North Texas did enough in its first seven games to make sure the tough stretch of five games left on the slate does not amount to a do-or-die situation every time out.
But that is exactly how the Mean Green is looking at the rest of its season, starting with a game at Middle Tennessee on Saturday.
“The coaches have been preaching to us that it is a five-game playoff now,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “We win, we’re in. If not, we sit at home again. That is our mind-set. This is a big, big game for both of us.”
The standings underscore that point.
Louisiana-Monroe — the surprise team in the Sun Belt Conference and arguably all of college football — is the lone team in the league without at least one loss in conference play at 3-0.
There were five teams sitting at 2-1 in league play heading into a game Tuesday night between Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette — two of the teams in the group at 2-1.
Troy isn’t out of the Sun Belt title picture either at 3-2 and certainly is in the contention for a bowl berth with a 4-3 overall record.
The winner of Saturday’s UNT-MTSU game will significantly improve its chances of playing in a bowl game. The Blue Raiders are 4-3 overall with a win over Georgia Tech and can move to within one game of being bowl-eligible with a win over UNT.
The Mean Green, meanwhile, can even its record at 4-4, inch closer to six wins and improve to 3-1 in league play.
“We go into this game with a lot to play for, no doubt about it,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “We are going into the last Saturday in October with a lot on the table for both of these teams. That is what makes it fun and exciting for coaches and players alike.”
UNT established reaching a bowl game as one of its goals in January. Doing so would snap a string of seven seasons in which UNT has failed to play in a postseason game.
That streak is only one of several the Mean Green has spent the season trying to end. A win over the Blue Raiders would give UNT consecutive wins for the first time since 2004.
UNT posted a momentum-building victory at home over Louisiana-Lafayette last week. The Mean Green was down 14 in the third quarter before coming back behind running back Antoinne Jimmerson, who made a series of key plays — none bigger than his 78-yard catch-and-run on what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
“It was a great win,” McCarney said. “It was something we needed to do and wanted to do.”
McCarney emphasized that UNT needs to do a lot more if it wants to fare well in a series of vital games.
The Mean Green posted its best offensive performance of the season against ULL when it comes to total yards gained. UNT racked up a whopping 524 yards against the Ragin’ Cajuns, but had plenty of opportunities to put more points on the board in a 30-23 win that went down to the wire.
UNT also has only recovered four fumbles this season, a total McCarney wants to see grow quickly.
UNT’s coaches and players say that taking care of those details will help them capitalize on what they see as a series of games they need to win to get to where they want to be at the end of the season.
“We want to get into a bowl game and know what it takes,” running back Jeremy Brown said. “That is what we have been working toward.
“We feel like we have to win out.”
McCarney praises Olen
McCarney praised kicker Zach Olen for his performance in the Mean Green’s win over Louisiana-Lafayette, and for bouncing back from a tough night against Troy.
Olen missed two key field goal attempts in a 14-7 loss to the Trojans and was pulled for backup Zach Paul, who missed another field goal.
UNT went for a first down twice on fourth down late in the loss instead of attempting another field goal.
Olen hasn’t missed since and hit all three of his field goal attempts, not to mention three extra points, in the 30-23 win over ULL.
“Since he really struggled in the Troy game, he has been 15 out of 15 on kicks — PATs and field goals. How about that?” McCarney said. “That includes a couple that were taken off the board in the Florida Atlantic game because of penalties.
“I am really proud of him. He handled adversity and is playing with as much confidence as anyone that we have on our football team right now.”
Olen will serve as UNT’s special teams captain this week, an honor McCarney gives to his top special teams performer from the previous game.
UNT loses Teegarden
UNT has lost backup wide receiver and special teams contributor Derrick Teegarden for the season.
Teegarden suffered a spiral fracture of a finger and has undergone surgery.
The former Odessa standout caught three passes for 30 yards on the year and served as a special teams captain.
“He has played a few snaps each week on offense, but he has been very valuable on special teams,” McCarney said.
Tight end Marcus Smith and defensive back Freddie Warner also have been lost for the season. Both tore the ACL in their knees for a second time.
Warner will undergo surgery today, while Smith already has had what McCarney described as a successful procedure.
UNT expects both to be back in time for spring practice.
“Those guys are very important to our program and for our plans for the future,” McCarney said. “But they won’t be involved the rest of the year.”
UNT pulling for WKU
UNT will be pulling for Western Kentucky this week after falling to the Hilltoppers in a key Sun Belt game over the weekend.
The Mean Green beat Middle Tennessee last week and needed a win over WKU to wrap up the conference title in its final regular-season game, but UNT fell 2-0.
The loss left UNT at 8-1-1 in league play, while MTSU is 8-1.
UNT would win the regular-season Sun Belt title and earn the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament if the Hilltoppers (6-1-2) can beat MTSU, their fiercest rival.
UNT’s loss to WKU snapped a nine-game unbeaten streak.
Key match slated Sunday
UNT will play a critical match at Louisiana-Lafayette on Sunday.
The Mean Green split its matches last week, falling in straight sets to Florida International before bouncing back to beat Florida Atlantic 3-1.
UNT’s win over FAU left the Mean Green (19-10) in a tie for third place in the Sun Belt’s West Division with ULL (14-12) at 5-5 in league play.
UNT is just a game back of Arkansas-Little Rock and Arkansas State, which are 6-4 and tied for the division lead.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .