North Texas knows what’s coming next week. That’s what makes a game today against Ball State even bigger for UNT and a potential swing game in the Mean Green’s season.
UNT has been pretty tough at home for anyone to beat under head coach Dan McCarney, who has led the Mean Green to an 8-4 record at Apogee Stadium heading into a game with the Cardinals.
Beating Ball State will be tough enough considering the Cardinals (2-0) are coming off a nine-win season.
Next week will be even tougher, with UNT slated to take on No. 9 Georgia for its lone game of the season against a major-conference power.
The Mean Green has pulled off some stunners over the years, including a big win over Indiana of the Big 10 in McCarney’s first season two years ago. A game against a nationally ranked power like Georgia from the Southeastern Conference is a different animal entirely.
UNT is 3-33 against the SEC and 1-43 against ranked teams.
The Mean Green can get off to its best start since returning to what is now the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1995 with a win today that would dramatically improve its chances to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2004.
“This is a big game because our whole focus is to hit six,” UNT running back Reggie Pegram said of the six-win mark it takes to become bowl-eligible. “A win would bring us closer to that goal. We don’t want to go to Georgia 1-2.”
There might not be a more important task standing between UNT and reaching that goal than finding a way to slow down Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning. The senior entered the week ranked 10th in the nation with 665 passing yards.
Wenning has thrown for five touchdowns without an interception, rushed for two scores and completed 65.3 percent of his passes.
“Wenning is a tremendous football player and is playing with great confidence,” McCarney said.
Part of what has made Wenning so effective is the players around him.
Willie Snead has caught 14 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns.
Ball State could get star running back Jahwan Edwards back this week after he missed the Cardinals’ win over Army with a concussion he suffered in a season-opening win over Illinois State.
Edwards is questionable for today’s game.
“They are a pretty good team, but it all boils down to us,” UNT cornerback Hilbert Jackson said.
Even if UNT can slow down Wenning and Ball State’s offense, the Mean Green will have to build on an offensive burst in the second half of a loss to Ohio to knock off Ball State.
UNT came back from a 21-7 deficit behind quarterback Derek Thompson, who threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Carlos Harris and a 6-yard strike to Darnell Smith in the second half.
The Mean Green couldn’t maintain that momentum and failed to score on its last two possessions.
Thompson has 554 passing yards and four touchdowns through two games and did most of his damage in a season-opening win over Idaho. The senior threw for 349 yards in UNT’s first game of the season at Apogee.
While UNT will return to that familiar environment today, Ball State will be in an unfamiliar situation on the road. The Cardinals’ first two games were at home in Indiana. UNT could have a distinct advantage in that the Cardinals will not be accustomed to playing in the Texas heat.
The Mean Green worked out in the heat of the day throughout fall practice.
Ball State coach Pete Lembo said the Cardinals are looking forward to the challenge.
“We enjoy going on the road,” Lembo said. “We had a great atmosphere for our first two games, but it’s nice to get away with your travel squad. We have good kids in the program who like these kinds of challenges. Our guys know that this is going to be a very big challenge on the road in the heat.”
While UNT feels good about the edge it will have in a home game, the Mean Green knows that knocking off Ball State will be a challenge. Meeting that challenge would go a long way toward UNT reaching the six-win mark by the end of the season, especially with the game at Georgia coming up.
“Pete Lembo has done a tremendous job in the short time he has been there,” McCarney said. “They were a bowl team and won nine games last year. They obliterated their first two opponents. I’m sure they feel good about their football team, and I still feel good about our football team.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.