The more North Texas coach Dan McCarney and his players saw of Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning on film over the last few days, the more impressed they became.
Senior defensive backs Marcus Trice and Hilbert Jackson were among the players who sat in dimly lit rooms with McCarney and his assistants and watched the highlights of Wenning accounting for five touchdowns in a win over Illinois State and throwing for two more in a win over Army last week.
“He’s strong and physical, has a good arm, good presence and complete command of their offense,” McCarney said. “He doesn’t make a lot of plays with his feet. He makes a lot of plays with his mind and his arm. He can sling the football around.”
In other words, he’s just the type of player UNT has struggled to contain over the last few years.
UNT has given up at least 260 passing yards in 10 games dating to the beginning of the 2011 season. Strong pocket passers like Wenning often have thrived against the Mean Green.
UNT has a chance to move to 2-1 for the first time since returning to what is now the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1995 with a win over the Cardinals on Saturday. The Mean Green’s hopes of reaching that goal could depend largely on turning around its fortunes defensively and containing Wenning.
Ball State running back Jahwan Edwards, who rushed for 1,410 yards last season, suffered a concussion in the Cardinals’ season-opening win over Illinois State and missed last week’s win over Army. He is questionable for Saturday’s game.
With Edwards potentially out or limited, chances are Ball State will rely largely on Wenning to power its offense.
“He’s a great kid who is very humble, modest, grounded and pretty even-keeled,” Ball State coach Pete Lembo said of his quarterback. “He has become a real student of the game and a really good leader. He’s two-year team captain and has a good idea of what all 22 guys on the field should be doing. I like the way he has slowly but steadily grown as a person and a player.”
UNT’s key challenge
UNT is hoping to see that kind of growth from its secondary this week in what will be another challenging game for a veteran group of defensive backs determined to learn from the mistakes they have made this season and in past years.
The enduring image of UNT’s 27-21 loss to Ohio last week is of Chase Cochran racing past the Mean Green’s secondary for a touchdown on the opening play after catching a well-placed pass from Tyler Tettleton.
The 75-yard catch-and-run was the second long pass play UNT has given on the opening possession in the first two weeks of the season. Idaho’s Michael LaGrone beat the Mean Green deep for a 59-yard strike from Chad Chalich in UNT’s season-opening win over Idaho.
UNT knows it can’t afford those types of mistakes against Ball State and Wenning.
“As a secondary, we have to step up this game,” said Jackson, one of UNT’s starting cornerbacks. “We have to come out and play with confidence.”
UNT has a few reasons to be confident heading into its showdown with Ball State. The Mean Green sacked Chalich four times, and it intercepted two passes against Ohio and Tettleton, including a key drive-killing pick by Kenny Buyers late in the second half.
UNT has allowed an average of 237.0 passing yards per game through the first two weeks of the season. The Mean Green ranks 72nd nationally in passing yards allowed a game, which is below average but not near the bottom of college football.
A game against Ball State could show whether or not UNT has improved since last season, when the Mean Green allowed 251.5 passing yards per game to rank 87th nationally.
“This will be the best batch of receivers we have seen so far,” said Trice, a safety. “Our defensive backs are looking forward to the challenge of facing a team with a quarterback who can really throw the ball and receivers who run good routes and catch the ball.”
UNT has faced similar challenges in the past against quarterbacks who primarily stay in the pocket, and struggled.
Middle Tennessee quarterback Logan Kilgore threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns on a day he carried the ball just once in a 38-21 win over UNT last season, when Houston’s David Piland threw for 321 yards and two touchdowns on a day he carried the ball just twice.
McCarney named improving the performance of his secondary as one of his top priorities in the offseason. UNT hired Ryan Walters to take over as cornerbacks coach and brought in junior college cornerback James Jones and safety Zed Evans, a Louisville transfer, to bolster UNT’s depth and talent level.
UNT ended up right where it left off with Jackson, Trice, Zac Whitfield and Lairamie Lee as its starters in the first two games.
That will change this week when Buyers will start in place of Whitfield, who gave up two key completions last week, including Cochran’s 75-yard touchdown.
The question is whether UNT will be any more effective against Wenning, who a few months ago appeared as if he might not be ready to play at the beginning of the season.
Wenning back in top form
Ball State entered the season with high hopes after an appearance in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl and a 9-4 finish in 2012.
Those hopes seemed to dim when Wenning tore the meniscus in his left knee two days into fall camp. He had arthroscopic surgery Aug. 3.
“When talking about the surgery, they said it was about a two-week process,” Wenning told the Indianapolis Star. “I was initially thinking, ‘Here we go again. I don’t want to miss practice.’ But the recovery was really quick.”
Wenning was back in time for Ball State’s season opener against Illinois State and has been on a tear ever since. He threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for two more in Ball State’s win over Illinois State. Last week, he threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns.
Wenning’s 665 passing yards on the season ranks 10th nationally.
“If you look deeper into it as we do and go back to previous seasons, he doesn’t turn the ball over much and has a great presence,” McCarney said. “All the skill-position players around him are back. They are impressive. This is a really good football team.”
Wenning has 7,919 career passing yards and likely will go over the 8,000-yard mark against the Mean Green and a secondary that is looking to improve its performance against top pocket passers.
How far Wenning goes over that mark will go a long way toward determining whether UNT can contain what McCarney says is an explosive offense.
“What you see is dominance — them moving up and down the field, wide receivers making plays and a quarterback who doesn’t turn the ball over,” McCarney said. “All the pieces are there for them to have a really good season.”
Wenning is the biggest piece of them all, one UNT will have to contain Saturday.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.
Quarterbacks’ big games vs. UNT
The following is a look at the 10 times North Texas has allowed more than 260 passing yards to an opposing quarterback since the beginning of the 2011 season:
29-for-42, 274 yards, 2 TD
31-for-41, 321 yards, 2 TD
26-for-41, 265 yards, 1 TD
20-for-30, 349 yards, 3 TD
25-for-32, 328 yards, 2 TD
25-for-34, 324 yards, 3 TD
26-for-41, 458 yards, 5 TD
20-for-31, 314 yards, 3 TD
28-for-42, 322 yards, 3 TD
27-for-39, 267 yards, 4 TD