By the time lineman Mason Y’Barbo and the rest of the North Texas offense settled in for the first series against Middle Tennessee on Saturday night at Apogee Stadium, they were sick of hearing about their struggles in the running game.
It’s safe to say after a 34-7 win over the Blue Raiders in UNT’s Conference USA home opener that they won’t have to hear about them any longer.
Y’Barbo helped clear the way for a dominant UNT rushing attack that rolled up a whopping 303 yards. That total represented a dramatic turn of events for UNT after managing just 41 yards total in losses to Tulane and Georgia the last two games.
“We took it as a challenge,” Y’Barbo said. “We had heard that North Texas can’t run the ball. The last thing you want to do is [upset] this offensive line, our running backs and our offense. That is just the beginning of what is going to come the rest of the season.”
That is the hope for UNT, which at 3-3 is off to its best start since the 2003 season after improving to 3-0 at home and 1-1 in C-USA. UNT also improved to 10-3 at home in three seasons under head coach Dan McCarney.
UNT reached those milestones with one of its best all-around performances in recent memory. The Mean Green rolled up total 416 yards, had its first 100-yard rushing game from a running back and limited MTSU (3-4, 1-2 C-USA) to 66 passing yards, a low for the Apogee era that began in 2011.
Austin Grammer rushed for 106 yards to lead MTSU, which benched starting quarterback Logan Kilgore in the first half.
The result for UNT was the end of a two-game losing streak that included a last-second loss to Tulane last week.
“We challenged them in a lot of ways,” McCarney said of his players. “It was a hard loss we took to Tulane last week. You want to put it behind you, but it motivated us to get better.”
UNT certainly looked better against MTSU, which couldn’t stop the Mean Green’s running back trio of Brandin Byrd, Reggie Pegram and Antoinne Jimmerson. Byrd finished with 139 yards and became the first UNT back to cross the 100-yard mark this season. Pegram added 88 yards and Jimmerson 72.
“Our offensive line took care of its business and was opening holes for us,” Byrd said.
UNT broke the game open in the second quarter, scoring 17 points in the final seven minutes of the half to take a 24-7 lead.
Byrd capped a 12-play, 75-yard drive with a 1-yard run to break a 7-all tie. That seemed to open the floodgates for the Mean Green.
MTSU got the ball back at its 17-yard line, where Grammer’s first-down pass was tipped by linebacker Will Wright. Safety Lariamie Lee picked the ball off and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown.
UNT tacked on a 21-yard Zach Paul field goal with 30 seconds left in the half after Brelan Chancellor returned a 56-yard Josh Davis punt 55 yards to the MTSU 12-yard line.
UNT went into cruise control from there with a running game that seemed to benefit from the continuity it had up front with its offensive line, which has dealt with a series of injuries throughout the early part of the season.
UNT tackles Antonio Johnson and LaChris Anyiam both had been dealing with knee injuries that required arthroscopic surgery. The Mean Green had shuffled its lineup to deal with those injuries but had everyone back in place for its game against the Blue Raiders.
Y’Barbo said being next to Johnson again was like having one of his arms back.
McCarney could see the difference from the sideline as UNT got back to what it has always done well — run the ball.
“There was no doubt that our offensive line as that game went on just kept taking better control of the line of scrimmage, and our backs ran hard,” McCarney said. “It was impressive to watch from the sideline. It was back to Mean Green football.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.