There were times last week against Ohio when North Texas running back Reggie Pegram felt like he was running into something resembling a fence — and not one of the white picket variety.
The junior is a key component of a highly regarded running game that is expected to be the Mean Green’s strength but struggled to get rolling in a 27-21 loss to the Bobcats. UNT finished with 104 rushing yards on 38 carries, an average of just 2.7 yards per attempt, and didn’t have a run longer than Pegram’s 10-yard burst that accounted for nearly half of his 23 yards on the night.
The Mean Green’s rushing total was its lowest since the ninth week of the 2012 season, when Arkansas State held UNT to 84 yards on 30 carries, and marked the first time since a win over Florida Atlantic in the fifth game of 2012 that at least one UNT back didn’t average at least 3.0 yards per carry.
“At times we didn’t execute and Ohio stacked the box a lot on us,” Pegram said. “I felt like I could have made more people miss and broken a few more tackles.”
UNT’s hopes to rebound in a key game against Ball State on Saturday could hinge largely on Pegram and the rest of the Mean Green’s running backs doing just that.
Ball State is allowing 218.5 rushing yards per game and is undersized along a defensive front that averages just 266.5 pounds per starter. Starting defensive end Michael Ayers is listed at 218 pounds.
UNT has a chance to improve to 2-1 for the first time since returning to what is now the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1995 with a win over Ball State and will look to its running game to lead the way, no matter what approach the Cardinals take defensively after an outing Mean Green coach Dan McCarney and his players were not pleased with.
“The most disappointing thing to me was that we didn’t run the ball better,” McCarney said. “If they put 11 guys at the line, we should run the ball better. We need to be more dynamic when we get the ball. We have to make people miss and pick up yards after contact. I think the potential is there, but we didn’t do it on Saturday.”
UNT’s history and the pedigree of its running backs are the reason for McCarney’s confidence.
The Mean Green had three running backs finish with at least 500 yards in a season for the third time in school history last fall, when Brandin Byrd and Antoinne Jimmerson posted 875 and 544 yards, respectively. UNT lost senior Jeremy Brown, who added 505 yards, but filled that void with Pegram, who sat out last season after transferring from Purdue.
The trio combined to account for 144 of 187 rushing yards in a 40-6 win over Idaho to open the season.
Ohio essentially took UNT’s backs out of the game while stacking the line. That opened up opportunities for quarterback Derek Thompson, who threw for 195 yards. Most of those yards came on short gains on a night the Mean Green didn’t make Ohio pay for focusing on taking away UNT’s running game.
Thompson hit wide receiver Carlos Harris for a 31-yard touchdown that helped the Mean Green rally from a 14-point second-half deficit to tie the game at 21 in the fourth quarter, but the Mean Green quickly stalled, came up with just two other pass plays of 20 yards or more and saw Ohio pull away.
Ball State coach Pete Lembo does not expect UNT to stray far from the running game despite its struggles last week.
“They use the power running game and are on the same page as far as what they are doing,” Lembo said. “They have grown since last year.”
That growth was expected, not only because of the return of Byrd and Jimmerson but a veteran offensive line as well. UNT has all but one of its starters back.
That group helped pave the way for UNT’s landmark season in 2012, when the Mean Green led the nation with six sacks allowed and cleared the way for three backs to reach 500 yards. Ohio sacked Thompson twice and put a lid on UNT’s running game, although McCarney said the Mean Green’s pass protection remained superb.
UNT’s running game is usually just as good, especially after tough outings. The Mean Green was held under 100 rushing yards three times last season and posted at least 197 yards the next week while averaging 260.0 yards per game.
UNT’s hopes to improve to 2-1 will hinge partly on the Mean Green repeating that history and avoiding being fenced in again.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.