North Texas spent the better part of a year talking about what was possible if it could get on a roll in its third season under Dan McCarney.
The Mean Green’s tune has changed significantly now that the run it dreamed of just a few months ago is well under way. It’s all about certainties now for the Mean Green heading into its homecoming game today against UTEP.
UNT (6-3, 4-1 Conference USA) has run off four straight wins — its longest winning streak since 2004 — and is bowl-eligible.
McCarney and the Mean Green will breathe a lot easier if they can win at least one more game.
“Six wins doesn’t mean you are going to a bowl game,” McCarney said. “There are 6-6 teams all over America that sit home and watch everyone else in bowl games. If we win Saturday, there is a great chance we are going. Win seven or more in Conference USA and you are going to be going to a bowl.”
The prospect of playing in a bowl is particularly enticing for UNT’s veteran players who went through the lean years. Quarterback Derek Thompson is one of a few fifth-year seniors on the team who were on a team that finished 2-10 in 2009.
“To be a part of this turnaround with some of these seniors is great,” said senior Marcus Trice, who is in his second year playing for the Mean Green after transferring from Oklahoma. “Some of these guys were part of some of the worst seasons in North Texas history. They never quit, they never backed down or gave up. They kept working.”
Those players don’t want to quit now, not when they have a chance to keep a historic run going in front of what is expected to be a big homecoming crowd.
The Mean Green sees the game as an opportunity to build on the momentum it has already established, not to mention the buzz around the program.
“This is a big game to keep this going,” senior receiver Darnell Smith said. “We don’t want to overlook anyone and don’t want this journey to end. We hit six [wins] like we planned, but hitting seven actually locks us in to a bowl game.”
UNT is heavily favored to get that seventh win against a struggling UTEP team that has lost six straight games.
The Miners scored just 14 points the past two weeks combined in a 45-7 loss to Rice and a 57-7 loss to Texas A&M and will start freshman quarterback Mack Leftwich. The son of UTEP assistant and former UNT offensive line coach Spencer Leftwich was named the Miners’ starter this week.
The setup seems perfect for UNT to roll, which only makes the Mean Green’s players more wary of UTEP and a potential upset. McCarney and his players have pointed to the fact that the Miners have some talented players — and nothing to lose.
“They are taking the same approach that we did a couple of years ago,” Thompson said. “We knew we weren’t going to a bowl game and tried to spoil someone else’s chance.”
UNT is coming off an emotional win over Rice. The win not only came against a key Texas rival, it also marked a key milestone as the sixth win for the Mean Green.
McCarney set just one goal for UNT before the season began, and that was to win six games. The goal spawned the catchphrase “Hit Six,” which became the Mean Green’s rallying cry for the past several months.
Now that its sixth win is in the books, UNT has turned its attention to its next goal — a seventh win they say will guarantee that their season lasts beyond its regular-season finale at Tulsa in three weeks.
“I hope we have a great finish with this football team because there is a lot out there for us,” McCarney said. “From here on out, every win puts you in a great position.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.
UTEP at UNT
When: 2:30 p.m.
Where: Apogee Stadium
Records: UNT 6-3, 3-1 Conference USA; UTEP 1-7, 0-4
Last meeting: UNT 35, UTEP 15 (1980)
Last week: UNT 28, Rice 16; Texas A&M 57, UTEP 7
Series: UNT leads 7-1-2
Radio: KHYI-FM 95.3, KNTU-FM 88.1