Dan McCarney has drilled two key aspects of his philosophy into his players as North Texas nears the halfway point of his third season with the Mean Green.
The first is to be disciplined and avoid mistakes. The second is to be an aggressive, hard-hitting team that causes turnovers and forces opponents into the same types of mistakes it is trying to avoid.
That approach has UNT walking a fine line — one the Mean Green is struggling to find as it heads into a game against Middle Tennessee (3-3, 1-1 Conference USA) on Saturday at Apogee Stadium.
UNT has done a great job of forcing turnovers with 14, but also is the most penalized team in Conference USA both in terms of the number of penalties committed (40) and penalty yards per game (69.8).
The Mean Green (2-3, 0-1) was flagged a whopping 11 times for 105 yards last week in a 24-21 loss to Tulane in its C-USA debut.
“We are coached to be aggressive and physical,” UNT linebacker Zach Orr said. “That is what we are going to do — try to hit as hard as we can every time we get a chance. That is our M.O. as a defense. That won’t slow us down. We can’t let that affect us. We can’t let those calls back us off. If you back off, then maybe the guy breaks a tackle.”
That’s the last direction McCarney wants to see his team turn. UNT spent the offseason working at becoming better at forcing turnovers by hitting harder and stripping the ball from opponents at every opportunity.
The work has paid off for UNT, which enters the week tied with MTSU for second in the nation in fumbles recovered with nine, even though the Mean Green has played one fewer game than the Blue Raiders. Only Ball State with 10 in six games has recovered more fumbles than the Mean Green.
UNT also is tied for 10th nationally in turnovers gained with 14, while MTSU is second with 17.
“I would much rather have to tone it down than have to get down on my hands and knees and beg the players to be physical,” McCarney said. “Our defense is doing a really good job of that right now. You are not in the top 10 in the country in turnovers unless we are doing a good job of that, but we want to be smart and not do it late. We want to do it snap to whistle.”
UNT believes it has done a good job of playing that way for the most part, but it has racked up a huge number of penalties just five games in the season.
That’s a dramatic turn for UNT, which was the least penalized team in the Sun Belt Conference last season both in terms of number of penalties (52) and yards lost per game (43.3).
McCarney said pre-snap penalties like false starts bother him and are something UNT will try to clean up.
Personal fouls have hurt UNT even more. The Mean Green was flagged for four in its loss to Tulane. McCarney thought some of the penalties called against UNT in its loss to the Green Wave were questionable. Others, he said, were legitimate, including a face mask call that helped set up Cairo Santos’ game-winning field goal on the final play.
“I did turn in more plays this week to the conference office than I ever have,” McCarney said. “I just want an interpretation. I want consistency. I trust that Conference USA will get back to us and give us great reasoning and interpretations form their standpoint.”
McCarney pointed out that UNT had just four penalties in a loss to Georgia with an SEC crew working the game, but also said he believes C-USA has quality officials.
The key for UNT is finding a balance between the physical approach that is such an important part of what it wants to become and being a disciplined team.
“There is a thin line between being aggressive and being crazy and getting out of hand,” UNT offensive lineman Cyril Lemon said. “We are trying to find that balance between being physical and playing within the rules.”
UNT’s coaches and players say they need to cut down on some of the penalties they have committed, but are convinced they are not going overboard in terms of physical play.
“What we are doing is just fine,” UNT running back Reggie Pegram said. “In football you have to be aggressive. You can’t be soft.”