Marcus Trice appeared as if he knew what was coming late in North Texas’s game against Ball State on Saturday.
The Cardinals’ lead that had been 18 points had dwindled to three heading into a key fourth-and-5 play in the second half.
Keith Wenning tried to hit tight end Zane Fakes on a pass over the middle just as he had several other times throughout the game.
Trice was waiting in the perfect spot and knocked the ball away.
The senior safety always seemed to be in the perfect spot for UNT in the second half. If he wasn’t, Lairamie Lee or Zach Orr was in what might have been a defining performance for the Mean Green’s defense.
UNT came up with big hit after big hit, forced five turnovers and shut out Ball State in the second half of a 34-27 win.
“The big hits were a big part of it,” Orr said. “We didn’t force enough turnovers last year. All throughout the spring, fall camp and even now in the season we work on tackling drills and a turnover circuit every day. We always want to force turnovers. We did today, and they were big for us.”
UNT has been searching for an identity on defense for years. The Mean Green showed signs of developing one at times last season before collapsing down the stretch, allowing at least 37 points in three games during a 1-4 slide to end the year.
UNT went to work in the offseason, trying to find a way to improve.
The Mean Green wanted to develop an identity as a hard-hitting, ball-hawking defense.
That is just what UNT was in the second half on Saturday.
Orr, Trice and new starting cornerback Kenny Buyers all recovered fumbles. Lee forced one of those fumbles and intercepted a pass. Cornerback James Jones continued to see his role expand and recovered a fumble as well.
“They have a bend-but-don’t-break mentality defensively, wherein they will give up some yards, make stops and eventually force teams into making bad plays,” Ball State head coach Pete Lembo said. “I can’t remember another game where we had five turnovers.”
UNT head coach Dan McCarney made it clear. He doesn’t want his defense giving up the big plays it has had a tendency to do.
Horactio Banks went 77 yards through the middle of UNT’s defense for an early touchdown, and the Mean Green coughed up a touchdown on the opening drive of the game for the third straight week.
UNT recovered, largely because it stuck to its plan, even after falling behind 27-9.
“Even though we gave up some big plays in the first half, we started knocking that ball out,” McCarney said. “We got four turnovers in the first half and came out and had a big one in the second half.”
Those turnovers were the result of the big hits and the attention UNT paid to trying to knock the ball free from Ball State’s running backs and receivers every chance they got.
UNT was on the verge of being buried by Ball State’s early run. At times, it appeared as if the Mean Green was too far behind to recover.
“It showed the resilience of the team to fight back and get a victory,” Orr said.
UNT showed more than just fight. It also showed an emerging identity on defense, which has been something of a lost art at UNT since the end of the Mean Green’s four-year run as Sun Belt Conference champions in 2004.
UNT hasn’t been to a bowl game since, but at 2-1, it is on track this year. A game at Georgia next week will be tough, but there should be at least four more games out there UNT can win, especially if its defense can build on a terrific second half against Ball State.
“We wouldn’t have had a chance if our defense hadn’t bowed their necks in the second half,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “They showed a lot of resiliency.”
They also showed an emerging identity.
Outside of UNT moving to 2-1 for the first time since returning to the Football Bowl Subdivision level in 1995, that might have been the biggest news of all to come out of the Mean Green’s win.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.