North Texas talked a lot about possibilities heading into its game against Middle Tennessee on Saturday.
The possibility of going to a bowl game came up again and again, along with the chance of jumping into the race for the Sun Belt Conference title.
UNT needed a lot more than just a win over MTSU to reach either of those goals, but there was little doubt knocking off the Blue Raiders would have helped matters — a lot.
That was perhaps the most baffling aspect of the way the Mean Green’s 38-21 loss to MTSU unfolded at Floyd Stadium.
UNT had a chance to post a second straight critical win after beating Louisiana-Lafayette last week and promptly blew the opportunity when it came out flatter than a Kansas wheat field.
The Mean Green was down 31-0 before it finally scored — and that was in the third quarter.
“If I saw this coming with bad practices, bad focus and issues or guys not practicing hard, it wouldn’t hurt as much as it does,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “We looked nailed down. Our practices were really sharp. We didn’t look like it today.”
Nope, UNT didn’t.
UNT turned the ball over four times, converted only three of its 12 third downs and was credited with only one quarterback pressure on a day MTSU quarterback Logan Kilgore threw the ball 30 times.
That lack of pressure had a whole lot to do with the way Kilgore torched the Mean Green for 349 yards and three touchdowns.
That would have been tough enough for UNT to take. Seeing Kilgore, who is about as fast as your average 300-pound left guard, lumber 45 yards straight down the middle of the field for a touchdown was even worse.
The way the game unfolded was a stunner, and not because it came in the first game between the teams since UNT hammered MTSU 59-7 last season.
The Mean Green had current Dallas Cowboys running back Lance Dunbar back then and the Blue Raiders had reason to be motivated this time around unlike in a meaningless Week 12 game last year.
MTSU is a pretty good team, one that will be playing in a bowl game at the end of the season.
Even with those factors taken into account, the stunning part of UNT’s performance was that the Mean Green didn’t look ready to play or all that interested in such an important game, at least not in the early going when the game was decided.
UNT’s players didn’t have any better idea of why that was than McCarney.
“It seemed like we weren’t focused and ready,” UNT defensive end Brandon McCoy said. “It didn’t seem like we had that determination early. That killed us.”
MTSU drove straight down the field and scored on its first possession and its second and its third.
UNT was down 17-0 just like that.
The Mean Green’s chances to come back were almost nonexistent.
UNT came into the day averaging 21.0 points a game, and wide receiver Brelan Chancellor was lost for the season with a broken collarbone in the early going.
The Mean Green just isn’t built to come back from a big deficit, not with a run-first, ball-control offense, especially without Chancellor.
There’s nothing wrong with that approach. UNT won a lot of games with it in the past.
It just isn’t the kind of offense that is going to allow a team to come back from a huge early deficit.
UNT knew it.
“We were flat in the first half and didn’t come out the way we should have,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “We are not going to win when we get shut out in the first half.”
That’s why UNT had to come out fast in a game it needed to win.
MTSU’s situation wasn’t nearly as dire as UNT’s when it came to bowl hopes, but the Blue Raiders were ready to play from the opening kick.
“They played with more passion, more intensity and more focus than our football team,” McCarney said. “I didn’t see this coming and neither did any of my coaches.”
What UNT (3-5) sees coming now is a host of tough games with its back to the wall. It will take a 3-1 run down the stretch to get to 6-6 at the end of the season.
That isn’t going to be easy.
Arkansas State is 5-3 and has won three straight and can become bowl-eligible with six wins by beating UNT in the Mean Green’s homecoming this weekend.
UNT gets Sun Belt newcomer South Alabama at home in a winnable game but then faces Louisiana-Monroe and Western Kentucky on the road to close out the season.
Both ULM and WKU are bowl-eligible at 6-2 and will likely have a lot on the line in a tight Sun Belt race when they face the Mean Green.
UNT knew coming into the weekend that its game against the Blue Raiders would be just the first of several tough games to close out the season.
That’s what made a game that seemed winnable important.
UNT had every reason to come out with fire.
Instead, the Mean Green came out cold and was left fishing for answers following a loss that made the dream of UNT playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2004 seem further off than it has all season.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .