Back before North Texas opened its season against Idaho, Dan McCarney felt good about the Mean Green’s chances to be in the bowl hunt, largely because he had a roster full of experienced seniors.
Starting quarterback Derek Thompson was back, as was starting middle linebacker Zach Orr, wide receiver Brelan Chancellor and safety Marcus Trice.
Those players gave UNT’s head coach a great core to build his team around.
Nothing has transpired in the first half of the season to change the mind of UNT’s head coach, who has the Mean Green squarely in the bowl chase heading into the second half of the season, which begins at Louisiana Tech on Saturday.
“I love being around this football team,” McCarney said. “We would love to have one or two more wins, but I see a team that is getting better and is motivated. The senior class has taken control of this team and the locker room. They are making sure that we are following through on things we are striving for and stay hungry.”
UNT certainly is hungry after a solid first half of the season, with the Mean Green posting a 3-3 record. That puts UNT on course to end a string of eight straight losing seasons, but is not quite good enough for the Mean Green to feel overly comfortable.
“We would love to have one or two more, but when you step back and look at it, all of our goals that we want to accomplish are still in play,” Thompson said. “We haven’t eliminated ourselves from anything — the conference race, the bowl race, any of it.”
UNT arrived at that point by taking care of the games it had to, starting at home, where the Mean Green is 3-0 on the year.
UNT opened at home for the first time in 12 years and rolled past Idaho 40-6 in what was essentially a must-win game, considering the Mean Green paid the Vandals a hefty $410,000 guarantee to play at Apogee. UNT also rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat a Ball State team that is now 6-1 and hammered old Sun Belt Conference rival Middle Tennessee at home.
The road hasn’t been nearly as kind to UNT, which lost at Georgia, Tulane and Ohio, a trio of games that looked tough at the beginning of the season and turned out to be even bigger challenges than expected. Combined, the three teams are 13-6 on the season.
While UNT could not have foreseen the strength of some of the teams it has played, not much of what has gone on in the first half of the season has surprised the Mean Green’s coaches and players.
“I don’t know if there are any major surprises,” McCarney said. “What you hope is that what you teach and the standards you set drive you to perform. Our guys have bought into that. Our guys are hungry and are not satisfied. That has made it fun.”
Biggest surprise: special teams success
While McCarney and his players say there have been no huge surprises this season, they never anticipated the difference Tommy Perry has made in his first season as the Mean Green’s special teams coordinator.
UNT leads Conference USA in punt return average (19.6 yards per attempt), ranks third in kickoff return average (26.1 yards per attempt) and fourth in net punting (37.1 yards per attempt). All three numbers are improvements over a year ago, when UNT finished with just 17 total punt return yards.
UNT’s improvement is all the more impressive considering the Mean Green lost deep snapper Blake Dunham for the season with a foot injury and switched kickers in its season opener.
Tony Johnson stepped in for Dunham, while Zach Paul took over for Zach Olen, who is still handling kickoffs.
Blake Macek has also performed well in his first season as UNT’s punter, averaging 42.0 yards an attempt.
“Our special teams have become a strength halfway through the season,” McCarney said. “When you see the passion, energy and work ethic of Tommy Perry, it’s easy to see why.”
Defensive development: UNT was expected to improve in its second season under coordinator John Skladany and might have exceeded expectations after a 34-7 win over MTSU last week. UNT has held two of its first six opponents to seven points or less, including Idaho, which UNT beat 40-6. UNT ranks second in C-USA in scoring defense with an average of 22.7 points allowed per game.
Cornerback play: UNT started the season with Zac Whitfield and Hilbert Jackson as its starters before Kenny Buyers and James Jones took over in the third and fourth weeks of the season, respectively. UNT’s defense has given up just 17 points the past two weeks combined, a performance McCarney attributes in part to the development of his new starting cornerbacks.
Biggest disappointment: an inconsistent running game
UNT righted the ship for at least a week in its win over MTSU, when the Mean Green rushed for a whopping 303 yards, prompting McCarney to say his team was back to playing Mean Green football.
There is no denying that UNT’s intermittent running game has been an issue in the first half of the season. The Mean Green managed just 41 yards combined in back-to-back losses to Georgia and Tulane.
Senior Brandin Byrd has the Mean Green’s lone 100-yard game of the season, a 139-yard effort against MTSU.
“I hope that is just scratching the surface of what we can do running the football,” McCarney said.
UNT ranks 10th among teams in C-USA with an average of 144.3 rushing yards a game.
Penalty yards: UNT has gone from being the least penalized team in the Sun Belt Conference last season to being the most penalized team in C-USA halfway through the year. UNT is averaging 69.8 penalty yards, up from 43.3 last year. UNT has emphasized being a hard-hitting team and ranks third in C-USA with 17 turnovers forced, but has gone too far at times and racked up penalty yards.
Giving up big plays: UNT didn’t give up many big plays in a solid all-around outing last week in its win over MTSU, but gave up a ton in its first five games of the year. UNT has allowed 18 passing plays, eight running plays, a kickoff return and two interception returns of at least 20 yards. UNT also had a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown. Those big plays turned out to be costly at times, especially in UNT’s 24-21 loss to Tulane. The Green Wave scored on Lorenzo Doss’ 59-yard interception return and Derrick Strozier’s 62-yard blocked field goal return.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.