Football: UNT maturing in transition to run-first offense

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Of all the accomplishments of his first season as the head coach at North Texas, perhaps the one closest to Dan McCarney’s heart is re-establishing an aura and an advantage when it comes to home games.

A steady downpour at Apogee Stadium left North Texas with few offensive options against Middle Tennessee nearly a year ago.

Tight end Andrew Power remembers barely being able to see the guy standing next to him, let alone quarterback Derek Thompson a few yards down the line.

So UNT did about the only thing it could that day: turn and hand the ball to Lance Dunbar — a lot.

Dunbar responded with a school-record 313 yards in a performance that ranks among the greatest in recent UNT history, one that some of the Mean Green players looked back on this week as a milestone in the program’s changing culture under head coach Dan McCarney.

The former Iowa State head coach arrived at UNT and talked about taking a team that had spent the previous four years in a spread offense it promoted with an “It’s wide open” media campaign back to its roots as a physical, run-first team.

A 59-7 win over the Blue Raiders that night was a turning point in that transformation, a process UNT is closer to completing heading into Saturday and its first game against MTSU since that breakout performance.

“That game showed us that the system coach McCarney put in works,” UNT running back Jeremy Brown said. “We put a lot of points on the board, which showed us that the coaches are teaching us the right things and that what we are doing can help us win games and get to bowl games. Nothing can replace physicality and working hard.”

A physical approach and a solid running game are the pillars

of the philosophy McCarney has put in place, even though they look out of place at times in the Sun Belt Conference.

The rise of the spread offense in college football is particularly evident in leagues other than the Bowl Championship Series’ six automatic-qualifying conferences. Several teams in those leagues — and particularly the Sun Belt — have gone to systems that feature the passing game.

UNT has thrown the ball 198 times this season. Only Louisiana-Lafayette and Western Kentucky, which uses a similar pro-style offense, have thrown the ball fewer times. Each has 185 pass attempts on the season.

No team in the Sun Belt has thrown fewer touchdown passes than UNT, which has eight.

UNT’s approach might not be flashy. At times, it might not be exciting.

None of that matters to McCarney, who sees it as the best way to be successful.

McCarney rose through the coaching ranks in the Hayden Fry pipeline. He learned the game from Fry, a UNT coaching legend who finished his career at Iowa, and from former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez before he became the head man at Iowa State.

All those years in the Big Ten and the Big 12 in the era of star running backs formed McCarney’s approach to the game, one from which he has never wavered.

“It all starts with being physical up front,” McCarney said. “Everyone gets carried away with all the numbers and the touchdowns and all the color and the glamour and the excitement. I still believe that if you run the ball and stop the run, you have a really good chance to be successful on Saturday.”

Building an offense around the running game seemed like the only logical approach last season when the Mean Green featured Dunbar, who finished his career as UNT’s career rushing leader before earning a spot on the Cowboys’ roster.

What no one knew heading into the 2012 season was whether or not UNT still had the personnel to continue as the black sheep as the spread offense continues to spread across just about every league in college football.

UNT had a great offensive line returning and a group of talented tight ends but no proven running backs.

The Mean Green stuck with its plan anyway after McCarney and offensive coordinator Mike Canales looked at the players they had to work with. UNT’s running backs have responded.

Brandin Byrd and Antoinne Jimmerson have rushed for 468 and 402 yards, respectively, while Brown has chipped in with 235.

Thompson has not thrown the ball all that often compared with his peers in the Sun Belt, but he has taken advantage of his opportunities. The junior has thrown for at least 200 yards in five straight games, including a season-high 282 yards last week in a 30-23 win over Louisiana-Lafayette.

UNT’s top two receivers are conventional wide receivers in Ivan Delgado and Brelan Chancellor, but five of the next eight among the Mean Green’s top 10 players in terms of receptions are tight ends or running backs.

“Coming from the spread, I think this offense fits me better as a quarterback,” Thompson said. “We can do so many different things with different personnel. It’s been a big part of our success.”

UNT’s players and coaches say that success is due at least in part to the fact that what the Mean Green does is a little different.

“Western Kentucky and us are the only teams in the Sun Belt that play a pro-style offense,” Canales said. “Week in and week out, you flip on the TV on Sunday and see the 49ers or the Vikings and say, ‘Gosh, that is the same offense I watch on Saturday.’ There are not many people who do that. Alabama does that; LSU does that.

“That is what we want to do. It creates a mentality of who we are.”

UNT started to recruit for that system when McCarney took over, signing offensive linemen with the size and ability to be powerful run blockers and physical running backs.

One of the most highly regarded recruits in McCarney’s first class in 2011 was Power. The former Arizona Western Community College standout has been a key to UNT’s transition to a pro-style offense in his two years with the team, and he has ranked among the top blocking tight ends in the Sun Belt.

The addition of players like Power helped UNT move back toward a run-first system. The Mean Green put up huge passing numbers from 2007-09 under former head coach Todd Dodge, including a school-record 3,476 yards in 2007, and recruited players to fit the spread system.

When McCarney arrived, he and his staff not only had to find a way to transition to a new approach with those players, but also convince them that the new approach would work.

There might not have been a more important step in that process than UNT’s performance against MTSU a year ago. UNT threw the ball only seven times, and Thompson hit on two of those attempts for 23 yards.

That didn’t matter one bit on a night when UNT ran over the Blue Raiders. Dunbar combined with four other running backs to rush for 464 yards.

“That game helped solidify the style of offense we want to play,” UNT offensive lineman Coleman Feeley said. “Everyone on our offensive line and our running backs love to run the ball. If you can do that effectively, that’s how you should play football.”

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


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