Football: Tight ends providing Mean Green spark

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North Texas senior Andrew Power, left, is knocked out of bounds during a win over Louisiana-Lafayette last week at Apogee Stadium as fellow tight end Drew Miller throws a block. Both players have been vital to UNT’s offense heading into today’s game at Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

UNT will turn to Power, others to power offense

When one takes a look at North Texas’ offense, Andrew Power might not jump out as one of the vital parts of what the Mean Green is trying to accomplish.

The senior ranks only seventh on the team in receiving yards with 68 and has not scored a touchdown heading into UNT’s game today at Middle Tennessee.

Ask UNT’s players, and they will say the Mean Green’s starting tight end and about four others at the same position are more vital than they appear to be, in terms of what the team’s offense is trying to accomplish heading into what could be a milestone run of five games to end the regular season.

UNT (3-4, 2-1 Sun Belt) is just a game behind Louisiana-Monroe in the league standings and has a chance to make a run at becoming bowl-eligible with six wins.

“I still don’t forget where we started this thing — eighth in our conference in the preseason and 110th in America,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said of the Mean Green’s preseason rankings. “That fire still burns inside of me. If the players don’t respond to that, there is no reason for me to talk about it. I think this team accepts challenges.”

MTSU (4-3, 2-1) could present a big challenge for the Mean Green.

The Blue Raiders bounced back from a season-opening loss to McNeese State to win four of five before falling last week to nationally ranked Mississippi State on the road. MTSU was down only 10-3 in the third quarter before falling 45-3.

MTSU beat Georgia Tech 49-28 in Atlanta, the highlight of its season thus far.

“Middle will be a big challenge,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “They beat a Georgia Tech team that has been a big-time program. We are going to their place. It’s a big game for them and for both teams in the conference race.”

UNT will head into that game off arguably its biggest win of the season, 30-23 over Louisiana-Lafayette in which the role of the Mean Green’s tight ends continued to grow.

Power caught four passes for 46 yards, while Drew Miller added a 10-yard catch. The five receptions between the two was a season-high for UNT’s tight ends.

Power’s 21-yard catch put UNT in position for a second-quarter field goal after ULL had taken a 6-0 lead. He later caught a 16-yard pass that helped set up another Olen field goal in the fourth quarter.

“Power is like an extra offensive lineman who can catch three or four balls a game,” UNT offensive coordinator Mike Canales said. “Our tight ends are also a complement to our offensive tackles. It’s unbelievable what they do. They are sore on Monday. It’s hard, physical football. It’s part of who we are.”

UNT has controlled the clock better than any team other than Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt this season, with an average time of possession of 33:30 a game and will try to pound MTSU today behind Power, Miller and the rest of its tight ends.

“A lot of times there are three or four of us out there,” Power said of UNT’s tight ends. “They move us around. That creates mismatches in the running game and the passing game. It’s an offense that fits our personnel.”

It’s also an approach that will fit what UNT wants to do against an MTSU offense that scored at least 31 points four times in a span of five games before facing MSU.

“We want to get the ball to our tight ends,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “That’s why we have so many. You look out there at times and there are four of them out there with us. They are multi-dimensional. They catch the ball and a big part of this offense is their ability to stay in and block.”

UNT believes it will need its offense to build on a solid outing against ULL today, despite the fact MTSU will be at less than full strength.

The Blue Raiders lost star running back Benny Cunningham to a season-ending knee injury at the end of a win over Florida International in which he rushed for 230 yards.

MTSU used four running backs in its loss to MSU to fill the void left by Cunningham.

“Even with the absence of Benny, we are still the same offense,” MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said. “Each game is going to be different, but we still want to be as balanced as we can in passing and throwing.”

UNT is trying to find that same type of balance heading into its game against MTSU and will look to its tight ends to help it reach that goal.

“To me they are some of the most athletic people on the field,” UNT running back Jeremy Brown said. “They have to be able to block 250-pound linemen and be able to catch the ball. They are very important to our offense. We ask a lot of them.”

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

NORTH TEXAS GAMEDAY

UNT at Middle Tennessee

When: 2:30 p.m.

