There have been times this fall when North Texas head coach Dan McCarney has sat and cheered arguably the biggest underdog in college football during a magical season.
McCarney was as surprised as anyone when Louisiana-Monroe beat Arkansas and nearly toppled Auburn and Baylor.
“They have done some real magical things,” McCarney said. “How could you not cheer for what they are doing, what they have done and how their season has transpired? I find myself at times cheering for them, and I’m in the same conference and have to try to go beat them this week.”
UNT will attempt today to become the latest in a series of teams that have knocked ULM off track following that great start when the Mean Green will look to come up with a little late-season magic of its own.
UNT (4-6, 3-3 Sun Belt) isn’t entirely out of the bowl hunt just yet.
If the Mean Green can win its last two games, it would be bowl-eligible for the first time since 2004.
To UNT’s players, that doesn’t seem like such a big stretch, especially after ULM lost its last two games.
“They are a very good football team,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “They have struggled the past couple of weeks but still have a lot of players who can make plays. Teams have exploited some of their weaknesses. We are going to try to take advantage of that.”
ULM (6-4, 4-2 Sun Belt) is already bowl-eligible and can bolster its bowl hopes with a win today, following losses to Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State.
The return of quarterback Kolton Browning will certainly help. Browning was injured in the first quarter against ULL on Nov. 3 and missed ULM’s game against ASU five days later.
McCarney said that Browning was playing better than anyone in the Sun Belt Conference when he went down, which was a big reason ULM has won six games and become a Cinderella story in the world of college football.
ULM’s football budget is just $3.5 million, which Warhawks head coach Todd Berry said is the lowest among FBS schools, not to mention relative chump change in the world of big-time college athletics.
The Warhawks are at a disadvantage not only nationally, but in their own conference as well. UNT’s football budget is just under $6.1 million.
“From a fan standpoint, the national attention that we received early in the season was something that people never thought could happen here,” Berry said.
History certainly wasn’t on ULM’s side.
The Warhawks moved to what is now the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1994. ULM finished 6-6 in 2007 and 2009 but has not posted a winning season since moving up to the FBS level.
One more win would get ULM there and give Warhawks an even better chance to earn their first bowl bid since the 1947 Junior Sugar Bowl, when the school was a junior college. ULM has not played in the postseason since the 1993 I-AA playoffs.
“I don’t think there is any question that this season has changed things for us,” Berry said. “There are people outside of our program and our team who believe we can have success. I don’t know if that was the case before.”
What has McCarney a little mystified is that ULM has reached that point largely due to a host of Texas — and particularly Dallas high school — products who are playing key roles.
Browning is from Maybank, while his leading receiver Brent Leonard of Keller is one of six starters from the Dallas area.
“They have all kinds of Texas players in their two-deep — starters, backups, skill position players, linemen,” said McCarney, who is in his second season at UNT. “I don’t know how many we tried to recruit, but there are a number of them we should have recruited.”
While UNT has not garnered the national attention ULM has received, it is still in the bowl hunt heading into its game against ULM, a team in the midst of a special season.
“It’s good for the Sun Belt,” UNT quarterback Thompson said of ULM’s success. “Monroe beating Arkansas and losing close games to Auburn and Baylor helps put this conference on the map and shows that we are not just a lower-level league.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
NORTH TEXAS GAMEDAY
UNT at Louisiana-Monroe
• When: 3 p.m.
• Where: Malone Stadium
• Records: UNT 4-6, 3-3 Sun Belt,
ULM 6-4, 4-2 Sun Belt
• Series: ULM leads 15-13
• Last week: UNT 24, South Alabama 14; Arkansas State 45, ULM 23
• Line: ULM by 10
• Radio: KHYI-FM 95.3, KNTU-FM 88.1
UNT S Marcus Trice vs. ULM QB Kolton Browning
Browning might be the best player in the Sun Belt Conference regardless of position.
The junior leads the league in total offense with an average of 301.6 yards a game and is also No. 1 in touchdown passes with 23. He will be back today after missing most of two games due to injury.
“No one was playing better football in the Sun Belt at any position than Kolton Browning when he got hurt,” McCarney said. “No one.”
Browning is a true dual-threat quarterback who is at his best when he can find open space and make plays. His 16-yard scramble for a touchdown in overtime gave ULM a win over Arkansas in one of the biggest upsets of the year in college football.
Browning has rushed for 426 yards on the season, the top total among players ranked in the top 10 in total offense in the Sun Belt this week. He is completing 61.8 percent of his passes on the season.
ULM head coach Todd Berry said early in the week that he believed Browning had recovered to the point that he would be able to play against UNT, but was unsure if he would be healthy enough to be effective.
He said later in the week that Browning will start, which will put added pressure on UNT’s defense, including safety Marcus Trice. UNT ranks second in the Sun Belt in scoring defense at 26.7 points a game partly because of the play of its safety, who is tied for fourth on the team in tackles with 56 and is also tied for the team lead with two interceptions.
UNT will need Trice to help contain Browning and prevent him from getting out of the pocket in addition to holding up in pass defense.
HOW THEY MATCH UP
UNT’s offense vs. ULM’s defense
UNT played one of its better games of the season offensively last week in a 24-14 win over South Alabama when it came to putting points on the board. Brandin Byrd broke free for an 85-yard touchdown run, while Jeremy Brown posted a 51-yard scoring run.
UNT has not been consistent throughout the season, though. The Mean Green is averaging 21.1 points a game.
ULM has struggled most of the season defensively and has given up at least 40 points in three of its last four games. The Warhawks have been good against the run, though, and rank second in the Sun Belt in rushing defense with an average of 135.0 yards allowed a game. If ULM can play well against the run again today, it will give the Warhawks the edge.
UNT’s defense vs. ULM’s offense
ULM has been the best offensive team in the Sun Belt throughout the season and leads the league with an average of 36.1 points a game.
The Warhawks are particularly potent in the passing game, where they have averaged 297.7 yards a game. ULM had to get by for most of two games without Browning, its star quarterback and still scored an average of 23.5 points in those two games.
UNT has improved defensively this season and ranks second in the Sun Belt in scoring defense with an average of 26.7 points allowed a game.The Mean Green has struggled at times in pass defense, which could be a problem against ULM.
1. Put pressure on ULM’s star QB Browning
ULM quarterback Kolton Browning has shown the ability to make big plays when he gets outside of the pocket or has time to throw the ball. UNT will have a much better chance to win if it can get to Browning, who might not be at his best after coming back from an injury that kept him out nearly two full games.
2. Make some big plays again to spark offense
Perhaps the biggest reason UNT knocked off South Alabama last week was that it was able to make some big plays offensively. Brandin Byrd broke off an 85-yard touchdown run and Jeremy Brown scored from 51 yards out. ULM leads the Sun Belt with an average of 36.1 points a game. UNT will have to score to keep up.
3. Win the vital turnover battle again today
UNT won the turnover battle last week in a win over South Alabama 2-1 and caught a break when Tyrell Pearson fumbled after intercepting a Derek Thompson pass. UNT took over at its 20 on a call the Sun Belt later said the replay official missed. USA should have gotten the ball at the UNT 1-yard line following the fumble. Turnovers can be huge.
4. Contain ULM star receiver Leonard
ULM’s Brent Leonard is one of the top wide receivers in the Sun Belt and comes into today’s game leading the league with an average of 7.6 catches a game. Leonard is the type of receiver who can get open, catch short passes and keep ULM’s offense on the field. The Mean Green can’t afford to let him have a big day.