One of North Texas’ biggest concerns heading into last offseason was the state of its defensive line.
Defensive tackle Ryan Boutwell missed all of spring practice, as did defensive end Brandon McCoy — two key cogs in a unit that also lost starting tackle Tevinn Cantly to graduation.
After the last couple of weeks, UNT couldn’t be much happier with the way its defensive front — and its defense in general — has come together.
The Mean Green hasn’t given up more than one touchdown in a game since a loss to Georgia a month ago, which is perhaps the biggest reason the Mean Green has come back to win its last two games. UNT has allowed just three touchdowns and three field goals in its last three games combined.
The way UNT’s defense has dominated is one reason the Mean Green heads into a game at Southern Mississippi on Saturday night having won consecutive games for the first time since 2004. That run has vaulted the Mean Green (4-3) into the race for the Conference USA West Division title.
UNT is 2-1 in C-USA play after beating Louisiana Tech 28-13 on Saturday.
“We played our best and most complete game as a defensive line last week,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “I’m proud of those guys and of [defensive line coach] Mike Nelson. We could not have won that game without the improvement of our defensive line.”
UNT finished with three sacks and eight tackles for loss against Tech, which managed just 37 rushing yards. Linebacker Zach Orr posted 17 tackles, the most for a UNT player since Cody Spencer tallied 17 in a 13-10 win over New Mexico State in 2003.
Cornerback Zac Whitfield also had a big day intercepting two passes, including one he returned 56 yards for a touchdown.
While Orr and Whitfield garnered the most attention, they were not the only players who came up big in the Mean Green’s win. McCoy posted 1 1/2 sacks, while defensive tackle Richard Abbe had a sack and a quarterback hurry.
“Our defensive line is making a lot of plays and letting us run free,” linebacker Derek Akunne said. “They are also doing a good job rushing the quarterback.”
UNT’s defense allowed just one touchdown in a loss to Tulane on Oct. 5, when the Green Wave returned an interception and a blocked field goal for touchdowns in a 24-21 win. UNT built on that performance with dominant defensive outings in a 34-7 win over Middle Tennessee and its win over Tech, which managed just a field goal in the second half.
UNT’s players credited their performance largely to the comfort zone they have found under defensive coordinator John Skladany, who is in his second season at UNT.
“This is our second year in Skladany’s scheme,” Orr said. “Guys are confident in where they going, which allows us to play faster and more physical. We can turn it loose and play.”
Olen to serve as special teams captain this week
UNT names a special teams captain each week who serves in the same capacity as the rest of the Mean Green’s captains on game day.
The honor goes to senior kicker Zach Olen for the Mean Green’s game at Southern Miss for the way he has performed in a reduced role throughout the season.
Olen began the year as UNT’s kicker but eventually was replaced by Zach Paul. Olen is still handling kickoff duties, where he has excelled throughout his career.
“He did a really good job on special teams,” McCarney said of Olen, who had four touchbacks in five kickoffs in UNT’s win over Tech. “Everyone on our football team has a role they play on Saturday. Zach understands that his role is very important. He knows that if he does a good job on kickoffs it can make a difference.”
DeSoto QB changes commitment to TCU
Desmon White, a quarterback from DeSoto who committed to UNT this month, has backed out of that pledge and now plans to sign with TCU.
White confirmed his plans via text message Tuesday morning.
“Just the competition of playing in the Big 12, and TCU has always been a school I wanted to attend,” White said of his reasons for committing to TCU.
DeSoto coach Claude Mathis said that it was tough for White to part ways with UNT because of the relationship he had built with McCarney and his assistants. Mathis spoke to White before he made his decision to commit to TCU on Tuesday morning.
“McCarney is a first-class guy,” Mathis said. “North Texas is really lucky to have him. I spoke with Desmon earlier. He really likes North Texas. That made it hard for him to switch.”
White is considered to be one of the best playmakers in the state. He has thrown for 1,888 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushed for 879 yards and 11 touchdowns. White, who is 5-8 and 160 pounds, will move to slot receiver in college.
UNT on roll entering trip
UNT has won three straight games and can match its season-long winning streak with one more victory Friday at Middle Tennessee in the opener of a two-game road swing.
The Mean Green will travel to UAB on Sunday.
UNT (10-5-1) enters the week on a roll after hammering Tulsa 4-1 in a key C-USA game Friday. UNT and Tulsa were in a tie for second place in the West Division before Vanessa Ibewuike scored a goal and assisted on two others in the Mean Green’s only game of the week.
Ibewuike was named C-USA’s offensive player of the week.
“It was a big win, especially since we were on the road against a team that was tied with us for second place,” Ibewuike said. “They have shown that they are competitive. Getting that win boosted our confidence.”
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the win for UNT is that is continued a recent run of success for the Mean Green offensively. UNT has scored multiple goals in four straight games and tallied 11 goals while winning its last three.
UNT coach John Hedlund credited his team’s improvement largely to adjusting the Mean Green’s offensive approach to take advantage of Ibewuike‘s speed and ability to beat defenders one on one. UNT has put Ibewuike in a spot where she often is isolated on a single defender.
“The offense is clicking and the chemistry is there,” Hedlund said. “You have to score goals, and right now we are doing that.”
UNT will look to continue its offensive surge while hanging on to second place in the West. UNT (4-2-1 C-USA) trails only Colorado College (6-0-1) but is among a host of teams still in the hunt for second place in the division.
UNT has 13 points, just ahead of Louisiana Tech, which has 12 points. UTEP and Texas-San Antonio each have 11 points. Finishing second in the division would give UNT a bye in the first round of the conference tournament, and the Mean Green would not have to face Colorado College until the final.
“It’s important to build on the win over Tulsa,” Ibewuike said. “If we continue to do what we are doing, we will have a good seed in the conference tournament. That is what we are striving for.”
UNT aiming to end three-match slide
UNT will look to end a slide that has seen the Mean Green lose three straight matches Sunday when it travels to Rice.
UNT (12-12, 4-4) was swept by UTSA and UAB last week and fell to Marshall 3-1 on Oct. 13.
The Mean Green is tied for seventh in the C-USA standings.
UNT teams ranked in region
The UNT men’s and women’s cross country teams are ranked in this week’s U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association South Central rankings.
The UNT women are ranked for the first time this season and are at No. 7 in this week’s regional poll, while the UNT men are ranked eighth.
UNT will host the C-USA meet Nov. 2.
Rubio wins tournament title
Gonzalo Rubio won the Jim Rivers Intercollegiate on Monday after finishing with an 8-under-par 208.
Rubio’s score was the lowest by a UNT golfer since Les Phillips and Michael Pruitt shot 207 at the Pacific Invite in 1998.
UNT shot a 6-over 294 and finished sixth in the team standings.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.