North Texas head coach Dan McCarney and his players left little doubt Monday of just how important they believe their game Saturday against Middle Tennessee is to their hopes of posting the Mean Green’s first winning season since 2004.
The importance of that showdown with the Blue Raiders led McCarney to call for a big turnout from UNT’s students and fans in the Mean Green’s first home game since a win over Ball State on Sept. 14.
“I hope we have a great atmosphere,” McCarney said. “I got down on my knees and begged our fans and students to come back since I took the job. We have all kinds of recruits who come in on unofficial visits and a team that responds and reacts to our fans. Who wants to come in and play in front of three-quarters-empty stadiums, half-empty stadiums? I don’t, players don’t. Recruits don’t want to see that. They want to see support, they want to see energy, enthusiasm and passion. I think they will see that.”
UNT (2-3, 0-1 Conference USA) is 2-0 at Apogee Stadium this season and 9-4 overall at home under McCarney, who took over a program that was 1-16 at home in the three seasons prior to his arrival.
UNT has seen attendance rise as the Mean Green has improved under McCarney, who posted 11 wins in his first 27 games and became the quickest coach at the school to reach the 11-win mark since Corky Nelson in 1984.
UNT set a record for total attendance in 2011, when 113,186 fans were in the stands for six home games for an average of 18,864 per game, and then attracted an average of 18,927 fans for five games last season.
The Mean Green averaged 18,361 fans for its first two home games this year.
McCarney sees plenty of room for growth in that total in UNT’s first season in C-USA.
“We need our fans,” McCarney said. “It’s easy to say, ‘Win, Mac;’ ‘Win, North Texas;’ ‘Go win, but I’m not coming to the game this week.’ How about come to the stadium, help support us, and together let’s keep moving forward with this program? That is what I’m asking, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask. We have 100,000 graduates right down the road in Dallas and Fort Worth. We need to start getting those people who don’t come to games to support us.”
UNT’s student attendance has risen in the McCarney era that has coincided with the first three seasons in Apogee Stadium. The trend is one McCarney wants to see continue.
“Students have been fabulous, but some of them still don’t come to games,” McCarney said. “We still have some who tailgate who don’t come in the stadium. Come help us and grab a rally towel. Everyone wants to win. Come to the stadium and help us. Hopefully we will get a great response on Saturday night.”
Starting tackles expected to be near full strength
Starting tackles Antonio Johnson and LaChris Anyiam both had arthroscopic knee surgery prior to UNT’s game against Tulane on Saturday and are expected to be closer to full strength this week against MTSU.
Johnson did not play in UNT’s loss to Georgia on Sept. 21 and did not start last week in a loss to Tulane.
Anyiam has started every game this season and moved to left tackle in UNT’s last two games when the Mean Green shuffled its offensive line to make up for the absence of Johnson, who came off the bench against the Green Wave.
Neither Johnson nor Anyiam practiced in full pads the last two weeks.
“I am really proud of them,” McCarney said. “It speaks well of those young men and how much they give to the program. It’s hard enough to play on Saturdays when you practice and do everything you are supposed to, much less stand around and watch and ride a bike and rehab.”
UNT is expecting having both to provide the Mean Green a boost.
“You are going to miss a three-year starter,” UNT running back Brandin Byrd said of Johnson.
UNT to explore medical redshirt for Williams
UNT could explore the possibility of appealing to the NCAA for a medical redshirt for freshman quarterback Dajon Williams, McCarney said.
McCarney was adamant before the season began that Williams would play in his first season with the Mean Green.
The former Pflugerville Connally standout played in UNT’s season opener against Idaho, which the Mean Green won easily 40-6. Williams threw for 55 yards while completing all but one of his six attempts against the Vandals.
UNT has been locked in a series of tight games ever since while senior Derek Thompson has tightened his grip on the starting job. Thompson has thrown for 1,346 yards and eight touchdowns with five interceptions.
McCarney called Thompson one of UNT’s most improved players earlier this year.
While Thompson has taken off, Williams has battled a series of minor injuries in practice and spent most of his time with the scout team.
UNT has turned to Andrew McNulty when Thompson has had to come out or at the end of games since its season opener.
“If D.T. [Thompson] stays healthy, he’s our guy, period,” McCarney said. “If there is any way because of injuries and missed practices that we can get a year back for Dajon, we will address it as time goes on.
“He hasn’t had a season-ending injury or had surgery, but he has missed some practices.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.