One of North Texas’ goals heading into the season was to become a tad more efficient offensively.
Football coach Dan McCarney wanted to see UNT convert on a higher percentage of its third downs, produce at a higher rate in the red zone and become a lot more explosive.
UNT made strides toward those goals in a season-opening win over Idaho, only to take a step back in a loss to Ohio last week. The Mean Green’s running game was stuck in neutral most of the night and its efficiency on third down plummeted, leaving UNT looking for answers heading into a key game against Ball State on Saturday at Apogee Stadium.
UNT (1-1) can improve to 2-0 at Apogee Stadium this season and 9-4 under McCarney with a win over the Cardinals. The alternative would put UNT in a tough position early in the season at 1-2 heading into a showdown with No. 9 Georgia.
There might not be a more important problem UNT will have to address this week to avoid that fate than finding a way to be more efficient.
“It was execution that prevented us from moving the ball,” running back Reggie Pegram said of UNT’s performance against Ohio. “We beat ourselves and committed too many turnovers.”
UNT turned the ball over four times, although one came on a desperation heave in the final seconds.
The problems UNT ran into leading up to that point were what concerned McCarney most. UNT managed just 104 rushing yards on 38 carries, converted just four of its 14 third downs and picked up only 14 first downs. UNT converted eight of its 14 third-down opportunities against Idaho, which seemed to be an indication the Mean Green was headed in the right direction after converting just 33 percent of its third downs last season.
“We have to get better on third down,” McCarney said. “It was the same thing in close games last year. That was one reason we didn’t get to the 80 snaps we would like to have in a game. Our punt team was out there too many times when we should have been converting on third down.”
UNT took a long look at what prevented it from being more effective, not only on third down but offensively in general, following the loss. McCarney and offensive coordinator Mike Canales said before the season that they wanted to open up the Mean Green’s offense and be less predictable.
McCarney maintained being more diverse is the goal after UNT ran the ball on the opening play of each of its first 10 possessions against Ohio.
UNT was productive on a few of those plays to open possessions, including an 8-yard run by Brandin Byrd late in the first half.
The productive plays Byrd and Pegram posted while hammering away at Ohio’s defense were the exception most of the day. The Bobcats limited the Mean Green’s running game by stacking the line of scrimmage.
UNT made a host of big plays in the passing game in its win over Idaho and hit on a few against Ohio. Derek Thompson threw for 195 yards and two touchdowns. The senior’s 31-yard strike to Carlos Harris and 6-yard pass to Darnell Smith tied the game in the fourth quarter after UNT trailed 21-7.
McCarney still saw room for improvement.
“We have to be better at throwing the ball more efficiently, whether it’s first down, second down or third down,” McCarney said. “When teams are stacking it, you have to execute in the passing game. We have more receivers, a veteran quarterback, veteran offensive line — with the exception of our center — and a veteran group of tight ends. Let’s be smarter, make more plays and be less predictable.”
Part of UNT’s plan to be less predictable could be to get its tight ends more involved in the passing game. UNT’s tight ends caught 35 passes in 12 games last season but have yet to catch a pass this year. Drew Miller tied for fifth among the Mean Green’s players last season with 18 catches but is stuck on zero this year.
“Our tight ends are still out there,” McCarney said. “Can they be more involved as receivers? Yes, but they are still involved. We want to spread the ball around and have to do a better job of getting them the ball.”
McCarney pleased with secondary targets
Ohio shut down one of UNT’s top offensive playmakers, limiting wide receiver Brelan Chancellor to one reception for 33 yards to go along with one carry for 2 yards just one week after he posted 135 receiving yards against Idaho.
The way UNT’s other receivers filled the void was one of the positives McCarney saw in the Mean Green’s loss to the Bobcats.
Smith caught nine passes for 89 yards, while Harris added three catches for 55 yards.
“If teams are going to double [Chancellor] up, we need other guys to step up and make plays,” McCarney said. “That’s what happened with Darnell. A year ago, I don’t know if we had guys who could step up and do what we needed them to.”
McCarney and the Mean Green feel more confident that they have those players following the first two games of the season. UNT set a school record against Idaho when it had 12 players catch at least one pass.
Riley named C-USA player of the week
Haley Riley was thrust into UNT’s starting lineup at goalie this week and responded with a pair of shutouts in wins over Sam Houston State and TCU.
Riley posted five saves in a key 2-0 win over TCU on Sunday after making four saves in a 3-0 win over Sam Houston on Friday.
The sophomore was named the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week for her performance.
Riley moved into the starting lineup when UNT lost standout goalie Jackie Kerestine for the year to a torn ACL she suffered in a loss to Virginia Tech on Aug. 30.
Kerestine is expected to have surgery on her knee in the next few days. UNT coach John Hedlund said the school plans to apply for a medical redshirt for Kerestine, who played in UNT’s first four games and is under the NCAA limit for the percentage of a season played to be eligible for a redshirt.
TV game to highlight big weekend for Mean Green
UNT (4-2) will face Oklahoma on Sunday in its second televised game this season.
The Mean Green’s game against the Sooners will be shown on Fox Sports Southwest. UNT’s win over TCU was shown on the same channel.
The Mean Green will open its weekend slate with a home game against McNeese State on Friday night.
“We have never been on TV before this season, and we have two games on this year,” Hedlund said. “A ton of people from the DFW area, whether it was former players, alums, recruits or coaches, saw the game. It was really big, not only to beat [TCU] but to play so well.”
Hedlund said UNT dominated for a large part of the second half and will look to build on that performance this weekend in a pair of tough games. McNeese State is 5-1, while Oklahoma is the second Big 12 team UNT will face this season.
The Sooners likely will be ready for UNT after seeing the Mean Green beat the Horned Frogs.
“We can’t overlook McNeese State,” Hedlund said. “They are 5-1 and playing pretty well. I would hate for us to overlook them and not get the result we need. We need to take care of business Friday and then see what happens at OU.”
UNT aims to extend run at rival TCU
UNT will aim to continue a run that has seen the Mean Green win five of its last six matches today in a match against Dallas-Fort Worth rival TCU that will be broadcast on Fox Sports Southwest.
UNT (5-3) won three of its four matches last week at the North Texas Invitational, knocking off Texas State, Northwestern State and Prairie View A&M. The Mean Green’s only loss of the weekend came against Utah.
“We let a couple of matches get away from us and are still working on implementing the system,” first-year head coach Andrew Palileo said. “Even though we are struggling, we are winning matches. We have not lost to anyone we shouldn’t have yet based on the RPI numbers. Hopefully we can continue that trend and continue to get better.”
TCU (3-3) is a familiar opponent for UNT, which played the Horned Frogs in the spring.
“They are a physical team,” Palileo said. “We have worked on being more physical at the net and making quicker adjustments.”
UNT knocked off Texas-Arlington earlier this season and essentially can complete a sweep of area competition today. The Mean Green beat SMU for the first time since 1996 in its final match of last season.