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Brett Vito: UNT keeps its focus and its winning streak

If ever there was a time to celebrate, Saturday night seemed like it for North Texas.

The Mean Green hammered UTEP 41-7, winning its fifth straight game and tacking on its seventh win after becoming bowl-eligible the week before by knocking off Rice.

The run has landed the Mean Green in first place in Conference USA’s West Division.

UNT head coach Dan McCarney must have celebrated for a while. Or at least we think he did, maybe just a little, probably in the Mean Green’s locker room deep inside Apogee Stadium.

By the time he made it to his news conference a few minutes after the Mean Green finished off the Miners, McCarney was all business again.

“Is it something you dream about, hope for and work toward — to be in first place the last week of November?” McCarney asked. “Of course. It has been hard to get here, but all that stuff can go right down the drain if we don’t prepare.”

And thus the return to the grind was complete.

Teams often take on the personality of their coaches — guys who don’t have a lot of side interests and a pretty narrow focus by nature and necessity. If there is anything the last five weeks have shown, it is that UNT has completed the transformation to being a grinding, defensively oriented, tough-guy team, just like McCarney.

This is, after all, a guy who keeps grinding away after a stroke and bypass surgery.

McCarney says he appreciates coaching now more than he ever did before. He hates losing more and probably enjoys the wins a little less.

It’s all business with Mac, which probably has a lot to do with why UNT is in business after winning five straight to get to 7-3, including a 5-1 mark in league play.

“He doesn’t let up,” UNT defensive end Aaron Bellazin said. “It’s that competitiveness in him. He will probably say it’s his Irish blood. He does a good job of keeping everyone focused. It works. He is always on his coaches, and he is always on us.”

Take Saturday night’s win over UTEP, for instance.

The Mean Green was up 14-0 and cruising by the end of the first quarter. Considering UTEP had lost six straight and was starting a freshman quarterback who hadn’t played all season, it seemed like a safe assumption UNT was going to coast to the finish.

“We were up 21-0 at half and he comes in and lights a fire under us and says we are not playing as well as we can,” UNT running back Brandin Byrd said. “We knew he was right and fed off what he was saying. He’s competitive and is never satisfied. That is what you want in a coach.”

UNT could have become complacent after its win over Rice.

The Mean Green had been talking about winning six games all season and got there by beating Rice. UNT did everything but print up “Hit 6” bumper stickers, although the Mean Green did make “#hit6” a social media calling card.

UNT didn’t look like a team with its main goal in the books early against UTEP. The Mean Green gave up some yards on an early drive but responded when Austin Orr blocked a field goal.

A few plays later, running back Rex Rollins blocked a punt that wide receiver Darvin Kidsy recovered in the end zone for a touchdown

The Mean Green was off and running at that point.

The only touchdown UNT gave up was on a tipped pass Jordan Leslie caught in the back of the end zone.

Bellazin said he and his teammates were upset even about that. UNT has reached the point where its players are upset if anyone scores against them.

“Coach Mac pushes his assistants and it relays down to us,” Bellazin said. “The older guys know how to work and put a lot of pressure on ourselves.”

That approach has paid off.

UNT is in territory it hasn’t seen since its four-year run as Sun Belt Conference champion ended in 2004 now that it has won a seventh game. One could make an argument that this season has the potential to be UNT’s biggest accomplishment in an even longer span, considering the Mean Green has a shot to get to the C-USA title game if it can close out a division crown.

“It’s extra motivation to be in control of our own destiny, but we have to come out week to week and prepare,” Byrd said. “We can’t get complacent with those seven wins. We have to keep going to the next game, and our next game is UTSA.”

McCarney knows that narrow focus is what has helped get UNT to where it is today and where it wants to be tomorrow. It’s part of his makeup that he has passed along to his team.

“These players have risen to the challenge,” McCarney said. “They want to be remembered and be a part of something special. They really feel that we have a chance to do some amazing things if we don’t forget how we got here and we practice and prepare the same way, take care of the little things, have great attention to detail and never be satisfied. If we do that, we can keep improving. If we don’t, then we will get beat.”

McCarney knows the best way to avoid that.

And with that, he walked away to head back to the office and resume the grind.

It’s what he knows best, and what has landed the Mean Green at the top of C-USA.

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