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David Minton

Football: The upset formula

Profile image for By Brett Vito / Staff Writer
By Brett Vito / Staff Writer

UNT knows several things need to fall in place for it to knock off Georgia

The silence is what Derek Thompson remembers most.

North Texas’ starting quarterback led the Mean Green straight down the field in a game at Kansas State last fall, handed the ball to Brelan Chancellor and watched him scamper into the end zone to give UNT an early lead.

Kansas State was ranked 14th and was a huge favorite over the Mean Green, a struggling team from the Sun Belt Conference few thought would be able to compete with the Wildcats.

“When we scored early at Kansas State, there was just silence,” Thompson said. “Sometimes that’s the best feeling in the world.”

There have been more than a few hushed crowds at stadiums that are home to college football royalty over the last few seasons. The crowd at Bill Snyder Family Stadium only stayed quiet for a while before the Wildcats rallied for 35-21 win over UNT, but a few other teams have pulled off huge upsets on the road.

Louisiana-Monroe toppled No. 8 Arkansas in one of the biggest upsets of last season just seven days before UNT faced the Wildcats.

Eastern Washington upended No. 25 Oregon State in the opening week of this season, when North Dakota State beat Kansas State.

On Saturday, UNT will try to join the ranks of teams that have pulled off a stunner when the Mean Green visits No. 9 Georgia.

UNT is a 32 1/2-point underdog, which is a familiar position for the Mean Green and coach Dan McCarney. UNT was a big underdog against Kansas State and in a game it lost to No. 3 LSU.

McCarney’s teams often were big underdogs during his time as the head coach at Iowa State, which pulled off more than a few upsets, including a win over Colorado in 2005.

So what does it take to complete the task and pull off the upset?

McCarney, other coaches who have guided their teams to upset wins and UNT’s players who have faced the challenge before say there are a number of factors, including confidence, catching an opponent at the right time, solid quarterback play and receiving a few breaks.

The odds are long, but the rewards are great for a team that can pull of a stunner in terms of exposure and the impression an upset win can make on recruits.

The benefits of beating Georgia certainly would be big for the Mean Green. UNT is 1-43 against ranked teams, with its lone win coming in 1974 against No. 20 San Diego State.

A win over Georgia would be among the biggest in UNT history.

“What a phenomenal team and program Georgia has,” McCarney said. “I love these opportunities to coach against teams like this. I always have and always will. I cherish them and embrace them and will make sure my football family feels the same way.”

Coaches and players who have been there before believe five factors will determine whether or not UNT can capitalize on the opportunity:


Showing confidence

Not too long ago, UNT defensive back Marcus Trice was nearly involved in the type of upset the Mean Green would like to pull off this weekend. Only he was playing for Oklahoma in 2010, when the seventh-ranked Sooners snuck past Utah State.

What struck Trice about the Aggies that day was their confidence.

“A lot of teams beat themselves before the ball is even snapped,” Trice said. “Our attitude is that they still have to go between the lines, the ball has to be put on the ground and snapped. It all comes down to who is going to be disciplined, who is going to execute and who is going to play physically.”

When ULM coach Todd Berry looked back this week on the Warhawks’ win over Arkansas, he credited his players’ confidence.

“It’s a cultural thing,” Berry said. “You have to get the players to think that it can happen. Sometimes guys pound their chest and say that they can win, but they have to really think that. If your players do believe, it leads to opportunity.”

That faith cannot waver over the course of a game against a national power like Georgia. The Bulldogs are loaded with talented players, including quarterback Aaron Murray and running back Todd Gurley, a preseason All-Southeastern Conference first-team selection.

“There are going to be some good things that happen,” McCarney said. “There is no doubt in my mind. We need to expect it and build on it. When something goes bad, don’t go in the tank, slump your shoulders and go hide because Georgia made some plays. They are going to make some plays.”

UNT must treat Georgia the same way it did its first three opponents of the season. The Mean Green easily could have have collapsed last week when it fell behind by 18 points to Ball State, but it stayed focused and rallied for the win.

UNT’s coaches and players say they can’t abandon the approach that has resulted in a pair of early wins, even though Georgia is loaded with future NFL draft picks who will make playing the Bulldogs a much bigger challenge.

“The first thing you have to do is not be intimidated going into these games,” UNT offensive lineman Mason Y’Barbo said. “You can’t be worried about the name of the school or the fans in the stands. You are only playing those 11 guys for the other team who are on the field.”


