Johnny Quinn was on the turf at Apogee Stadium on Saturday night, in front of the fans he amazed for years with highlight-reel catches in one of the great eras in program history.
The North Texas Hall of Fame wide receiver served as an honorary captain — and an unintentional reminder of the glaring hole the Mean Green has in its lineup without a couple of players of his caliber.
UNT managed only one touchdown on a long pass to Brelan Chancellor in a 14-7 loss to Troy in its Sun Belt Conference opener after Quinn shuffled off to the sideline.
The Mean Green had a lot to regret after falling to 1-3, starting with its special teams, which continue to be far from special — and more like a complete disaster.
UNT missed three field goals, including one by the backup, a guy named Zach Paul no one had heard of before he choked on a 27-yard chip shot. Zach Olen missed from 47 and 40 yards.
That’s nine points in a seven-point loss.
The kicking game is far from UNT’s only problem, though.
The further we get into this season, the more obvious it becomes that UNT just flat lacks play-making talent, the kind that Quinn provided while UNT went to two bowl games during his career that spanned from 2003-06, a time that seems so long ago now.
Chancellor is a really good all-around Sun Belt player and maybe the only all-conference caliber skill-position player UNT has this year. Antoinne Jimmerson could be a future star but isn’t there yet. Brandin Byrd and Ivan Delgado, who had a career night with six catches for 126 yards, are both solid Sun Belt-level players but have not shown they are at an elite level in the league.
When quarterback Derek Thompson is on, he can be effective. He was great against Kansas State.
Somehow that host of solid, but not elite, Sun Belt talent isn’t producing.
Thompson was the consummate leader after the game and shouldered some of the blame.
“I missed some throws this week, that’s what it comes down to,” the second-year starter said. “I didn’t make some throws that I usually make. The receivers did a good of helping me out sometimes and the offensive line did a great job protecting me. I was only pressured a couple of times and that was it. I have to get better. It starts with me as the captain of the offense.”
Thompson’s off night certainly was a problem, but it wasn’t the whole problem.
UNT essentially had four effective offensive weapons in Jimmerson, Byrd, Chancellor and Delgado.
And none dominated the way Quinn or running back Lance Dunbar — last year’s star — did on so many occasions.
But it comes down to getting in the end zone, and UNT hasn’t done that consistently all year outside of a blowout win over Texas Southern, a guaranteed win if there ever was one.
UNT had a couple of long pass plays against Troy, but outside of a 50-yard touchdown grab by Chancellor, no one made the big play to get the Mean Green back in the end zone.
It’s been a season-long issue.
Chancellor had two touchdown grabs against LSU, the only time UNT got into the end zone in a 41-14 loss. He also had a 6-yard touchdown run and a 19-yard touchdown catch in a 35-21 loss against Kansas State.
Throw out the game against TSU and Chancellor has scored five of UNT’s six touchdowns in three games against Football Bowl Subdivision competition.
Jimmerson and Byrd have been solid but neither has posted a breakout game or gone over 100 yards against anyone other than TSU.
UNT still managed to move the ball against Troy but didn’t cash in on five trips inside the Trojans’ 30-yard line.
UNT didn’t have anyone make a play.
“We moved the ball all over the place,” Thompson said. “When we get into the red zone, we have to score.”
That’s the challenge.
UNT has to find a way to get there without the headline skill-position players outside of Chancellor, who every team knows it needs to follow everywhere.
UNT offensive coordinator Mike Canales pulled out every trick play in the book and once again had the Mean Green in position to capitalize when tight end Drew Miller was open in the end zone on a throw-back pass.
Thompson just missed him.
It’s pretty clear UNT is going to have to keep going down the same road this season, trying to use smoke and mirrors unless the team’s staff decides to tear the redshirt off a freshman or two, or a few of the players on the field start finding the end zone.
Outside of Chancellor, there are just not that many dynamic playmakers out there.
There aren’t too many players UNT is using offensively at all.
Troy had seven players catch multiple passes and four players average at least 4.0 yards per rushing attempt. UNT had two in either category, and that is counting Chancellor in both.
UNT head coach Dan McCarney said his team will head back to the drawing board today.
When they get there, the Mean Green won’t like what it sees. Four games into the season, UNT has one win, and that was over an FCS team.
The Mean Green has a chance to recover during a two-game road trip to face struggling teams at Florida Atlantic and Houston.
“We do have two thirds of a season left out there,” McCarney said. “There are a lot of opportunities out there. How we handle a setback like this and that adversity will be a real measure of where we go with this football team.”
One just has to wonder how far McCarney can take a team with so few playmakers along the line of Quinn at his disposal.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .