The days leading up to North Texas’ Conference USA home opener against Middle Tennessee on Saturday weren’t the most pleasant for the Mean Green’s offensive linemen and running backs.
Not after UNT struggled to get its running game going at times in its first six games of the season.
Head coach Dan McCarney made no secret of the fact that he asked some tough questions of his coaches and players about just what was ailing the Mean Green’s running game and credited UNT’s improvement in its win over the Blue Raiders to that approach.
UNT racked up 303 rushing yards against MTSU, its top total since rushing for 352 yards in a win over Texas Southern in the second game of last season. The Mean Green’s output against the Blue Raiders on Saturday was also its best against a Football Bowl Subdivison team since its final home game of the 2011 season, when UNT tied a school record with 464 rushing yards in a 59-7 win over MTSU.
That was a dramatic improvement from the previous two weeks, when UNT rushed for 41 yards combined in losses to Tulane and Georgia.
The trend is one the Mean Green will aim to continue in Saturday’s game at Louisiana Tech.
“They should have responded and taken it personally,” McCarney said. “You guys didn’t have to write about it to make it personal. I made it personal with them because it was inexcusable. If we didn’t have good system, a good offensive line, Division I backs or guys who know how to execute, maybe we try to cover it up and sweep it under the carpet and make an excuse. We do have those things in place.
“It was not a fun week for our offensive players or coaches. If you can’t run the ball at North Texas, you are not going to have a chance to win games.”
The environment should be a lot more comfortable for UNT’s coaches and players this week, especially after the Mean Green improved to 3-3 for the first time since 2003.
What UNT is hoping is that its outing against MTSU is just a start when it comes to the improvement of its running game.
Louisiana Tech ranks 11th out off 14 teams in C-USA in rushing defense with an average of 198.3 yards allowed a game.
UNT’s performance against MTSU certainly caught the attention of Tech and its players.
“The biggest challenge is going to be eliminating the run,” Bulldogs defensive lineman Kendrick James said. “If we can eliminate the run and make them one dimensional, I feel that will slow the game down for us.”
McCarney said that Louisiana Tech’s defensive line is among its best assets, even though the Bulldogs have struggled against the run at times this season.
UNT feels better about facing the challenge James and the rest of the Bulldogs’ line will present after McCarney made the environment at the Mean Green Athletic Center a little unpleasant.
“You have to shake up the world once in a while,” McCarney said. “You have to make sure guys know this is what we expect and that they are capable of doing it.”
Brown getting closer to return
Junior defensive end Quenton Brown participated in drills in the days leading up to UNT’s win over MTSU last week and is getting closer to making his season debut.
Brown, who transferred to UNT from Eastern Arizona Community College after beginning his career at Central Florida, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during spring practice.
Brown spent the 2010 season at UCF as a redshirt. McCarney said Brown will lose a year of eligibly this season whether he plays or not.
“I have no doubt he will be back some time this season,” McCarney said. “He is very questionable for this week, but I think in the near future he has a realistic chance to come back.”
Brown spent time with UNT’s first-team defense in the spring before being injured.
“He got into a few one-on-one drills last week, which was great to see,” McCarney said. “Whenever he comes back, our defense will be better because he brings some speed, quickness and athleticism that we are a little shy on right now with our defensive ends. We are tough, hard nosed and physical, but he brings some speed and quickness that we need more of.”
Giving up less big plays
UNT allowed just two plays of more than 20 yards last week in its win over MTSU and didn’t give up a single offensive play of 20 yards or more in a loss to Tulane two weeks ago.
McCarney and his players see those back-to-back solid outings in terms of limiting big plays as a sign of improvement defensively.
UNT gave up eight plays of at least 20 yards in a loss to Georgia and seven in a win over Ball State before improving in its last two games.
“Consistency with understanding assignments and taking pride in the job you do play after play has helped us cut down on big plays,” McCarney said.
McCarney also said UNT has done a better job of moving on from mistakes and preventing them from leading to another.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.