There are times when K.C. Obi takes a look around at North Texas and wonders where all his old friends went.
The senior defensive end has spent the last four years playing for the Mean Green, which makes him something of a rarity at this point in the program’s development under second-year head coach Dan McCarney.
UNT will honor 17 seniors today when it plays South Alabama in its final home game of the season, including nine players who started out as walk-ons. Only four fifth-year seniors and two fourth-year seniors remain from two recruiting classes.
“It just shows you that only the strong survive,” Obi said. “It’s hard to stay in a Division I program. You have to stay strong mentally and physically. Coming out of high school, guys are treated like kings and then you get here and are on the scout team. That messes with you mentally. You have to bite your tong and keep working hard. Some guys didn’t do it.”
McCarney has a deep appreciation for those who did because they are playing key roles in the early stages of what he hopes is the rise of the program.
The Mean Green had not won more than three games in a season since 2004 when he arrived before the 2011 campaign. UNT promptly posted a 5-7 finish a year ago, when the Mean Green hung on to bowl hopes until falling at home to Western Kentucky in a Week 11 game.
UNT (3-6, 2-3 Sun Belt) isn’t officially out of the race yet this year. A dramatic late season three-game winning streak beginning with a win over USA (2-7, 1-4) would make the Mean Green bowl-eligible at 6-6.
That seems like a distant goal at best for UNT, which hasn’t won back-to-back games since 2004, although the Mean Green isn’t giving up hope.
“It would be nice to get to .500,” quarterback Derek Thompson said. “We will worry about South Alabama first and the other two later. We want to end the season on a good note and show that we went out swinging.”
Do that, and UNT feels like it will be able to send Obi and the few seniors UNT has out at home on a positive note.
“They have one last shot to come out of the locker room, touch the eagle Spiriki [a statue between UNT’s locker room and the field] and play in front of their fans,” McCarney said. “We hope to be 7-4 after this game at Apogee Stadium and establish a tradition. These seniors have a lot to do with that.”
Obi and center Aaron Fortenberry have started all season, while linebacker Jeremy Phillips has been in the lineup most of the year. Offensive lineman Coleman Feeley and defensive tackle Tevinn Cantly have also been in and out of the lineup.
While none of them appear likely to be remembered for helping lead UNT to a bowl game, McCarney says they have helped him lay the foundation for the future.
“These guys have seen coaches come and go, players come and go. They have seen lots and lots of negative things and adversity, but the neat thing is that they have learned a lot of good life lessons since I’ve been here on how to handle adversity and how to get back up off the floor,” McCarney said. “These guys have been knocked down a bunch of times. Hopefully, they will be able to handle those setbacks in life better and take pride in what they have helped me accomplish in building the foundation for the future.”
UNT hopes to take another step in that process against USA, which has been competitive in its first full season in the Sun Belt. The Jaguars beat Florida Atlantic and have avoided being blown out in most of the rest of their league games behind an offense that has improved since being held to 10 points or fewer in four straight games earlier this season.
Junior quarterback Ross Metheny has thrown for at least 200 yards in three of ASU’s last four games. He took over as the Jaguars’ QB in the fourth game of the season.
“South Alabama is solid,” Obi said. “Their offensive line is athletic and their quarterback is really athletic. To win this game, everyone is going to have to read their keys.”
UNT’s players believe if they do that, they can send players like Obi and the few other seniors who stuck around for their entire careers out on a high note in their final home games.
“There are guys in our senior class who have absolutely done a lot for our program,” Thompson said. “Some of those guys have been here four or five years.
“They are guys people look up to.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
NORTH TEXAS GAMEDAY
South Alabama at UNT
When: 4 p.m.
Where: Apogee Stadium
Records: UNT 3-6, 2-3 Sun Belt, USA 2-7, 1-4 Sun Belt
Last meeting: First meeting
Last week: Arkansas State 37, UNT 19;Florida International 28, USA 20
TV: TXA 21
Radio: KHYI-FM 95.3, KNTU-FM 88.1
UNT CB Zac Whitfield vs. USA QB Ross Metheny
USA has played better offensively since Ross Metheny took over as the Jaguars’ starting quarterback in the fourth week of the season.
Metheny threw for 241 yards and three touchdowns in a 36-29 loss to Arkansas State to start a pattern in which he threw for at least 200 yards in three of four games. That does not sound all the impressive until one considers how much the Jaguars struggled earlier this season. USA was held to 10 points or fewer in four straight games beginning in the second week of the season, when the Jaguars barely squeaked out a 9-3 win over Nicholls State.
Metheny has thrown for 1,255 yards and eight touchdowns on the season, despite receiving limited playing time at the beginning of the year.
UNT can’t let Metheny build on his late-season run of success if it hopes to end a two-game losing streak.
The Mean Green will have to break out of a late-season slide defensively if it is to reach that goal. UNT has allowed at least 300 passing yards in three of its last four games, including a loss to Arkansas State last week when Ryan Aplin torched the Mean Green for 328 yards and two touchdowns.
Aplin completed 25 of 32 passes against UNT, which has given up five passing touchdowns without posting an interception and recording only one sack in its last two games, including a loss to Middle Tennessee two weeks ago.
UNT’s hopes to end that streak will rest partly with cornerback Zac Whitfield. The redshirt freshman has faced constant pressure throughout the season and experienced his ups and downs. UNT will need him to be at his best today.
HOW THEY MATCH UP
UNT’s offense vs. USA’s defense
UNT has struggled throughout the season and is coming off games in which it has scored 19 and 21 points in losses to Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee, respectively.
Derek Thompson threw for 316 yards and a touchdown last week against the Red Wolves, but the Mean Green has consistently failed to capitalize on its opportunities offensively.
USA ranks second in the Sun Belt in total defense with 364.7 yards allowed a game but has allowed at least 28 points in seven straight games.
UNT’s defense vs. USA’s offense
UNT seemed to be getting on a roll defensively earlier this season when it held three opponents to 23 points or less in a span of four games but has regressed since. Arkansas State torched UNT for 474 yards and 37 points last week, while Middle Tennessee scored 38 against UNT two weeks ago.
UNT has not forced a turnover in either of its last two games.
USA seems to have found itself offensively since turning to Ross Metheny at quarterback at the midway point of the season but has been inconsistent.
1. Avoid giving the big play again defensively
UNT has struggled to make the critical plays and stop opponents from coming up with them while losing its last two games. The Mean Green gave up a 59-yard touchdown pass and a 63-yard strike last week in a loss to Arkansas State and three scoring plays of at least 45 yards two weeks ago in a loss to Middle Tennessee. UNT can’t afford to give up those types of plays against USA.
2. Turn around the turnover battle today
UNT head coach Dan McCarney believes winning the turnover battle is vital to winning in college football. The Mean Green has struggled in that regard in its last two games, finishing with a combined deficit of six in that span. UNT has not forced a turnover in either of its last two games and will have to do better against the Jaguars, who have a deficit of eight in turnover margin on the season.
3. Capitalize on opportunities offensively
UNT has moved the ball well at times over the past few weeks but has not converted yards into points. The Mean Green rolled up 400 yards of offense against Arkansas State last week but still managed to only get into the end zone twice in a 37-19 loss. UNT posted 432 total yards two weeks ago against Middle Tennessee but fell behind 31-0 before losing 38-21.
4. Take advantage of final home game of year
UNT had only five home games scheduled this season, the last of which will be played today. UNT is 2-2 in those games, including its biggest win of the season thus far, a 30-23 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette. UNT would like to build some momentum heading into the off-season and what will be a key few months in recruiting heading toward signing day. A win today would help the Mean Green do just that.