When Dan McCarney looked back at a highly successful first season at North Texas last year, he attributed the Mean Green’s ability to jump from three wins the year before his arrival to a 5-7 finish in his first campaign largely to a dramatic improvement in turnover margin.
UNT forced nine more turnovers than it committed last season, a margin that led the Sun Belt Conference. That total represented an improvement of 12 over the 2010 season.
Lately, UNT has been sliding in the opposite direction — a trend that has contributed to a late-season slump in which the Mean Green has lost its last two games.
UNT turned the ball over twice last week in a 37-19 loss to Arkansas State and four times two weeks ago in a 38-21 loss to Middle Tennessee.
What made those turnovers even more painful for the Mean Green is that it hasn’t forced a turnover to balance out its own mistakes in those two games. In 21 games under McCarney, UNT has failed to create a turnover in only four games.
Two of those games have now come in back-to-back weeks.
The trend is one UNT will look to change Saturday when the Mean Green faces South Alabama in its final home game of the season.
“We have to get back to taking care of the turnover margin,” McCarney said. “We have had many games this year when we were really good. The last two games, we were minus-6. That is not what we coach or teach or preach or rep through the entire week. We have to get back to that, make good decisions with the ball and take good care of the ball. Defensively, we have to have the confidence to go make a play on the ball when it is in the air or go sack the quarterback and knock out the ball or tackle a receiver or a running back or a tight end and cause a fumble.”
UNT’s game against USA could offer the perfect opportunity to do just that. The Jaguars rank last in the Sun Belt in turnover margin with a deficit of eight on the year. USA has lost 12 fumbles and thrown 11 interceptions.
UNT has recovered only four fumbles on the year, the lowest total in the Sun Belt.
Safety Marcus Trice has forced a fumble, recovered two and intercepted two passes to lead a secondary that has helped UNT post nine interceptions on the year.
UNT had just nine interceptions all of last season.
McCarney sees adding to that total as a necessity if the Mean Green is to finish the season strong and make a run at the .500 mark.
UNT can avoid posting its eighth straight losing season by winning its last three games.
“That is one of the real disappointing things the last couple of weeks — we have forced zero turnovers with our defense and given it up six times,” McCarney said. “That is extremely uncharacteristic. We have to get better immediately, starting Saturday.”
That could be a tough goal to reach against USA. McCarney said the Jaguars have been improving.
USA beat Florida Atlantic in double overtime three weeks ago for its first win over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent this season and outscored Florida International 13-0 in the second half of a 28-20 loss last week.
“We have had some ups and downs,” USA coach Joey Jones said. “We started off slow but have gotten better as the season has gone along. We have played some good football the last four weeks.”
UNT believes that it will have to get back to posting a positive turnover margin to slow down the Jaguars’ progress and snap a two-game losing streak.
UNT can post winning record at home again
One of McCarney’s top goals early in his tenure at UNT is to create a home-field advantage at Apogee Stadium.
The Mean Green can take another step toward that goal with a win over USA that would give the Mean Green a winning record at home for the second straight season.
The milestone is one UNT has not reached since the 2003 and 2004 campaigns The Mean Green went 5-0 and 4-1, respectively, in those seasons.
UNT went 2-3 at home in both 2006 and 2007 before going through one of the worst periods in program history in terms of winning home games.
The Mean Green lost all five of its home games in 2008, went 1-5 in 2009 and then lost all six of its home games in 2010.
UNT began to recover last season, when the Mean Green finished 4-2 at home, including a milestone win over Indiana.
UNT is 2-2 at home this year, including a 30-23 win over Louisiana-Lafayette that was broadcast nationally on ESPN2.
“We are going to try to do everything we can,” McCarney said of trying to pick up one more win at home.
Attendance mark close
UNT is taking aim at an attendance record for the second straight season heading into its final home game.
The school set an all-time total attendance record last season, when the Mean Green had 113,186 fans in the stands for six home games.
Where UNT fell short last season in terms of records was in average attendance. UNT averaged 18,864 fans per game, a total that fell short of the record of 19,704 it averaged in 1997.
UNT is averaging 19,668 fans a game this season and needs a crowd of 19,854 for its game against USA to break the record.
“We appreciate the support and the fans and students who have come out so far in this season with only five home games,” McCarney said. “This is our last one and it’s a big, important game.”
Robertson to serve as honorary captain
Cleveland Browns linebacker and former UNT standout Craig Robertson will serve as the Mean Green’s honorary captain for its game against USA.
Robertson led UNT with 133 tackles in 2010, when he was a first-team All-Sun Belt selection.
He has posted 50 tackles and intercepted two passes this season for the Browns, who have a bye this week.
“He’s one of only two active NFL players from North Texas,” McCarney said. “That is one of the things we want to fix, improve and enhance in the next few years. He’s a phenomenal football player and is [fourth] in tackles for the Cleveland Browns. They are open, and he will be back. He’s one of the best to ever play here at North Texas.”
Robertson’s former UNT teammate Lance Dunbar is on the Cowboys’ active roster.
UNT battles injury bug
UNT continues to work its way through a series of injuries that has hampered the team heading into its season opener at Creighton on Friday.
UNT lost potential starter Justin Patton, a senior forward, for up to a month with a knee injury he suffered in preseason workouts. Freshman guard Clarke Overlander is working his way back from a hamstring injury that kept him out of UNT’s exhibition win over East Central (Okla.), and the Mean Green could be without Jacob Holmen in the opener.
Holmen, a senior forward, sprained his ankle in a scrimmage over the weekend, putting his status for the Creighton game in question.
UNT heads into final weekend of season on roll
UNT will enter the final weekend of the regular season on a roll when it comes to Sun Belt matches.
The Mean Green beat Louisiana-Monroe last week and has won three straight conference matches heading into the weekend, when it will face Arkansas State and Arkansas-Little Rock.
UNT will face ASU at 7 p.m. Friday before taking on UALR at 1 p.m. Sunday.
UNT (21-11, 7-5 Sun Belt) enters the weekend tied with ASU (17-11, 7-5) for second place in the Sun Belt Conference’s West Division, one game behind UALR (12-12, 8-4).
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com .