Derek Thompson has been waiting for this moment for a long time. In that way, the North Texas quarterback isn’t any different from a lot of other people at the school, from players to coaches to administrators.
UNT’s showdown with Tulane at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this afternoon will be the Mean Green’s first in Conference USA.
The milestone is one UNT has been anticipating ever since it officially accepted an invitation to join the league last year.
“It’s real exciting,” said Thompson, a fifth-year senior with a pretty good perspective on just how much today’s game means to UNT. “It’s a new conference and new opponents. Whatever conference you are in, it’s exciting to start conference play because that’s what matters.”
League play is always important. What makes the early stages of the C-USA race — and especially today’s game — particularly big for UNT is that the program seems to have a little momentum.
UNT (2-2) hammered Idaho in its season opener at Apogee Stadium and won in thrilling fashion in its only other home game thus far, coming from 18 points down to knock off Ball State. The Mean Green lost a tight game at Ohio and was particularly encouraged with the way it hung in with No. 6 Georgia last week.
The Mean Green was locked in a 21-all tie in the third quarter before the Bulldogs pulled away.
Thompson said he can sense a buzz around the program.
“This is a better team than the last two years,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “Everyone knows that. We know that. Now where do we go from here?”
UNT’s hope is that the destination is a bowl game to cap a winning season — a goal the Mean Green hasn’t reached since the 2004 campaign, one it capped with an appearance in the New Orleans Bowl.
A win over Tulane (3-2, 1-0 C-USA) today would be a key step toward that goal and would send UNT back home for a game against Middle Tennessee with a 3-2 record.
That’s a particularly inviting scenario for UNT, considering it has posted a 9-4 record at Apogee Stadium under McCarney.
UNT knows reaching that goal won’t be easy. Tulane has improved dramatically since last season and seems to be on a bit of a roll.
And there also is UNT’s less-than-stellar performance on the road over the last two seasons.
Tulane beat Louisiana Tech to open conference play and hammered a second in-state rival in Louisiana-Monroe 31-14 last week.
“Tulane is a much improved team,” McCarney said. “[Tulane coach] Curtis Johnson has done a really good job of leading that program. I’m really impressed with the speed of their team, and they are playing with a lot of confidence. They dominated Monroe from start to finish.
“We are in for a real challenge this week.”
UNT feels good about its ability to meet that challenge after a solid first four weeks of the season and a much-needed off week after its loss to Georgia.
Thompson is playing the best football of his career and enters today’s game with 1,020 passing yards and six touchdowns with just three interceptions.
UNT’s defense has forced 13 turnovers.
The Mean Green’s coaches and players say that if they can continue to improve over the next few weeks, they can contend in C-USA’s West Division.
Every team on that side of C-USA has at least two losses. Only Tulane, which beat Louisiana Tech three weeks ago, has a winning record at 3-2.
“We feel we can compete,” UNT running back Brandin Byrd said. “This conference is wide open for anyone to take it.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.
UNT AT TULANE
When: 2:30 p.m.
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans
Records: North Texas (2-2), Tulane (3-2, 1-0 Conference USA)
Last meeting: None
Last games: Georgia 45, UNT 21; Tulane 31, Louisiana-Monroe 14
Series: First meeting
TV: Fox College Sports
Radio: KHYI-FM 95.3, KNTU-FM 88.1