When it comes to teams in the Sun Belt Conference, no one does a better job of stopping opponents’ running games than Louisiana-Lafayette.
Just ask North Texas head coach Dan McCarney.
“They are very strong and physical up front,” McCarney said of ULL this week. “You don’t see anyone knocking those guys off the ball. That’s where it starts for them.”
It’s also what could make UNT’s game against the Ragin’ Cajuns on Tuesday night at Apogee Stadium all the more intriguing from a matchup standpoint.
UNT prides itself — and depends largely — on its ability to run the ball behind an offensive line that McCarney and his players list as the team’s biggest strength.
How that unit fares against ULL’s front seven will go a long way toward determining whether the Mean Green can bounce back from a demoralizing blowout loss at Houston and jump into the Sun Belt title chase.
UNT (2-4) is 1-1 in league play and holding on to the hope that it can make a run in the second half of the season after falling to the Cougars 44-21 on Saturday.
To reach that goal, UNT likely will have to knock off the Ragin’ Cajuns, who are one of the favorites in the Sun Belt after winning their first two conference games and improving to 4-1 overall.
ULL has gotten to that point largely because of its ability to stifle opponents’ running games. The Ragin’ Cajuns rank 18th nationally with an average of 107.2 rushing yards allowed per game.
That average is all the more impressive considering ULL has faced Oklahoma State, a Big 12 member that rolled up 330 rushing yards against the Ragin’ Cajuns.
No one else has had any success against ULL, which has not allowed more than 60 rushing yards in any other game. The Ragin’ Cajuns held Tulane to 53 yards last week.
ULL head coach Mark Hudspeth said holding UNT to that type of total will be tough.
“One thing you see is they are very physical,” Hudspeth said. “They have really changed their style offensively. They are big, strong and physical up front. To me, they will create quite a challenge because teams in this league are not used to seeing that every day. Everyone is spreading the ball out and dinking and dunking. They are lining up and running it right at you with a good-looking offensive line and backs.”
UNT relied heavily on Lance Dunbar last season, when he rushed for 1,115 yards. The Mean Green has turned to a three-back rotation this year and seen it become productive.
Junior Brandin Byrd and redshirt freshman Antoinne Jimmerson have posted 380 and 367 yards, respectively, while senior Jeremy Brown has added 163 after his best game of the season last week. Brown scored on a 48-yard run, caught a 36-yard pass and finished with 134 all-purpose yards.
UNT ranks sixth out of the 10 Sun Belt teams with an average of 175.2 rushing yards a game, a total affected by the Mean Green’s tough schedule that included nonconference games against LSU and Kansas State.
Brown said he has been happy with the way UNT has run the ball most of the season. UNT quarterback Derek Thompson credited that success largely to the Mean Green’s offensive line.
“Our offensive line, in my opinion, is the best in the conference,” Thompson said. “We have only given up three sacks and have to run very few running plays to be successful. That is a credit to our offensive line.”
That line will face a challenge in ULL’s defensive front that features a rotation of four down linemen who average 299 pounds, including LSU transfer Cordian Hagans.
That group has held up opposing offensive lines, allowing ULL’s linebackers to run free and make plays.
UNT believes it is up to the challenge.
“We are not going to come out on Tuesday night and go empty [with no running back in the backfield] all night and change what we do,” McCarney said. “We believe in our system and what we do. We just have to get better at what we do. We will match up against a really good defense that is outstanding against the run and is very confident.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
RUSH TO JUDGMENT
Louisiana-Lafayette ranks among the nation’s best teams against the run, while North Texas’ running game is its biggest offensive asset. The following is a look at that matchup:
UNT rushing offense
ULL rushing defense
175.2 yards per game
107.2 yards per game
52nd ranked nationally
18th ranked nationally
4.3 yards per carry
3.0 yards per carry
Nine rushing TDs
Eight rushing TDs