Ever since North Texas joined the Sun Belt Conference in 2001, games against Middle Tennessee often have become turning points in Mean Green history.
Back in 2001, a win over the Blue Raiders sparked the Mean Green’s run to the New Orleans Bowl — UNT’s first bowl game since 1959 and the first of four straight bowl appearances. The last game in the Mean Green’s 26-game conference winning streak was a win over the Blue Raiders in 2005.
A year later, a 35-0 loss to MTSU in UNT’s conference opener at Fouts Field turned out to be an indication of what was to come over the next few years during a tough time in program history.
The Mean Green and Blue Raiders will be back at it again today, this time as members of Conference USA in another game that has all the makings of a turning point for both programs.
UNT (2-3, 0-1 C-USA) has lost two straight, including its C-USA debut last week against Tulane, while MTSU (3-3, 1-1) fell to East Carolina.
UNT and MTSU will aim to bounce back today in a game one team well could look back at when the season is over as a turning point in its path to a bowl appearance.
“This always seems to be a big game for us,” UNT running back Brandin Byrd said. “It’s a Conference USA game now, but we played them for a long time in the Sun Belt. It’s a rivalry game.”
That rivalry only intensified last season. UNT rolled into a game against the Blue Raiders with its bowl hopes still alive after stunning Louisiana-Lafayette on national TV to get to 3-4 on the season.
MTSU drilled UNT 38-21 a week later, sending the Mean Green into a 1-4 spiral that led to a 4-8 finish.
“If we would have won that game, it would have changed a lot in the conference race,” UNT linebacker Zach Orr said. “This game is also a big one because we dropped the first one in conference play. We can’t go 0-2 in conference play.”
UNT coach Dan McCarney wouldn’t go as far as calling today’s game a must-win situation, but he did call it a big one for a pair of teams coming off tough losses.
MTSU was locked in a 17-all deadlock in the fourth quarter against ECU before Shane Carden hit Justin Hardy for a 21-yard game-winning touchdown.
UNT suffered a loss that was just as devastating after Derek Thompson hit Darnell Smith for a 62-yard touchdown that tied the Mean Green’s game with Tulane last week at 21 in the fourth quarter.
Tulane got the ball back with 3:45 left and methodically marched down the field before Cairo Santos kicked a game-winning 27-yard field goal as time expired. The Green Wave managed just 161 yards all game before marching 66 yards in 11 plays without facing a third down.
“It was difficult,” Byrd said. “We know we had a chance to win that game. It was close. Sometimes they don’t work out the way you want them to. When adversity comes, you have to overcome it. I feel good about the way we responded to it.”
One of the unusual aspects of UNT’s loss to Tulane for the Mean Green is that it also lost the turnover battle. Tulane intercepted two passes, including one Lorenzo Doss returned 59 yards for a touchdown. UNT essentially had another turnover when Darion Monroe blocked a 38-yard Zach Paul field goal attempt. Derrick Strozier returned the ball 62 yards for a touchdown.
UNT, which is tied for 10th nationally in turnovers forced with 14, came up with just one turnover in its loss to Tulane.
A return home could help UNT get back on course when it comes to both forcing turnovers and winning.
The Mean Green is 9-4 at Apogee Stadium under McCarney, including a 2-0 mark this year with wins over Idaho and Ball State.
UNT also has forced five more turnovers than it has committed in its two home games, the last of which was a dramatic win over Ball State that saw the Mean Green rally from an 18-point deficit for a 34-27 win Sept. 14.
“A month is a long time between home games,” McCarney said. “We have established some positive things when we play here at Apogee Stadium. It’s great to be back after a long four weeks.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE AT UNT
When: 6 p.m.
Where: Apogee Stadium
Records: UNT 2-3, 0-1 C-USA; MTSU 3-3, 1-1 C-USA
Last meeting: MTSU 38, UNT 21 (2012)
Last week: Tulane 24, UNT 21; East Carolina 24, MTSU 17
Series: UNT leads 7-5
Radio: KHYI-FM 95.3, KNTU-FM 88.1