Catch the opponent at the right time

While the most important factor in pulling off an upset is confidence, some fortuitous timing doesn’t hurt.

Teams experience highs and lows over the course of a season. Catching a power program looking ahead or at a time when it is without one of its best players can help an underdog.

“Sometimes you can catch teams from the SEC or Big 12 at the right time when they are sleepwalking,” Troy coach Larry Blakeney said.

Troy posted a win over Oklahoma State in a rare Friday night game in 2007, just six days after the Cowboys had beaten Florida Atlantic and eight days before OSU faced Big 12 rival Texas Tech.

Arkansas might have been looking forward to a showdown with top-ranked Alabama in Fayetteville, Ark., last season when ULM stunned the Razorbacks.

“It helps if a team is overlooking you a little bit, but that is tough to gauge,” Berry said.

Georgia has a huge showdown with LSU next week and has talked about not overlooking UNT.

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt has pointed to Akron’s near-upset of Michigan on Saturday as a cautionary tale while also praising UNT.

“North Texas got down to Ball State, roared back and won,” Richt said. “They also played a close game with Ohio. They will be a challenge.”

McCarney downplayed any edge UNT could have in catching Georgia the week before a huge game with LSU.

“They were a great football team the first game of the year and will be a great football team the last game of the year,” McCarney said. “I don’t think it will be any more or less challenging any time you play them.”


Have your QB catch fire

Teams that pull off a big upset often have a player come up with a performance that helps level the playing field.

That was the case last year when ULM quarterback Kolton Browning threw for 412 yards and rushed for an additional 69 in the Warhawks’ win over Arkansas. Browning scored the game-winning touchdown on a 16-yard scramble on fourth-and-1 in overtime.

“You need a quarterback who can distribute the ball and make some plays,” Berry said. “If you have that one guy you can pin your hopes on, that helps.”

Even though three years have passed, Trice quickly recalled the fits Utah State quarterback Diondre Borel gave the Sooners while throwing for 341 yards in the Aggies’ upset bid.

UNT will look to Thompson on Saturday to build on a solid start to the season. The senior has played well in the first three weeks of the year, throwing for an average of 272.7 yards per game.

Thompson has posted breakout games, including throwing for 349 yards in a 40-6 season-opening win over Idaho. The question is whether he can come up with that kind of performance against a team like Georgia.

“I was very impressed with their quarterback,” Richt said. “He’s a great competitor and throws the ball better than you would think.”


Put doubts in their minds

Last season, Dennis Franchione led Texas State to a 30-13 upset win over a Houston team coming off a 13-1 campaign.

TSU never trailed, which allowed the Bobcats to meet one of Franchione’s keys to pulling off an upset.

“I have always said that if you get to the fourth quarter in a close game, it evens out,” Franchione said. “That was the case with the Michigan last week. Akron made plays in the fourth quarter and was right there.”

The key is to keep the game close in the fourth quarter.

UNT was on course last season at Kansas State. The Mean Green trailed only 14-13 in the third quarter but quickly gave up 21 straight points. That run took all the pressure off Kansas State.

“If you play your heart out and look up in the fourth quarter and are still in it, you never know what can happen,” Y’Barbo said.


Catch a break or two

No matter how well a heavy underdog plays, a little luck never hurts.

A turnover or a key special teams play can swing a game in favor of an underdog that might not have the overall talent of a nationally ranked opponent. McCarney and his players say that type of luck often is a product of focusing on forcing turnovers and making plays on special teams.

UNT has focused on improving in those aspects of the game since the end of last season.

“If you look at all the upsets that have happened, you see there’s a little luck that comes into it, but luck is when preparation meets opportunity,” Y’Barbo said. “We have to hope that a couple of breaks go our way.”

UNT has been particularly opportunistic on defense, where the Mean Green has forced 11 turnovers in three games. UNT forced five turnovers last week, including four in the first half.

The Mean Green might never have had the chance to come back from a 27-9 second-quarter deficit had it not forced those turnovers.

UNT could need a few more turnovers and maybe a break or two Saturday.

“You have to have a few good things go your way with turnovers or big plays to post an upset,” Franchione said.

UNT believes it has the ability to hang with Georgia, which might be the biggest key to pulling off an upset, according to the Mean Green’s coaches and players and other coaches who have unexpected wins on their resumes.

That confidence is just one factor in what those coaches and players say is the ideal upset formula, one UNT will try to follow Saturday.

If UNT can execute that plan, Thompson and the Mean Green could have a chance to enjoy the sustained silence of a stunned crowd.


BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870.