Brandin Byrd eyed the right side of the North Texas line on the second play Saturday afternoon, took the ball from Derek Thompson and went barreling forward like he has so many times in his career.
Only this time, Tulane defensive tackle Chris Davenport was waiting and stuffed the senior running back at the line of scrimmage.
That scene played out over and over at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a 24-21 Tulane win that left UNT facing uncomfortable — not to mention unexpected — questions about what has happened to its running game. UNT has hit what it hopes is a just bump in the road the last two weeks, rushing for a total of 41 yards in losses to Tulane and Georgia.
At a lot of schools, consecutive games when the running game falls flat might not be a cause for concern.
At UNT, where the running game is at the core of the program’s identity, it’s sent the Mean Green searching for answers as it prepares for a home game Saturday against Middle Tennessee.
“It’s very frustrating because there is no secret that we want to run the ball,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “It’s at the heart of what we did when we built this program — run the football, execute, keep moving the chains and then throw and get people guessing at what we are trying to do.”
That’s exactly what UNT did when it opened the season with a 40-6 win over Idaho and rallied from an 18-point deficit to edge Ball State 34-27. UNT didn’t mow its first three opponents over, but did rush for 187 yards against the Vandals and 231 yards against the Cardinals.
The question now is what has gone wrong since and how to fix it. There is little doubt that UNT’s slump is due partly to facing a national power in Georgia, but the more the Mean Green has looked at its last two games, the more it sees lingering issues, including the health of its offensive line, the need for its running backs to make more plays and the importance of backing defenses off the line of scrimmage with an effective passing game.
“We can’t blame it on one thing,” Byrd said of UNT’s struggles. “The whole unit has to be successful if you want to run the ball or throw the ball. It takes all 11. You have to be able to execute.”
The health and performance of UNT’s offensive line might be the Mean Green’s biggest concern. The unit led the nation with six sacks allowed last season and was expected to be the Mean Green’s biggest strength.
The group hasn’t been the same this year due to a series of key injuries. McCarney is notoriously vague when it comes to addressing his team’s health, to avoid giving away scouting information, but did say this week that tackles Antonio Johnson and LaChris Anyiam had arthroscopic knee surgery earlier this year and are not at full strength. Neither practiced in the two weeks leading up to UNT’s game against Tulane.
Johnson missed UNT’s loss to Georgia, which forced Anyiam to move from right tackle to left tackle to replace Johnson. Cyril Lemon moved from right guard to right tackle, opening up a spot in the lineup that backup center Shawn McKinney filled.
Johnson played against Tulane but didn’t start.
“It really hurt us to not have Antonio,” running back Reggie Pegram said. “He has been in this offense for a while.”
The switches UNT has made in its lineup have hurt the Mean Green’s chemistry. Johnson and starting left guard Mason Y’Barbo have played alongside each other for three years, while Lemon and Anyiam have played next to each other for two.
Those familiar pairings have been broken up at times the last two weeks.
“It changes the chemistry when you move people around,” Lemon said. “You start putting guys in there who really haven’t played and have guys who are at positions they haven’t played. It doesn’t change the way we do things, but it changes the chemistry.”
Too often the last two weeks, UNT has struggled to perform with its new lineup. Of UNT’s 20 rushing attempts in its loss to Tulane, 12 went for 2 yards or less.
“Saturday, in the first half, our offensive line got whipped,” McCarney said. “There was no doubt about it. We got beat up front when we tried to run the ball.”
UNT’s running backs have not helped a struggling line by making defenders miss and picking up every available yard. McCarney said there have been times in UNT’s last two games that running backs have failed to capitalize on opportunities. The trio of Byrd, Pegram and Antoinne Jimmerson has combined for 28 yards on 32 carries the last two games. Byrd’s 8-yard carry against Georgia is the Mean Green’s longest running play in the last two games from its running backs.
“We are going to have to step up and make some plays,” Pegram said. “We need some holes, but the running backs need to make some plays.”
Defenses have tried to force UNT to make those plays throwing the ball this season by stacking the line of scrimmage to take away the running game and make the Mean Green’s offense one-dimensional.
Thompson has responded by throwing for 1,346 yards and eight touchdowns while completing 60 percent of his passes. The senior has only been sacked five times, but he has been pressured and hit regularly. Tulane defensive ends Tyler Gilbert and Julius Warmsley were in Thompson’s face when he tried to throw a screen pass that was tipped and intercepted by Tulane cornerback Lorenzo Doss, who went 59 yards for a touchdown.
Thompson bounced back to throw two touchdown passes against Tulane in the second half, when he threw for 275 of his 326 yards and essentially was UNT’s lone offensive threat. His 62-yard bomb to Darnell Smith tied the game at 21 before Tulane drove for the game-winning field goal.
UNT has been searching for a way to become more balanced ever since and found several areas in which it needs to improve.
The Mean Green had three running backs finish with at least 500 yards for the first time in 60 years last season, had Lance Dunbar clear the 1,000-yard mark in three straight seasons and become the all-time leading rusher in school history in 2011, and had Patrick Cobbs and Jamario Thomas win back-to-back national rushing titles in 2003 and 2004.
The Mean Green believes that if it is to be successful the rest of the season, it will have to find a way to get back to what it does well.
“We have a lot of work to do, because we are not going to wave the white flag, say we can’t run and go out there and throw it 70 times,” McCarney said. “I want to win games — so do my players, so do my coaches. We just have to do a better job, period, end of story. We have to do a better job of running the football.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.