yards a game.
Troy is averaging 537.7 yards a game.
UNT has struggled against the top two quarterbacks it has faced this season in LSU’s Zach Mettenberger and Kansas State’s Collin Klein. Mettenberger threw for 192 yards and a touchdown while completing 19 of his 26 attempts, while Klein was even better, rolling up 230 yards and two touchdowns while hitting on all but five ofhis 20 attempts.
“We have to make some plays,” UNT safety Lairamie Lee said. “It will be a big challenge with the way they throw it, but I think we will meet that challenge.”
Playing well in the secondary will only be part of that challenge.
UNT didn’t have a sack or even a quarterback hurry last week against Kansas State. UNT will have to put pressure on Robinson, who is more than capable of picking the Mean Green’s secondary apart if he is allowed to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball.
UNT was without starting defensive end Brandon McCoy in its loss to Kansas State, but McCarney said that wasn’t an excuse for the lack of pressure the Mean Green applied.
Cantly said that McCarney has spent extra time with UNT’s defensive line this week and has put in a few of his own drills in the hopes of improving the pass rush.
“You go an entire game and never lay a hand on the quarterback, something’s wrong,” McCarney said. “We had better get that fixed in a hurry. We do that in the Sun Belt, adios to having a real good season.”
That’s especially true with the way some of the other teams in the league are playing, gaining confidence and garnering attention nationally.
ULM coach Todd Berry received a $50 check from a woman in Nashville this week for ULM’s general scholarship fund.
“She was inspired by the way we played at the end of the game against Arkansas,” said Berry, whose team faced Baylor late Friday night. “I’m proud of where we are at, but we still have a long way to go.”
The Sun Belt’s coaches expect the going to be tough for everyone due to the improvement of the teams in the league.
“There is no doubt that it will add intrigue,” WKU head coach Willie Taggart said of the way the Sun Belt’s teams have played early in the season. “We have always said that any team can beat anyone in this conference on any given Saturday or Tuesday or whatever day you play on.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
NORTH TEXAS GAMEDAY
Troy at North Texas
When: 6 p.m.
Where: Apogee Stadium
Records: UNT 1-2, Troy 1-2, 0-1 Sun Belt
Last meeting: UNT 38, Troy 33 (2011)
Last week: No. 15 Kansas State 35, UNT 21; Mississippi State 30, Troy 24
Series: Troy leads, 7-2
Online video streaming: ESPN3
Radio: KHYI-FM 95.3, KNTU-FM 88.1
MEAN GREEN GAMEDAY
Troy (1-2, 0-1 Sun Belt) at North Texas (1-2, 0-0 Sun Belt), 6 p.m., Apogee Stadium
ON THE AIR
Video streaming: ESPN3; Radio: KHYI-FM 95.3, KNTU-FM 88.1
UNT CB Zac Whitfield vs. Troy WR Chip Reeves
Troy features the Sun Belt’s most dangerous passing attack led by quarterback Corey Robinson and a deep corps of wide receivers.
Troy has six receivers with at least nine catches through the first three games of the season, a group led by Chip Reeves. The senior has 19 catches for 241 yards and a touchdown and has already posted a 55-yard reception this season.
All of the Trojans’ receivers are dangerous and with UNT struggling to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, it will be up to the Mean Green’s secondary to blanket them. UNT didn’t have a sack or a quarterback pressure in a loss to Kansas State.
The fact that defensive end Brandon McCoy missed last week’s game and is day-to-day this week won’t help matters. Even if he plays, there is a good chance he won’t be 100 percent.
If there is a player Troy might go after in the secondary, it could be Whitfield. The freshman has played well and already has two interceptions on the season, but he hasn’t gone up against a spread attack and a hurry-up offense like the one Troy will employ today.
How Whitfield and the rest of UNT’s defensive backs fare will go a long way toward determining if the Mean Green can open Sun Belt play with a win
HOW THEY MATCH UP
UNT’s offense vs. Troy’s defense
UNT showed some positive signs offensively early in the season, scoring 34 points in a win over Texas Southern and throwing for 208 yards last week against Kansas State. Quarterback Derek Thompson hit on 25 of his 28 pass attempts against the Wildcats. UNT has also controlled the ball effectively, averaging 33 minutes, 35 seconds of possession time a game.
Troy has allowed at least 29 points in every game it has played this season and is allowing 188.3 rushing yards a game.
UNT’s defense vs. Troy’s offense
Troy leads the Sun Belt Conference in total offense at 537.7 yards a game, an impressive total considering the Trojans have played Mississippi State, defending New Orleans Bowl champion Louisiana-Lafayette and UAB. Corey Robinson leads the Sun Belt in passing at 337.3 yards a game, while Shawn Southward leads the league in rushing at 124.7 yards a game.
UNT played well against Texas Southern, a Football Championship Division opponent, but gave up 41 points in a loss to LSU and 35 in a loss to Kansas State.
Contain Troy’s potent offensive attack
Troy has the ability to get on a roll offensively against just about anyone. The Trojans put up 572 yards of offense last week against Mississippi State and might have pulled off the upset if they hadn’t turned the ball over four times. UNT can’t afford to let Troy get on a roll.
Stay on the field, control the clock
UNT’s biggest strength offensively has been its running game, averaging 191 yards a game. UNT’s goal this week is to stay on the field and give its defense a break against Troy’s hurry-up offense. UNT must attack Troy, which is giving up 188.3 rushing yards a game, on the ground.
Continue winning the turnover battle
UNT is plus-2 in turnover margin this season, which has been critical to its success. Troy has struggled to hang on to the ball and is minus-5 when it comes to turnovers. Turnovers have played key roles in both of Troy’s losses this year. UNT will have to win the turnover battle again today.
Capitalize on the opportunity at home
UNT has a golden opportunity to even its record at 2-2 for the first time since 1997 and jump out to a 1-0 start in Sun Belt Conference play. UNT has a two-game road trip following today’s game followed by a home game against a tough Louisiana-Lafayette team. This is a game UNT needs to win.