Where: Floyd Stadium

Records: UNT 3-4, 2-1 Sun Belt,

MTSU 4-3, 2-1 Sun Belt

Last meeting: UNT 59, MTSU 7 (2011)

Last week: UNT 30, Louisiana-Lafayette 23; Mississippi State 45, MTSU 3

Series: UNT leads 7-4

Online video streaming: ESPN3

Radio: KHYI-FM 95.3, KNTU-FM 88.1

 

KEY MATCHUP

UNT DB Marcus Trice vs. MTSU QB Logan Kilgore

MTSU will be at less than full strength today without star running back Benny Cunningham, who is out for the year with a knee injury.

Playing without the senior, who has 600 rushing yards on the season, will put all the more pressure on junior quarterback Logan Kilgore to power MTSU’s offense. Kilgore is capable of doing just that.

The junior has thrown for 1,581 yards and nine touchdowns on the season. Kilgore ranks 33rd nationally among quarterbacks in passing efficiency with a 145.4 rating and had thrown for at least 200 yards in five of six games before a loss to Mississippi State last week.

UNT enters today’s game leading the Sun Belt in passing efficiency defense during league play with a 113.5 rating. No team in the league has allowed fewer than the three touchdown passes the Mean Green has surrendered in Sun Belt play.

Safety Marcus Trice has played a key role in the Mean Green’s success. The junior ranks fifth among UNT’s players with 36 tackles and has been particularly adept at making the key plays head coach Dan McCarney believes are the key to having a successful defense.

Trice leads UNT with two fumble recoveries and is tied for the team lead in interceptions (two) and forced fumbles (one). He also has 4.5 tackles for loss.

UNT needs Trice to come up with a few more big plays today to help slow down MTSU.

 

HOW THEY MATCH UP

UNT’s offense vs. MTSU’s defense

UNT is coming off one of its best games of the season offensively, a 30-23 win over Louisiana-Lafayette in which it rolled up 524 yards.

The Mean Green struck a perfect offensive balance, throwing for 282 yards and rushing for 242. Antoinne Jimmerson continued to emerge as an offensive playmaker while catching a pair of touchdown passes, including a 78-yarder for the game-winning score in the closing minutes.

MTSU ranks last in the Sun Belt with an average of 443.3 yards allowed a game and surrendered 45 points in a loss to Mississippi State last week.

Edge: UNT

 

UNT’s defense vs. MTSU’s offense

UNT bounced back from a tough outing against Houston in which the Mean Green gave up 44 points to shut down Louisiana-Lafayette in a 30-23 win. UNT leads the Sun Belt in scoring defense during league play with an average of 17.0 points allowed a game.

UNT allowed only 14 points in games against both Troy and Florida Atlantic.

MTSU ranks fourth in the Sun Belt with an average of 416.0 yards a game and has shown the ability to put up impressive numbers. The Blue Raiders scored 49 points in a win over Georgia Tech and 48 in a win over Memphis.

The Blue Raiders might not be the same team without star running back Benny Cunningham, who is out for the season with a knee injury, though.

Edge: UNT

 

1. Build on a big offensive game against ULL

UNT came up with its best outing offensively in years in its 30-23 win over ULL last week, rolling up 524 yards. The Mean Green squandered a few scoring chances, but consistently moved the ball. UNT needs to do the same against MTSU, which is averaging 27.3 points a game in Sun Belt play.

 

2. Don’t give up a big special teams play

MTSU specializes in blocking kicks, especially when it plays UNT. The Blue Raiders have blocked 46 kicks since joining the Sun Belt in 2001, including seven against the Mean Green, more than any other team. MTSU blocked kicks against UNT in 2002, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009. UNT can’t afford to give up another.

 

3, Contain MTSU’s productive running game

The Blue Raiders will be shorthanded without running back Benny Cunningham, arguably its top player who is out for the year with a knee injury. That should offer UNT the opportunity to slow down the Blue Raiders’ running game. MTSU has lost only one conference game when Louisiana-Monroe limited the Blue Raiders to 69 rushing yards.

 

4. Keep hope alive for remainder of the season

Teams always need motivation, and UNT’s has been reaching a bowl game ever since the beginning of the season. The Mean Green still has a shot and can increase its chances exponentially with a win today. A loss would leave UNT at 3-5 and on the verge of being out of the bowl chase and out of reasons to keep fighting.


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