The last time North Texas was in New Orleans before its showdown with Tulane on Saturday, the Mean Green was in the midst of a remarkable run of success, and not just as a team.
The year was 2004, and Jamario Thomas won the national rushing title while leading UNT to the New Orleans Bowl just one season after his friend and teammate, Patrick Cobbs, reached the same milestone.
That duo was part of a remarkable run of great running backs that powered a rushing attack that never seemed to stall — at least not until the last couple of weeks.
There is little question now that UNT is stuck in neutral on the ground following a 24-21 loss to Tulane at the Superdome, where both Cobbs and Thomas were focal points for a pair of Sun Belt Conference championship teams.
UNT managed just 7 rushing yards three weeks ago in a loss to Georgia.
That was understandable.
The Bulldogs are a national powerhouse.
UNT followed that tough outing up by inching out 34 yards in its loss to the Green Wave, and 19 of those yards were picked up by quarterback Derek Thompson.
That’s a cause for concern, and maybe a shift in focus. We might have seen the early stages of that change on Saturday.
“It’s hard when we can’t run the ball,” Thompson said. “It feels like we are beating our heads into the wall at times.”
UNT is getting beaten in the process and is now nearing desperation time at 2-3 and 0-1 in Conference USA play after dropping its last two games.
The Mean Green is a run-first team. Always has been. It’s in this team’s DNA.
What UNT has to hope now is that it can find a way to get its running game that has featured a long line of standouts in Kevin Galbreath, Cobbs, Thomas and Lance Dunbar going again before it has to consider the alternatives.
The Mean Green hasn’t really had a star since Dunbar graduated after the 2011 season, but just last season had three running backs finish with at least 500 yards for the first time in 60 years.
UNT has 563 total rushing yards after five games and pretty much abandoned the running game after a quarter in its loss to Tulane.
It’s to the point now, where the Mean Green might have to consider that as a long-term option.
The Mean Green ran the ball 11 times in the first quarter and managed just 15 yards. UNT had nine carries on its final nine drives of the game.
That’s when UNT’s offense finally got going. The Mean Green came back from 14 points down and tied the score at 21-21 before Tulane drove for the game-winning field goal at the gun.
“We didn’t revamp our offense at halftime,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “We simply executed. We came back and played much better in the second half.”
That success came almost exclusively in the passing game. UNT had 71 total yards in the first half, 51 through the air and 20 on the ground.
The running game pretty much went out the window after halftime. Thompson threw for 275 yards in the second half, when the Mean Green rushed for just 14 yards.
Take UNT’s scoring drives.
UNT had four carries for 2 yards on those drives. The Mean Green ran 20 plays that covered 211 yards on those three possessions when Thompson went 13-for-16. UNT also picked up 15 yards on the second of those scoring drives when tight end Cooper Jones drew a pass interference penalty.
Those drives put UNT back in a game it would eventually lose.
UNT has made its share of mistakes throwing the ball. Thompson had an interception returned for a touchdown by Tulane’s Lorenzo Doss. He also made a host of big plays, including hitting Darnell Smith for a 62-yard touchdown that gave UNT a chance to win the game late.
Thompson and his receivers have been a high-risk, high-reward proposition this season.
The time might have arrived when taking those risks more often is well worth the reward.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.