There were times early in Derek Thompson’s career at North Texas when he welcomed the chance to get out of town on fall Saturdays.
The quarterback and his teammates would get to stay in a hotel and play somewhere other than Fouts Field, where nothing seemed to go right for years and reached a low point in 2010.
Thompson was a sophomore that fall when the Mean Green lost by one to Rice, had what would have been a game-tying extra point blocked with 31 seconds left in a loss to Louisiana-Lafayette, and finished 0-6 at home.
UNT has thought a little about that lost season this week as it prepares for a game against Texas-San Antonio at Apogee Stadium, where the Mean Green is 5-0 this year. The Mean Green moved into the venue in 2011.
“When we were playing at Fouts Field, it was almost like we didn’t want to play at home,” Thompson said. “It was like we had a better chance on the road. Ever since we moved in here [to Apogee], it has become such an advantage for us. We play so well at home.”
UNT is playing so well that it is on the verge of making history in its final home game of the season.
The Mean Green has only gone 6-0 at home one time, in 1966.
UNT also won six home games in 1978, when the Mean Green played four games at Fouts Field and three at Texas Stadium. UNT lost to Mississippi State 17-5 in Irving that season for its only home loss.
UNT coach Dan McCarney has emphasized the importance of winning at home for a number of reasons since arriving at the school before the 2011 season. McCarney talks about how winning at home helps build enthusiasm and a fan base, not to mention how much easier it is to post a winning season and get to a bowl game by picking up wins at home.
UNT’s veterans know from experience how hard life can be when opportunities to win home games slip away. Linebacker Zach Orr and wide receiver Brelan Chancellor also were members of the 2010 team that went 0-6 at home and were around for part of a three-year stretch beginning in 2008 that saw the Mean Green go 1-16 at home.
The Mean Green’s only win at home in that span was a 68-49 shootout with Western Kentucky in 2009.
“My first year, I never experienced something like that,” Chancellor said. “That was hard, because in high school we only lost five games. To lose every game at home and not win many on the road, I never got used to it.”
UNT had a chance to celebrate with the fans and family members who traveled to some of its road games. What was missing was the opportunity to perform well in front of fellow students who McCarney says set the tone in the stands.
“Winning on the road is different than at home with everyone right there,” Orr said. “You get to celebrate with the students. It’s not as fun when you can’t celebrate with them.”
UNT’s fortunes at home have changed dramatically since McCarney’s arrival.
The Mean Green knocked off Indiana in the second home game of McCarney’s tenure and has been hard to beat in Denton ever since.
UNT is 12-4 at Apogee under McCarney and has won six straight at home dating to last season. The Mean Green hasn’t lost at home since falling to Arkansas State on Nov. 3, 2012.
That run has UNT on the verge of reaching several goals heading into its last home game.
UNT is already bowl-eligible at 7-3 and tied with Rice for first place in Conference USA’s West Division at 5-1.
“I got together with my football team 15 weeks ago from Sunday and talked about what we thought we could accomplish, what was out there and the challenges that were ahead,” McCarney said. “If someone had said we were going to get ready for Texas-San Antonio while being bowl-qualified, in the hunt for a Conference USA championship and trying to stay undefeated at home, there wasn’t a coach or player who wouldn’t have put their hand in the air and said ‘Let’s take it.’ And now it’s a reality.”
UNT’s success at Apogee and the environment that success has helped foster are key reasons the Mean Green has so much to play for Saturday.
UNT is averaging 21,369 fans per game heading into its home finale, well over the 18,927 fans the Mean Green averaged last year.
UNT has drawn more than 20,000 fans for all but one of its first five home games, with the exception coming on a miserably hot afternoon Sept. 14, when a sparse crowd of 14,747 watched as the Mean Green rallied to beat Ball State.
“It feels good to come out with everyone screaming and the stands are almost full,” Chancellor said. “It’s good to play in front of all the people you know.”
McCarney has pointed out that the environment is vital, not only because it helps bolster UNT’s chances of building a home-field advantage but also because of how it can influence high school players UNT is recruiting.
UNT will try to sway a few of those players and send its seniors who have been part of its turnaround out on a high note Saturday, when the Mean Green will try to make history by finishing a sweep of its home games.
“It would be significant to go unbeaten at home because you always want to protect your home field,” Orr said. “For the seniors, we all remember going 0-6 as freshmen. To go 0-6 as freshmen and turn it around and go 6-0 is something we are all looking forward to trying to do.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.