Derek Thompson’s return to form came at quite possibly the most unlikely of times Saturday night.
North Texas’ junior quarterback and his receivers had struggled all season long, missing on throws, dropping passes when they did get to the right place at the right time and generally looking out of sorts.
A game against national power Kansas State didn’t seem like the best of opportunities to get back on track, but that is exactly what it turned out to be.
Thompson set a school record by connecting on 89.2 percent of his throws — a mark that was somewhat lost in the wake of a 35-21 loss to the Wildcats.
“A lot of the things that we did tonight we ran based off what they were running,” Thompson said after the game. “I made a lot of audible calls. We took what the defense gave us and were, for the most part, successful.”
The performance is one UNT hopes is a sign of things to come from the Mean Green’s offense heading into its Sun Belt Conference opener Saturday at home against Troy.
The game might be the key to the Mean Green’s season.
UNT has played well at times while dropping games to a pair of national powers in LSU and Kansas State, but is still 1-2.
A third loss in the first month of the season would leave the Mean Green a long road to travel to end a streak of seven straight losing seasons and climb into the race for the Sun Belt title.
The Mean Green’s hopes to jump into the Sun Belt title hunt will rest, in part, with Thompson, who improved dramatically over the first two weeks of the season. UNT managed only 288 passing yards in its first two games and ranked last in the Sun Belt in passing (144.0 yards a game), passing efficiency (101.8 rating) and completion percentage (42.2) heading into its game against Kansas State.
Those totals were all the more disappointing considering UNT beat Texas Southern, a team from the Football Championship Subdivision, in its second game of the season.
Thompson threw for 145 yards while completing only 11 of his 24 attempts with an interception in the Mean Green’s 34-7 win over the Tigers.
“Derek has such pride in his performance and his job, what he does and his value to the team,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said Monday during the Sun Belt’s weekly coaches teleconference. “He was extremely disappointed the week before, not that we didn’t win a game, because we did, but he was a little off on his throws. He takes tremendous pride in his accuracy and is a great competitor. He came back against an excellent defense.”
Kansas State came into the game ranked eighth in the 10-team Big 12 with an average of 272.5 passing yards allowed a game, but does feature a pair of highly regarded defensive backs in Nigel Malone and Ty Zimmerman.
Both were named to at least one preseason All-Big 12 team.
Thompson met the challenge of facing the Wildcats’ secondary.
“When he is on like he was Saturday night, he is pretty accurate with all the throws,” McCarney said. “He has a tremendous understanding of our offense. He is a coach on the field and knows our offense inside and out and knows he can improve. He has a burning desire to do things that haven’t been done around here in a long time at North Texas. You sure like that in a quarterback.”
Thompson credited his performance in part to his receivers after the game. He connected with seven players, including Ivan Delgado, who finished with nine catches for 86 yards after posting only three catches in UNT’s first two games.
“You still have to have good protection and receivers have to run good routes and catch the ball,” McCarney said. “For the first time since I have been here, we didn’t have any drops. We all improved and took accountability for what we did before. I’m proud of Derek.”
UNT relied on Thompson to check into good plays based on the way Kansas State lined up. More often than not, Thompson got UNT into the right play.
“When there is experience and maturity and knowledge of the game, which he has, you can do that,” McCarney said of allowing Thompson to audible. “You like it when your quarterback can do that and get you into the right play, not the wrong play.”
WKU gets latest big win
Two weeks ago, it was Louisiana-Monroe that picked up a headline win for the Sun Belt Conference by knocking off eighth-ranked Arkansas.
Western Kentucky followed suit Saturday, beating in-state rival Kentucky.
The win, and the way WKU picked it up in overtime, was the talk of the league Monday.
The Hilltoppers tied the game in the final minute of regulation and went for the 2-point conversion after both teams scored on their first possession of overtime.
Quarterback Kawaun Jakes threw a lateral to running back Antonio Andrews, who threw it back to Jakes, who caught a low throw and scored to give WKU a 32-31 win.
WKU was 0-20 against teams from BCS conferences and 0-16 against Southeastern Conference teams in its history.
“It’s a big-time win for our program,” WKU head coach Willie Taggart said. “It’s very exciting for our program and WKU football. It’s a foundation game.”
Taggart said WKU has moved on from the win and has bigger goals this season, especially after being passed over for a bowl game following a 7-5 season a year ago.
The Hilltoppers moved a closer to being bowl-eligible again after improving to 2-1 by converting on a highlight-reel play, one Taggart credited to solid execution, not only from Andrews and Jakes, but also tight end Jack Doyle, who threw a key block on the play.
“I don’t call it gutsy,” Taggart said. “I call it cool. It worked.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .