Brett Vito: Not quite there

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David Minton/DRC
The Mean Green get pumped up before taking the field against University of Houston, Saturday, October 6, 2012, at John O'Quinn Field at Robertson Stadium in Houston, TX.
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Mean Green still has work to do to reach next level

Honesty is something of a rare commodity when it comes to college football.

Ask a coach or a player about the importance of a given game and most of the time one gets the tired old cliché about no single game standing out from another.

In North Texas’ case, it would be easy to fall into the old story that every game offers an opportunity to inch toward the six-win mark and qualify for a bowl, the Mean Green’s goal from Day 1 this year.

Head coach Dan McCarney and the Mean Green didn’t fall into that party-line mode heading into their game at Houston on Saturday night.

They knew better.

So did everyone else.

This wasn’t just another game. This was a big one against a Texas rival and a recruiting rival. Beating Houston would have given the Mean Green a signature victory.

UNT desperately needed some good publicity and something to sell to fans heading into a nationally televised game next week at home against Louisiana-Lafayette.

That set of circumstances are what made a 44-21 pounding at the hands of the Cougars so painful for the Mean Green.

UNT had a big opportunity and blew it.

“We have all these great programs, coaching staffs and tremendous players,” McCarney said of the state of Texas when it comes to college football. “We want to be a part of that instead of being someone that everyone laughs at and kicks around and wants on their schedule and wants for homecoming every year like we have been for a long time.

“We want to be a program that people can be proud of and respect and not be that excited about playing because we are getting better and better.”

UNT has improved since McCarney arrived before last season. No one who is paying attention would dispute that.

A win, or even being competitive against Houston, would have been the evidence UNT really needs to support that assertion to the people who aren’t following along that closely or are being told that isn’t the case.

McCarney has maintained since he arrived in Denton that UNT lacks size, speed and just plain old FBS-level talent.

There’s only one way to change that: bring in highly regarded players, the ones that everyone else wants.

Those players have options. UNT has to convince them that playing for the Mean Green is a better option than Houston or SMU or Rice or UTEP.

About the only way to make that case is to win consistently, something UNT hasn’t done in a long time. The Mean Green had not beaten an FBS-level opponent from Texas since 2006, when UNT stunned SMU at Fouts Field.

“It absolutely takes on added significance,” senior linebacker Jeremy Phillips said of the Houston game last week. “In recent years, North Texas has been at the bottom of the barrel in Texas. It would be nice to start being the Houstons, the SMUs and getting up there.”

UNT has not gotten many shots at wins like that as the only Texas school in the Sun Belt Conference.

UNT played Houston last year and was hammered at home.

The Mean Green’s only shot this season against an in-state FBS school came Saturday night.

It was the same old story.

Houston was up 17-0 in the blink of an eye after scoring on its first three possessions.

UNT didn’t get any closer than 10 points the rest of the night.

Houston just flat had more talent. The Mean Green couldn’t keep up with the Cougars’ wide receivers or match up across the board.

“It looked like we were playing in sand and they were playing on grass,” McCarney said.

UNT had hoped to represent itself better not only because of the significance of playing another Texas team when it comes to recruiting and prestige, but also because of the boost it would have given the program heading into its game against ULL.

A big part of building a program is packing the stands and building a following.

McCarney has done a tremendous job in that regard since he arrived at the school, talking to students, alumni and anyone else who will listen about how he will turn the program around.

There is little doubt UNT could have used the extra boost a win — or even playing well —against Houston would have provided heading into the ULL game.

One has to wonder now what those stands will look like on ESPN2 in one of those rare instances where UNT has a chance to sell its program nationally.

UNT had better pray it doesn’t rain like it did a couple of years ago when it had a chance to win a big home game against Ohio. The Mean Green suffered a crushing double-overtime loss on a miserably cold and rainy night.

What UNT experienced Saturday night had a similar feel.

UNT will have more opportunities to play Texas FBS-level rivals starting next season when it joins Conference USA.

The Houston game was UNT’s only shot this year.

It’s gone now.

There’s no overstating how big a blow that is for UNT.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is bvito@dentonrc.com .


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