Lost in the fury of UNT fans over a now 14 game conference losing streak is the fact that UNT DID show improvement in a lot of areas in this week's loss to Howard Schnellenberger's Florida Atlantic Owls.
Todd Dodge and his offensive coaching staff has played a lot of lip service to taking what the defense gives, but has done the same things all season long—plenty of dinks to Jamaal Jackson and Michael Outlaw, with the occasional running play mixed in.
This week, they clearly saw the opportunity to run on FAU and produced a totally unique and effective ground based gameplan. Frankly, as a Mean Green fan, I was glad to see a pronounced, distinct gameplan tailored specifically for an opponent.
And it worked. In the first series, UNT ran seven times and passed twice and went right down the field for a TD. The defense forced a three and out by the Owls and UNT's offense did it again, this time running nine out of 11 times and scoring a second TD to take a 13-0 lead.
Then things fell apart.
As has been the habit of the team throughout the season, the Mean Green lack a killer instinct. Any lead of over 10 points triggers a noticeable loss of focus on defense.
FAU put together a bazillion play drive from their 12 yard line to cut the score to 13-7.
UNT offense led by Riley Dodge to it's credit was able to do what good offensives do and quickly answer the score taking only 1 play to get Jamaal Jackson loose on a 69 yard TD pass. (The extra point was blocked.)
Hammering away at FAU on the ground loosened up coverage on the receivers setting up the big play in the passing game. It isn't something that has been seen by Mean Green fans all year as the coaching staff has favored the dink pass over all else.
All the credit in the world is owed to the UNT offensive staff for recognizing an opportunity to rectify that and coming up with a great offensive game plan.
Sadly, the Mean Green defense continued to wilt.
An unsportsman-like conduct call gave the Owls a short field and it only took Howard Schellenberger's team 3 minutes and 4 seconds to drive from their 45 to the end zone to bring the game to 19-14.
The Mean Green drove to the FAU 44 after the kickoff, but Riley Dodge was sacked on a third and long and forced out of the game. UNT was forced to punt.
Following a touchback, the Owls took only two minutes and 59 seconds to drive 80 yards for another TD to take their first lead of the game 21-19.
Starting safety Ira Smith fumbled the ensuing kickoff at the Mean Green 41. FAU QB Rusty Smith took only two plays and 44 seconds to score another TD putting the Owls up 27-19. (The extra point was blocked.)
UNT started their next series at the Mean Green 39. Strong armed backup QB Nathan Tune hit electric freshman receiving sensation Darius Carey twice to get the team to a first down at the FAU 48.
Then UNT fumbled the ball over to FAU.
FAU added another FG to take a 30-19 lead into halftime.
The second quarter was a mirror image of UNT's second quarter collapse in the Middle Tennessee game and left every UNT fan at the stadium and following on line sick to their stomachs.
The team bounces back in the second half
Things looked bleak coming out of halftime.
FAU continued their strong play for the first drive of the second half, taking the ball nine plays in three minutes and 59 seconds for another TD and a 37-19 lead. Starting CB Royce hill fumbled the football on the return, but little used senior TE Bryant Siedle prevented a total collapse by recovering the ball at the UNT 43 yard line.
Down by 18, UNT's offensive staff was forced to abandon the "run and run some more" game plan.
Backup QB Tune was up to the task driving the team the length of the field and hitting "Mr. Electricity" Darius Carey for a 19 yard TD to get the team within 11, 37-26.
At this point there seemed a noticeable change in focus for UNT. The Mean Green played like they believed they could play with FAU and more—that they should be beating them!
An inspired UNT Defense forced a rare (for this game) three and out giving the ball back to UNT at the 29 yard line.
RB Lance Dunbar, who in two weeks has emerged from his previous stature as a forgettable change of pace back into the most dangerous offensive weapon on the team, took only three running plays to take the team 71 yards for another Mean Green TD to cut the FAU lead to 37-33.
The game was on again.
UNT's defense forced another three and out and Tune, Dunbar and the UNT offense got the ball back at their own 11. They drove it to the UNT 41 before the Owls' defense forced a punt for a touchback.
In the fourth quarter, Owl RB Alfred Morris powered the Owls down the field until the Mean green defense came up big, stopping Owl QB Rusty Smith three straight times, including a fourth down play.
This was one of the few stops of an opponent's momentum by UNT's defense in the fourth quarter all season and was the one of the few times this season that UNT stopped an opponent on a fourth down without drawing a flag.
UNT's offense and offensive coaching staff responded, feeding off the defensive success. It is usually a good idea to immediately attack an opponent aggressively after a big stop and UNT's staff has shown repeatedly over this season that they believe in that philosophy.
Tune hit WR Michael Outlaw for 46 yards and Lance Dunbar ran it nine yards for the go ahead TD to go up 40-37.
FAU got the ball back at their 28 following the kickoff, but UNT's defense smelled blood and shut down Morris and Smith, forcing a three and out. On fourth down, FAU's punter Mickey Groody had a horrific six-yard punt that mirrored UNT's Will Atterrbury's infamous last punt last week.
Taking over at the FAU 36 with major momentum on UNT's side and being at home, the Mean Green should have been able to score at least a FG and probably a TD. FAU had not shown any ability to control Lance Dunbar. There was nothing there to suggest that the Owls could stop Dunbar from gaining the 10 yards in three plays.
At the end of the game vs. Ball State, Todd Dodge showed he understood how to properly ground out a win in the fourth quarter. In this game, perhaps due to fact there was still 10 minutes left, Dodge didn't do everything he could to put the ball into his running back's hands.
Tune ran for five yards on first down and then was thrown for a five yard loss on second down. On third down, Tune hit Jamaal Jackson for seven yards to get to the 29.
With a 4th-and-3 at the 29, Dodge and his staff decided to go for it. Tune's pass fell incomplete and the Owls took over after a big momentum changing stop.
It was a gutsy call and a very debatable one. If UNT had completed the pass they might have scored a TD. With a 10-point lead and all the momentum, they probably would have won the game. A win here might very well have changed the trajectory of the season.
On the flip side, kicking the FG would have only put UNT up by six, but it would have not resulted in nearly as big of a swing in momentum as getting stopped without points. UNT still would have stopped FAU on the last four drives and would have scored on FAU on four of the last five drives.
Ignoring hindsight, considering the emotional volatility and inexperience of this UNT team, it probably made more sense to kick the FG. Even if FAU scored a TD all UNT would need to do is use the last four minutes or so to get into FG range—but Dodge's choice was understandable.
He wanted to show his team that he had confidence in them and and to really back them up. He wanted to make the swaggering call that would give the team confidence for the stretch run, not to make the safe pick that might result in a one-point loss.
He risked taking it on the chin to help his players over the hump. That in itself is very respectable and very defendable.
If the hope is that Dodge becomes a winning coach, most fans would hope he would be an aggressive good coach like Jimmy Johnson or Mike Leach rather than a good coach who plays it safe, like Marty Schottenheimer or Wade Phillips.
Clearly this decision does show he has a lot more Leach in him than Phillips. That is at least something.
Sadly for UNT fans, the attempt failed. FAU's stop lead to a major swing in momentum was all Rusty Smith and FAU needed. They took the ball right down field and scored a TD to take a 44-40 lead.
UNT had another shot to win the game, but after the emotional kick in the crotch of the FAU TD, Tune, Dunbar and the rest of the offense could not get it together to go the length of the field to score a TD.
Schnellenberger won again and UNT fans were once more left to dream of next season.