There might not have been a bigger motivating factor for North Texas this season than the pursuit of a bowl berth.
UNT hasn’t been to the postseason since the 2004 New Orleans Bowl, an eight-year drought the Mean Green is convinced will come to an end sometime after the regular season, no matter what happens in its final two games.
A five-game winning streak that continued with a win over 41-7 win over UTEP on Nov. 9 all but assured UNT that its season won’t end with its game at Tulsa on Nov. 30.
That certainty opens up the obvious question for the Mean Green. With its most important goal all but secured, could UNT become complacent? Could the Mean Green kick it into cruise control?
Head coach Dan McCarney said Monday that he won’t allow the Mean Green to fall into that kind of attitude.
“I don’t know that that word exists in our program right now — relaxed or complacent,” McCarney said. “We coach against that and want to make sure that doesn’t happen. When you take something for granted, that is about the time you [lose]. That happens every week in college football. We don’t want to see it happen here. We came into the season very hungry. I have to make sure going into Game 11 that we are still very hungry. I can’t imagine that there is a team in the country that should be hungrier than we are, but I am not taking anything for granted.”
McCarney pointed out just how much UNT still has to play for, including winning Conference USA’s West Division and securing a berth in the league’s title game.
UNT (7-3) is in a tie with Rice atop West Division with Rice at 5-1. The Mean Green beat the Owls at home on Halloween night.
The winners of each division of C-USA will meet on Dec. 7.
A spot in that game is just one of the goals UNT is still striving to attain.
The Mean Green can also complete a sweep of its three Texas C-USA opponents this week with a win over Texas-San Antonio now that wins over Rice and UTEP have been secured. UNT can also finish 6-0 at home for just the second time in school history, joining the 1966 team, while running its winning streak to six games.
UNT has not won six straight since it closed the regular season with seven straight wins on its way to the 2004 New Orleans Bowl, the Mean Green’s last bowl game.
“Every win from here on out is significant,” UNT quarterback Dererk Thompson said. “We are not here to try to set any records. We are just trying to be a good football team, protect our turf and beat an in-state rival.”
UNT’s players believe that a win would not be significant because of what it would mean for this season’s edition of the Mean Green but also for the future of the program.
“It would be really significant for the program and would be big for recruiting,” UNT linebacker Zach Orr said. “If we beat UTSA, that would mean that we have beaten all three Texas teams in Conference USA, which would be a big pitch to high school recruits.”
UNT is keeping those milestones in mind now that it has its main goal this season — playing in a bowl game — all but wrapped up.
Rollins done for year
Rex Rollins, a redshirt freshman running back who saw his role expand late this season, will be out the remainder of the year with a collarbone injury.
Rollins was injured at the end of a 30-yard run in UNT’s win over UTEP on Nov. 9. McCarney said ligaments that attached to Rollins’ collarbone pulled away when he was tackled at the end of the run. The injury required surgery.
Rollins had 92 rushing yards on the season and had seen his role expand over the last few weeks after UNT lost running back Reggie Pegram to a knee injury he suffered in a win over Southern Miss on Oct. 26.
UNT still has its top running back in senior Brandin Byrd and backup Antoinne Jimmerson but will now have to look to other players, including redshirt freshman Mark Lewis, to help fill the void left by the absence of both Pegram and Rollins.
“There are no rookies this time of year,” McCarney said. “It’s time for those guys to do their part. Mark Lewis will have to improve. He will be our third back. We want to rotate guys and keep them fresh.”
Rollins excelled in his short time in the third back role and had his finest game against UTEP. He rushed for 19 yards and also blocked a punt that wide receiver Darvin Kidsy recovered for a touchdown.
McCarney said he was impressed with Rollins throughout the season and that he has a bright future.
“With a guy with as much speed as Rex, losing him hurts us in our side-to-side game, but we still have two very solid running backs,” Thompson said. “Mark Lewis will have to step up into that third running back role. He is up for it. We will be OK.”
Lewis also played well against UTEP and was the Mean Green’s second-leading rusher against the Miners, posting 27 yards on seven carries.
McCarney said UNT is hoping Rollins will be ready for spring practice.
Tulsa game time set
UNT’s regular-season finale at Tulsa on Nov. 30 will kick off at 1:30 p.m., C-USA officials announced Monday.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.