North Texas is in something of a new spot this week when it comes to its game against Rice.
UNT can become bowl eligible, extend its winning streak to four games and build on the general sense of excitement surrounding the program when the Mean Green takes on the Owls on Thursday night in a nationally televised game.
There isn’t a player on UNT’s roster who has experienced a game with anywhere near that much riding on the outcome.
UNT head coach Dan McCarney has coached in those types of games throughout his long career, including a national title game during his tenure as an assistant at Florida. That experience is something McCarney is drawing on this week as he looks to guide UNT through uncharted territory.
“It’s a big game for North Texas, and it gets down to what happens between the white lines,” McCarney said. “Who wants it the most, who executes, who takes care of the football, who goes after the ball, who takes the practice and preparation on special teams to game day and when the game is on the line, who rises up and makes those plays?”
Florida made those plays during its win over Oklahoma in the 2008 BCS national title game, earning McCarney a rather large national title ring.
McCarney also led Iowa State to a host of big wins during his 12 years as the Cyclones, including guiding the school to its first bowl win, a victory over Pittsburgh in the 2000 Insight.com Bowl.
Two years ago, McCarney led UNT to a win over Indiana at Apogee.
This week’s game provides the Mean Green another opportunity for a milestone victory.
“This is our biggest game since the last bowl game,” UNT linebacker Zach Orr said. “It’s two good teams squaring off with a chance for us to be bowl eligible.”
McCarney and his players are trying to remain focused with so much on the line.
McCarney has been there before and is emphasizing what is necessary to capitalize on the opportunity.
“When you experience what I’ve been through, sitting on the sideline coaching a national championship game and there are 75 to 100 million people who can tune in and watch you play, you realize in the end it still gets down to their 11 and our 11,” McCarney said.
Pegram’s status still in question
The status of UNT running back Reggie Pegram for the Mean Green’s game against Rice remained in question on Monday.
Pegram suffered a knee injury in UNT’s 55-14 pounding of Southern Miss on Saturday.
McCarney said after the game that Pegram would undergo tests to determine what his status would be for the this week and the rest of the season.
He stuck by that stance in his weekly news conference.
“We don’t know anything more now about Reggie Pegram than we did after the game,” McCarney said. “We don’t know how minor or major it is. We are still doing tests and will know within the next 24 to 48 hours. I’m not about to release anything in the next couple of days on whether he will play or not. We hope that he will be back.”
Pegram has made a big impact in his first season playing for the Mean Green after transferring from Purdue. The junior ranks second on the team with 338 rushing yards and is also tied for the team lead with Brandin Byrd with six rushing touchdowns.
UNT has rotated running backs throughout the season. Byrd has started throughout the year with Pegram and Antoinne Jimmerson also seeing time.
Byrd has rushed for a team-high 457 yards, while Jimmerson has 223.
“We have five guys in the room,” Byrd said of UNT’s running backs. “We would love for Reggie to play, but if he can’t go, those young guys will be able to step in and do well.
“We have to add a guy and keep it going. I think we will stick with three.”
Mark Lewis rushed for 30 yards and Rex Rollins 27 late in UNT’s win over Southern Miss.
UNT is hoping that it won’t be forced to turn to that pair and will have Pegram back to fill out a rotation that has sparked the Mean Green’s running game during its winning streak.
UNT has rushed for at least 165 yards in each of its three wins during the run and posted two milestone performances. UNT rushed for 303 yards three weeks ago in a win over Middle Tennessee and scored six rushing touchdowns last week against Southern Miss.
“He is a great addition to the program,” McCarney said of Pegram. “We hope he will be back with us.”
UNT not concerned with short schedule
McCarney conducted his news conference on Monday, just as he usually does. The timing of the Mean Green’s game against Rice made it a Wednesday in terms of its practice schedule.
The switch is one McCarney and his players don’t think will have a major impact on the game.
“The only thing that will be different is that we will practice [Monday night] instead of [Tuesday],” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “We have a head start on our schedule and will go watch film. The coaches already know what we are going to do against [Rice]. We are ahead in that aspect.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.