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Football: Today’s opener valuable for UNT

Profile image for By Brett Vito
By Brett Vito

North Texas head coach Dan McCarney took one look at the Mean Green’s schedule for the 2013 season a few months ago and hated the way the first line began.

The slate started with an “at,” something that had become all too familiar for a program that opened every season since 2001 on the road, often with a game against a national powerhouse like LSU, Oklahoma or Texas.

That streak will come to an end today when UNT opens at home against Idaho in a game that will mark a key point in program history, not to mention a huge investment by the school. The Mean Green will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its program today with its game against the Vandals. The game was added to the schedule in October when UNT agreed to pay $410,000 to lure the Vandals to Denton.

UNT originally was slated to open the season at Ohio.

“It’s really exciting because this will be the first time in any of our careers at North Texas that we have opened at home,” UNT linebacker Zach Orr said. “It will also be the first time any of our students have been able to see a home game the first week of school.”

McCarney estimated that 5,000 students attended a pep rally for the program at 6 p.m. Monday, despite the searing summer heat. Both he and Orr said they can sense a buzz building around the program.

McCarney wanted to have a chance to maintain that preseason buzz, which is why he went to UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal to see if the school could adjust its schedule and open at home.

“You can set the attitude, mood, tempo and atmosphere, not only for football but for all sports,” McCarney said. “It’s a reason to gather, get everyone together, show support together and loyalty together, win together and have the fans help us achieve success.”

Opening the year with a win would be nearly as big a change as opening at home for UNT, which has won its season opener just twice in the last 16 years. The Mean Green beat Middle Tennessee in 2005, when its season opener against LSU was pushed back because of Hurricane Katrina, and won its opener at Ball State in 2009.

Those games have been the exception to the rule for UNT, which has suffered a series of demoralizing setbacks to open the season over the years, including a 65-0 loss at Texas in 2004 and a 79-10 beating at Oklahoma in 2007.

While opening at Ohio wouldn’t have been as challenging as some of those games, Villarreal and UNT President Lane Rawlins agreed with McCarney’s assessment that opening at home was worth the investment.

UNT has posted a 7-4 record at home under McCarney, a dramatic improvement over the 1-16 mark the Mean Green posted in the three seasons before his arrival.

The fact that a season opener at home would mark an important moment in program history made the potential payoff even greater. UNT played its first game in 1913 and is marking its 100th year with a series of special events, including honoring its 100th anniversary team today.

McCarney said that all but one of the players on the team will be represented. Legendary UNT defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene is expected to be among the program’s greats at the game.

“This game’s really important because those guys played for the same university and want to see us do well,” Orr said. “They are some of our biggest fans.”

UNT believes it has a chance to build momentum heading into a landmark season in program history today after what McCarney and his players described as a solid fall camp.

The Mean Green had plenty of questions to answer heading into the fall, including how to handle its quarterback situation and which players would be in the rotation on the defensive line.

UNT settled on two-year starter Derek Thompson returning as its starting quarterback, while defensive end Daryl Mason was among a host of inexperienced players who worked their way into the Mean Green’s rotation.

The question now is how a team loaded with 16 returning starters will perform against an Idaho team it knows little about. Paul Petrino is in his first season with the Vandals after serving as Arkansas’ offensive coordinator in his last stop in a long career as a college and NFL assistant.

UNT’s coaches have studied what Petrino has done at his previous stops but can’t be sure exactly what the Mean Green will face, especially considering Idaho has several new players on its depth chart.

“We are preparing for everything,” Thompson said. “We think we have a good idea of what they might do, but we have to be prepared for everything they might throw at us.”

UNT doesn’t want to leave anything to chance, not when it has invested so much for the opportunity to open at home and begin the season with a win.

“It’s absolutely a big opportunity,” McCarney said. “We are 7-4 at home, which is not an unbelievable record but it is a good start based on where we started when I got here. That would be pretty neat to add to that. You have to win at home to turn programs around.”