North Texas hit the halfway point of its season last week with a loss to Houston that was as disappointing as it was lopsided.
In a lot of ways, that 44-21 setback was a microcosm of the Mean Green’s season six games into the year.
UNT did some good things against the Cougars.
Quarterback Derek Thompson reached the 200-yard mark in passing yards for the fourth straight game, and UNT controlled the clock, holding the ball for more than 34 minutes.
None of that mattered on a night when the Mean Green slipped to 2-4 heading into a home game Tuesday night against Louisiana-Lafayette on ESPN2.
UNT is still in the Sun Belt Conference title chase with a 1-1 mark, but felt like it squandered an opportunity by falling to Houston and let what would have been a key win get away when it fell at home to Troy 14-7 earlier in the season.
UNT’s loss to Troy was by far the biggest development during the first half of a season that has seen some players and units develop while others struggle.
“Should we be at least .500?” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “Of course we should be, but I still don’t lose sight of the fact we played one of the most challenging nonconference schedules, not only in our conference but in all of college football.”
UNT dropped games to a pair of nationally ranked teams in Kansas State and LSU and also lost to a Houston team that finished 13-1 last season and regained its form just in time for its game against the Mean Green.
When McCarney and his players looked past their losses, including that tough loss to the Trojans, they saw plenty to be happy about without losing sight of some disappointing aspects of the year.
“We are better than our record indicates,” UNT defensive end K.C. Obi said.
The following is a look at what went right and what went wrong in the first half:
The development of young defensive backs
UNT’s secondary was almost wiped out by graduation after the 2011 season, when seven of the eight players on the Mean Green’s season-ending depth chart were seniors.
What made matters even more dicey for UNT was seeing Freddie Warner go down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in spring practice and an identical injury in the same knee during rehab in the fall, a setback that put him out for the year.
Zac Whitfield turned out to be one of UNT’s two best options at cornerback following the loss of Warner, and Whitfield didn’t move to corner from running back until fall practice.
That switch left UNT with even less experience at a position that already was sorely lacking when it came to previous action.
Whitfield has started alongside Hilbert Jackson, another first-time starter at cornerback, all year while Oklahoma transfer Marcus Trice and sophomore Lairamie Lee moved into the lineup at safety.
UNT ranked second in the Sun Belt heading into this weekend in both pass efficiency defense (122.5 rating) and interceptions (eight), despite that lack of experience.
“It’s nice to have everyone back in the secondary like we will next year instead of being green as grass like we are this year,” McCarney said. “We are sure not where we want to be. We should have five or six more interceptions, even though we have gotten a lot of them. That position has done a lot of good things, though, considering none of those guys had ever played.”
Running back trio turns out to be productive
UNT’s running backs were almost as big a question mark as the Mean Green’s defensive backs heading into the season.
UNT lost Lance Dunbar, the school’s all-time leading rusher, not to mention productive backup James Hamilton, to graduation.
The Mean Green has turned to a trio of players and seen them fill the void.
Brandin Byrd, Antoinne Jimmerson and Jeremy Brown are not leading candidates for the All-Sun Belt team like Dunbar was, but they have been productive.
Byrd has rushed for 380 yards while Jimmerson has added 367 yards and Brown 163.
UNT ranks sixth in the Sun Belt with an average of 175.2 rushing yards per game, but that total is affected by the tough schedule the Mean Green has faced.
“We have run the ball well,” Brown said.
McCarney credited UNT’s success to the way it has handled rotating those three backs.
“What we are seeing on Saturdays is what I started seeing last spring,” McCarney said. “All three of those guys complement each other very well.”
Special teams struggles
Special teams play appeared as if it would be an asset for UNT this season with the return of punter Will Atterberry, kicker Zach Olen and returner Brelan Chancellor.
UNT has struggled instead and attributes its loss to Troy largely to the kicking game.
Olen missed two field goals and backup Zach Paul missed another in a seven-point loss.
Olen also missed a key extra point in a loss to Kansas State. The junior appears to have emerged from his funk, but the loss to Troy hurt.
Converting field-goal attempts has not been the only area where UNT has struggled on special teams.
Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.
UNT ranks in the bottom half of the Sun Belt in kickoff coverage (sixth, 39.6 net yards), punting (seventh, 35.2 net yards), punt return average (ninth, 2.0 yards a return) and kickoff returns (seventh, 18.9 yards a return).
Chancellor was electric as a kick returner last year, finishing with 1,094 yards while averaging 21.9 yards per attempt, including a 73-yard return.
Chancellor’s average is down to 19.6 yards this year with a season long of 29 yards.
“It was very evident that our kicking game hurt us early in the season, especially in the Troy game,” McCarney said. “That is what sticks out in my mind. We were as bad as it gets in that game and it cost us dearly. The inconsistency on special teams is something we need to improve.”
UNT has struggled across the board offensively and ranks eighth in the Sun Belt with an average of 19.5 points a game and has scored more than 21 points only once — in a 34-7 whipping of Texas Southern, an Football Championship Subdivision opponent.
UNT knew it could have problems due to the loss of Dunbar and a lack of playmakers across the board but still has been disappointed to see those problems emerge.
The Mean Green ranks ninth out of 10 teams in the league in completion percentage at 55.3 percent and has been poor in the red zone.
UNT has converted on only 14 of its 20 trips into the red zone and scored 11 touchdowns in those situations.
The Mean Green scored on only one of six trips inside the 30 in its loss to Troy.
“Not scoring enough points has been the biggest disappointment,” Thompson said. “It’s very simple. When we get opportunities, we need to cash in. We have not done that as much as we want to.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mean Green first-half awards
Defensive MVP: LB Zach Orr
North Texas linebacker Zach Orr leads the Mean Green with 56 tackles and has served as a leader.
Offensive MVP: linemen
North Texas’ offensive linemen have powered the Mean Green’s offense. UNT has allowed just three sacks all season.
Low point: Loss to Troy
North Texas had a chance to pick up a win over a Sun Belt rival but missed out on the opportunity when three missed field goals proved costly in a 14-7 loss.
Memorable moment: win over Florida Atlantic
North Texas bounced back from a devastating loss to Troy to open Sun Belt Conference play by hanging on for a 20-14 win over Florida Atlantic, thanks in part to a touchdown catch by Drew Miller.