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Brett Vito: Thompson, Canales find redemption in win

The last time we left the North Texas football team — at least the last time following a game — there might not have been two people further down in the dumps than Derek Thompson and Mike Canales.

Thompson tossed the interception that opened the door for Western Kentucky to rally for a 25-24 season-ending win over the Mean Green. Canales, the Mean Green’s offensive coordinator, called the play.

The pair had to wait 280 days for a chance at redemption, but boy, was it worth it.

Thompson, who was put on notice after that loss to the Hilltoppers that his job was in jeopardy, came out as hot as the miserable Texas heat and combined with Canales to orchestrate one of the Mean Green’s finest offensive performances in recent memory in a 40-6 win over Idaho on Saturday night.

UNT finished with 591 yards, the third-highest total in program history.

Plenty of people deserved credit for that outing. Wide receiver Brelan Chancellor had a monster night. Brandin Byrd set the tone in the running game, and UNT’s offensive line was as dominant as ever.

Just don’t forget Thompson and Canales.

That much-maligned duo had as much to do with what UNT hopes is a tone-setting win to open the season as anyone.

“We are really pleased with Derek,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “What an efficient job leading our offense. There was a great look in his eyes, tremendous maturity. He’s played a lot of football. You expect your senior quarterback to go perform, and boy, did he do that tonight. Just a tremendous performance by No. 7.”

Thompson connected on his first eight passes and finished 23-for-27 for 349 yards and two touchdowns. The senior credited his offensive line. He credited his receivers.

Let’s just not forget to credit Thompson, who hit on 85 percent of his passes.

Connecting on 85 percent is hard to do on the practice field against the scout team, let alone on a Saturday against anyone.

Thompson had every reason to be confident heading into UNT’s season opener after winning an off-season battle royal for the starting job.

McCarney threw everyone but the team trainers into the competition for the starting quarterback job.

Thompson heard the whispers. He knew there were a lot of people out there who would have liked to have seen Brock Berglund or Dajon Williams or anyone else start.

Those whispers motivated Thompson.

“I never lost confidence in myself,” Thompson said before the season began. “That might not have been the case in the public’s eye, but I know I’ve done enough in the offseason to be ready to start this year.”

If there were any doubts Thompson was ready, he answered them with his performance against the Vandals.

UNT was down 6-0 and when Thompson connected on consecutive passes to get the Mean Green out of a second-and-17 hole on its first drive, one Byrd capped with a 1-yard touchdown run.

The next time UNT had the ball, Thompson sidestepped an oncoming defender and lofted a deep ball to a wide-open Chancellor for an 85-yard touchdown strike. It’s a play Thompson might not have made a year ago after bulking up to play in more of a run-based offense.

It was clear by that point that a much more svelte Thompson was about to enjoy one of the best nights of his career.

“He stepped up to the plate and took it as a personal challenge,” Chancellor said of the doubts Thompson faced over the last few months.

And while Thompson, who has experienced an up-and-down career, took the lion’s share of the credit for UNT’s breakout outing, one has to recognize Canales’ contributions as well.

UNT’s offensive coordinator was a favorite punching bag over the last few months. The Mean Green didn’t have a great year offensively in 2012, averaging 20.9 points a game, but Canales didn’t have a lot to work with either, especially not after UNT lost Chancellor for the year in a loss to Middle Tennessee.

UNT was without its best weapon for essentially five games.

McCarney had talked about how much UNT needed to improve offensively heading into the season every chance he had, and justifiably so.

He cranked up the pressure on Canales in the process.

Even if one takes into account that Idaho is one of the weakest teams UNT will face, the fact remains the Mean Green marched up and down the field all night.

Canales got a ton of skill position players involved from Byrd, who rushed for 57 yards and two touchdowns, to Chancellor, who caught six passes for 135 yards and a touchdown. A total of 12 players caught at least one pass, while four players rushed for at least 25 yards.

“It’s hard not to be confident after we put up nearly 600 yards of offense, but there is a lot we need to improve on,” Thompson said.

UNT made some mistakes and squandered opportunities. A red-zone interception from backup Andrew McNulty while Thompson was on the sideline hurt.

Watching UNT on Saturday night showed the Mean Green has improved on a lot already after its season-opening win over Idaho.

Thompson and Canales deserve a lot of the credit for that, especially after taking the blame for a tough loss to end the 2012 season.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.