The fans in the stands at Apogee Stadium already had started chants of “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye” in the closing moments of a blowout win over Middle Tennessee on Saturday when Blue Raiders quarterback Austin Grammer scrambled straight up the middle of the field.
UNT backup linebacker Sed Ellis was waiting and leveled Grammer, knocking his helmet off with what officials ruled a clean hit, one that illustrated the progress the Mean Green’s defense has made heading into its game at Louisiana Tech on Saturday.
The Mean Green stifled the Blue Raiders in a 34-7 win that featured more than a few big hits by UNT players and three MTSU turnovers. The Blue Raiders managed just 66 passing yards, a low for the Apogee era that began in 2011.
“When people throw on the tape right now, they are seeing a defense that will come whack your rear end,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “They are playing physical. I want that to be in the DNA of this program.”
McCarney has been a defensive-minded coach throughout his career and has seen UNT begin to take on that mentality in its second season under coordinator John Skladany. The two worked together at Iowa State from 1997-2006.
UNT allowed 27.8 points per game last season and enters Saturday’s game ranked second in Conference USA with an average of 22.7 points allowed a game. Only Marshall at 18.3 is allowing fewer points per game.
The Mean Green’s total is somewhat deceptive considering UNT has given up four touchdowns on offense and special teams. UNT has had two interceptions, a fumble and a blocked field goal returned for touchdowns.
“This is what we expected from our team, to be playing like this, playing good defense and being gap-sound,” UNT cornerback Kenny Buyers said. “People can’t run the ball on us and have had to throw it.”
The Mean Green’s win over MTSU marked the second time this season that UNT has allowed fewer than 10 points in a game. UNT opened the season with a 40-6 win over Idaho.
McCarney and his players credited their improvement to depth, the progress a few key contributors have made and the understanding UNT has reached when it comes to Skladany’s scheme.
“Our whole defense has gotten better,” McCarney said. “We are rotating eight guys in the defensive line, which has really helped us, and our guys have bought in to our system. John Skaldany has done a great job of bringing our defense along, and we still have a long way to go.”
UNT has forced 17 turnovers and made 12 sacks in six games. Only MTSU and Tulane have forced more turnovers, with 20 in seven games, among C-USA teams.
McCarney has thought since the spring that UNT would have a chance to improve defensively and has seen those expectations come to fruition.
“I saw more speed on defense and a better understanding of our system,” McCarney said. “We have had the same coordinator for the first time in a long time. That continuity makes a difference, and I saw enough seniors who wanted to take leadership.”
Those seniors, including linebacker Zach Orr and safety Marcus Trice, are establishing a hard-hitting culture that was evident in UNT’s win over MTSU.
“We were really physical,” McCarney said. “Our defense really understands that if you want to be good how hard and how big you have to play. This is a game of collisions. It’s physical and in our DNA. It’s one thing to talk about it. It’s another thing to play like it.”
UNT players named to mid-season all-league team
Seven UNT players were named to Phil Steele’s Midseason All-C-USA Team on Tuesday.
Brelan Chancellor was named to the first team as a kick returner and to the second team as a wide receiver/punt returner. The senior is averaging 31.6 yards per kick return and 19.3 yards a punt return. He has caught 27 passes for 397 yards and two touchdowns.
Orr, who has 56 tackles through six games, and offensive lineman Cyril Lemon also made the first team. Defensive end Aaron Bellazin, who has 18 tackles and two sacks, was a second-team pick.
Quarterback Derek Thompson, wide receiver Darnell Smith and offensive lineman Mason Y’Barbo were on the third team. Thompon has thrown for 1,459 yards and eight touchdowns, while Smith has 41 catches for 445 yards and three touchdowns.
UNT rolls into key match
UNT scored seven goals combined last week in wins over Texas-San Antonio and Charlotte, giving the Mean Green momentum heading into a key game at Tulsa on Friday.
The Mean Green (9-5-1) is 3-2-1 in conference play and battling for the second spot in C-USA’s West Division with several teams, including Tulsa, which is 3-1-1 in league play.
Colorado College is unbeaten in conference play at 5-0.
“This is a big game against Tulsa,” UNT coach John Hedlund said. “I don’t know if anyone is going to catch Colorado College.”
UNT feels better about its prospects against the Golden Hurricane after its offense that had been struggling got on track. UNT shut out Charlotte 3-0 in its last game and beat UTSA 4-2.
“Those wins got us back on track,” UNT midfielder Leah Cox said. “We started connecting up top and got the ball to the person with the best shot.”
UNT was shut out by Rice earlier this month before falling to Colorado College 3-2 in a game that seemed to get the Mean Green back on the right track offensively.
“We are scoring goals and got seven over the weekend, which is really huge for us,” Hedlund said. “We got our offense going and put some of our opportunities in the net. We take off as a team when we are scoring goals.”
Senior Kelsey Hodges played a big part in UNT’s momentum-turning week, scoring three goals. The former Guyer standout was named the C-USA Player of the Week and also was named to Top Drawer Soccer’s national team of the week.
“It’s a high honor,” Hodges said. “I’m excited about it because it got us some recognition nationally.”
UNT heads out on key trip
UNT will face UAB and UTSA in the first two matches of a key three-match road swing beginning this week.
UNT (12-10) beat Charlotte before falling to Marshall last week and enters the trip in a three-way tie for fourth place in the C-USA standings with Marshall and UTEP at 4-2.
“We are floundering a little bit,” UNT coach Andrew Palileo said. “We play well one match and not the next. We are still learning. We have to continue to get better.”
While UNT believes it still has room to improve, it has played well throughout C-USA play. The Mean Green’s only losses came against Tulsa and Marshall, both of which are near the top of the conference standings.
How UNT fares this week will go a long way toward determining whether UNT can keep pace with those teams.
“We are going into three matches on the road,” Palileo said. “It’s really critical that we play well.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.