There have been times over the last few weeks when North Texas linebacker Zach Orr has sensed the Mean Green’s opponents becoming a bit one-dimensional.
Louisiana Tech ran the ball just five times in the second half, while Middle Tennessee ran it seven times.
Those low totals were due partly to the way the Mean Green built big early leads, but there is little doubt the way UNT is performing against opponents’ running games also played a role.
UNT has held three of its last four opponents under 100 yards rushing and gave up just 76 combined the last two weeks in wins over Louisiana Tech and Southern Mississippi.
Those performances set up what will be an intriguing matchup Thursday between UNT and Rice.
No one in Conference USA has a more effective running game than the Owls, while UNT ranks among the top teams in the league in rushing defense.
“We have to stop the run,” Orr said. “We know that is going to be Rice’s game plan. They run the ball out of a lot of different formations and try to get you out of your gaps. It will be really critical for us to be disciplined and read our keys.”
UNT has done just that throughout the season. The Mean Green ranks third in C-USA in rushing defense with an average of 125.8 yards allowed per game and has been even better in conference play, allowing just 77.5 yards per game.
UNT allowed 39 rushing yards last week in a win over Southern Miss and and gave up 37 yards the previous week while knocking off Tech.
“They are running the ball great,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “[Charles] Ross is a good back and they have good balance. You have to have respect for their running game and then they take their shots.”
Ross is coming off one of his better performances of the season last week in a 45-7 win over UTEP during which he rushed for 152 yards.
“He’s just playing really big for us,” Rice coach David Bailiff said of Ross. “You look at what he’s doing weekly now, and he’s making this offense go.”
Ross also is opening up opportunities for quarterback Taylor McHargue. The senior has rushed for 328 yards on the season and will present a new challenge for UNT.
“Rice is pretty solid,” UNT defensive tackle Richard Abbe said. “They try to out-scheme you and will use a lot of zone-read and option. From what I’ve seen so far, their quarterback will keep it and take off with it.”
Ross and McHargue will present a challenge for a veteran UNT front. The Mean Green is expected to start four senior defensive linemen, two senior linebackers and another junior in Derek Akunne, a two-year starter.
“They are going to be a challenge,” Orr said. “They are the No. 1 rush offense and we are the No. 1 rush defense. Something has to give.”
UNT benefited from rolling in young players
One of the benefits for UNT of rolling to easy wins in two of its last three games has been the opportunity to get young players on the field.
UNT (5-3, 3-1 C-USA) is quickly closing on becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2004 with a veteran lineup loaded with key seniors.
Last week’s 55-14 win over Southern Miss and a 34-7 win over MTSU on Oct. 12 have given UNT a chance to begin building for the future. Redshirt freshman running backs Mark Lewis and Rex Rollins rushed for 30 and 27 yards, respectively, last week against the Golden Eagles.
Freshman linebacker Fred Scott posted five tackles against Southern Miss, while redshirt freshman Sir Calvin Wallace recovered a fumble.
“It’s great for morale and experience,” McCarney said. “Wallace was in the locker room and was so excited. It was like he had played 65 plays. He didn’t, but he was so excited to go play.”
UNT to play key match this week against UTEP
There will be a lot on the line when UNT closes out the regular season Thursday with a game against UTEP at the Mean Green Soccer Stadium.
UNT (11-6-1, 5-3-1) heads into the game in third place in C-USA’s West Division behind Colorado College and UTEP.
The Mean Green can jump the Miners (12-4-3, 5-2-2) with a win and will hang on to third place with a tie. The top three teams in the division receive a bye in the first round of the conference tournament.
The game will be played at 1 p.m. in a rare midweek daytime start to avoid conflicting with UNT’s football game against Rice at 6:30 p.m.
“We are exactly where we need to be if we can take care of business on Thursday,” UNT coach John Hedlund said. “If we don’t, we could fall to the three seed or a four seed. The importance of Thursday’s game is huge.”
Playing at home will be a huge advantage for UNT, which has posted a 61-9-6 record at home since the 2006 season.
UNT ran its winning streak to four games last week with a 3-1 win over Middle Tennessee before falling 2-1 to UAB.
UNT came back from an early deficit to tie the UAB game when Karla Pineda scored in the 67th minute. Johanna Liney scored the game winner five minutes later.
“It was a tough game on Sunday,” UNT forward Vanessa Ibewuike said. “It went back and forth. We were right there.”
Fortunately for the Mean Green, it still has a chance to close out the regular season with a win and improve its position in the conference tournament.
New floor to go down in Super Pit this week
The new floor at the Super Pit will be installed Thursday, a school spokesman confirmed Monday.
The floor will have a green eagle logo at center court and green lanes.
The baselines will be green with “North Texas” and “Mean Green” painted on them.
The new floor is part of overall facility upgrades that also include the Ernie Kuehne Basketball Practice Facility and a new scoreboard at the Super Pit.
UNT snaps three-match skid
UNT broke a three-match losing streak last week with a road win over rival Rice and will look to build on its performance against the Owls during a three-match homestand beginning this week.
UNT will host Louisiana Tech on Friday and Tulane on Sunday.
Carnae Dillard finished with 21 kills to lead four UNT players who tallied double figures in the Mean Green’s 25-22, 23-25, 28-26, 25-18 win over the Owls.
UNT (13-12) moved to 5-4 in C-USA play with the win.
UNT to host C-USA meet this week
UNT will host the C-USA championship meet Saturday on its home course at the Mean Green Village.
The UNT women are No. 7 in the latest U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association South Central rankings, while the UNT men are ranked eighth.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.