North Texas had just been hit square in the mouth in the opening moments of its game against Idaho on Saturday night when Zach Orr gathered the Mean Green’s defense on the sideline.
UNT was down 6-0 after just four plays, including a 59-yard strike over the top of its secondary.
The poise Orr and his teammates showed after that quick huddle during its season opener played a key role in the Mean Green blowing past the Vandals 40-6 and carrying a lot of momentum into a game this week at Ohio.
UNT’s defense shut Idaho out the rest of the way and built confidence after a tough end to last season when the Mean Green allowed at least 37 points in three of its final five games and gave up two late scores in a season-ending 25-24 loss to Western Kentucky.
“It meant a lot,” Orr, a senior linebacker, said of the way UNT bounced back from a tough start against Idaho. “During the second week of camp, we had a players’ only meeting and came up with what we wanted our DNA to be. One of our points was to be fearless. No matter what happens — if someone is in our red zone or scores on us fast — we have to step up to the challenge. To see that was really good. After they scored, we came back to the bench and said, ‘Let’s settle down and be fearless.’ To see that shows the maturity of our team.”
The six points UNT allowed was the lowest total the Mean Green has given up since a 33-6 win over WKU in 2010.
Orr played a key role in that performance, not only in the leadership he showed by rallying UNT’s defense on the sideline but also in racking up 10 tackles, forcing a fumble and recovering another.
Orr was named Conference USA’s Defensive Player of the Week on Monday and made history as the first UNT football player to earn that honor in the league.
UNT needed the leadership and playmaking ability Orr provided after Micahel LaGrone worked his way behind the Mean Green’s secondary and hauled in a 59-yard pass on Idaho’s opening possession.
UNT safety Marcus Trice came in and knocked the ball away, but Idaho’s Max McIntosh recovered it at the Mean Green’s 9-yard line. Idaho scored two plays later when Jake Manley caught a 6-yard pass from Chad Chalich.
Idaho recovered an onside kick on the ensuing play but couldn’t crack UNT’s defense, despite taking over at the Mean Green’s 45-yard line.
Idaho had another opportunity deep in UNT’s end of the field after Jerrel Brown broke free for a 47-yard run down to the Mean Green’s 28-yard line. UNT turned Idaho away a second time when safety Lairamie Lee cut down Brown a yard short on a fourth-and-3 run up the middle.
UNT ended up forcing four fumbles and recovered three of them.
“We had a poor start defensively with poor technique and poor eyes in the secondary on the big play and had a bust up front on a long run play,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “We looked like a bunch of clowns on defense early in the game. Then we settled down, gave up no more points, forced three turnovers and played good, solid Mean Green defense.”
The turnovers UNT forced were particularly encouraging. UNT tied for 85th nationally with eight fumble recoveries last season and worked all offseason on techniques to help improve that total.
“Those turnovers were really important,” Orr said. “It was neat to see that they were forced fumbles because we didn’t force many last year. We worked on our tackling technique, stripping the ball out and hitting guys harder.”
UNT will look to build on that performance against Ohio, which was hammered by No. 9 Louisville 49-7 on Sunday. The Bobcats will have a lot on the line when they look to bounce back against the Mean Green.
Ohio features senior quarterback Tyler Tettleton, who has thrown for 6,418 yards in his career. Tettleton and the Bobcats will present a challenge for UNT, one the Mean Green’s defense should feel a lot better about facing after a big outing against Idaho.
“We are going to face a team that is more productive and prolific,” McCarney said of Ohio. “[They have] a quarterback who has played a whole bunch of football.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.