Chalk one up to the players.
With a season full of heartbreaking near losses that had the fans on the verge of running the coaching staff out of town, the North Texas Mean Green sat on the edge of watching their season collapse into another one win season.
Not wanting to watch another 4th-and-one shotgun QB rollout play, a number of UNT fans opted to prepare for Halloween rather than attend the game. A little over 11,000 were in attendance, robbing the team of much of whatever home field advantage Fouts Field offers. Without the fan's energy, UNT players were flat in the first three quarters.
The mental toughness, and an emerging maturity of the Mean Green players allowed UNT to shut down the Hilltoppers.
Overcoming a flat opening
The Mean Green offense opened the game strongly as offense based teams often do with a nine play, 67 yard drive for a TD, but then allowed an 81 yard kickoff return to the UNT six yard line. WKU took it in on the next play to tie up the game at 7-7.
Riley Dodge drove the team 66 yards in six plays, capped by a 14 yard TD pass to Darius Carey to take a 14-7 lead. A few plays later, WKU's RB Marrell Booker broke away for a 61 yard TD run.
It was pretty clear at that point that defense would be a rare commodity in this game, a distressing thought that quieted those Mean Green fans in the stands.
WKU ran out to 35-21 lead further risking thinning the crowd, but Riley Dodge and the offense responded, coolly taking the team 46 yards in 41 seconds to cut the lead to seven going into the half, and keeping many Mean Green fans in their seats through halftime.
The second half opened with a surprising big play by the UNT defense. Senior DE Eddrick Gillmore and Freshman DE KC Obi got a good outside angles on a pass rush, but there was insufficient push from the center of the line. Gillmore switched to a power rush and drove towards QB Jakes, forcing him out of the pocket and into the path of full speed Obi. Obi steamrolled Jakes and forced a fumble that Gillmore recovered stopping a Hilltoppers drive at the UNT 30 yard line.
Four plays later the UNT running game punched it in to tie the game 35-35.
WKU scored two more TDs in the third, but each time the UNT offense responded. The third quarter ended with the teams tied 49-49.
UNT owns the fourth quarter
The fourth quarter opened with Hilltopper freshman QB Kawaun Jakes getting sacked by UNT's leading sacker DE Brandon Akpunku. It would get no better for the Hilltoppers in a brutal fourth quarter.
On the next play, UNT freshman OLB Jeremy Phillips read Jakes's eyes and stepped in front of a pass taking the ball to the WKU 13 yard line, setting up the game winning score.
WKU had numerous opportunities in the fourth quarter, but UNT's defense was as good in the fourth as it was bad in the first three quarters, and UNT's offense continued to add points.
In the fourth quarter UNT held Jakes to three completions on six attempts, for one yard with no TDs and one interception. They also sacked him twice, including one for a safety by senior DL Eddrick Gilmore. The Mean Green defense yielded 14 total rushing yards in the quarter on five runs.
After surrendering 44 points to FAU, 50 points to Troy, and 412 yards and 49 points in the first three periods to WKU, the much maligned Mean Green D finally stiffened and pitched a shutout quarter, yielding a mere 15 yards.
What this game reveals about the Mean Green
The cynic would say this game reveals nothing more than that UNT is a lousy defensive team, and not much better than WKU.
I say that guy is not looking at this game in perspective.
More signs of an emerging ability to close out games
In front of a small, deflated home crowd, a team on the verge of collapse dug deep and pulled together to dominate the fourth quarter, sealing up the victory.
UNT has not had any problems competing with teams like ULL, Ohio, or FAU, so the issue of whether UNT can compete with the rank and file of the sun belt has already been confirmed.
Closing has been a major problem—they have few senior starters, and a number of new players, and as such have had problems maintaining their confidence and closing out games.
Today, with little help from the home crowd, the Mean Green found that confidence within themselves and they dominated the fourth, outscoring WKU 19-0 to close out the game.
UNT Head Coach Todd Dodge Utilizes short yardage scheme, personnel
What?! That has to be a typo!
No, it is actually true. On one goal line play he ran the wildcat and snapped the ball directly to RB Jeremi Mathis who went right in.
On another play Bryant Seidle was in at tight end and sealed the edge allowing Riley Dodge into the end zone.
Todd Dodge takes a lot of heat --- and frankly much of it is deserved for continueing to run the short yardage shotgun set --- but the guy has proven he is not intractable. For that at least he deserves some credit.
UNT finally played a game where they didn't give away points
A team that has not been able to control costly turnovers managed to play a mistake free offensive game.
While Western does have the worst defense in the conference, UNT has given points away versus turnovers, versus defenses of varying caliber—even the bad ones. There were no fumbles in this game. No giveaway points.
This is an area the coaching staff has been working on for the last few weeks, and their work paid dividends today.
Jamaal Jackson is a beast
Well...as a kick returner anyway. It seemed like every time he touched the ball on a kick return, UNT started at their own 40 at worst.
The qualitative difference between most SUn Belt schools' kick return game is not that great. Jackson did it vs. Troy and did it again vs. WKU. He is the real deal.
If UNT starts most drives at their 40, this team is going to remain as good of an offensive team as it has seemed lately.
The defense made some stops with the game on the line for the first time in weeks
It is easy to say, "Well, The UNT defense gave up 49 to the Hilltoppers. They had not scored more than 24 all year long."
That is very true. The problem is that statement simply doesn't cover all of it.
UNT does have some big questions that need to be answered on the defensive side of the ball that the coaching staff thought would be masked by playing a low octane Hilltopper's offense. This gameplan seemed to be somewhat experimental. The staff seemed to think this game would give the staff a little breathing room.
That didn't happen. And the game got ugly. The defensive staff made a lot of changes prior to the game, but they may need to consider making some more changes, whether they are positional moves, philosophical shifts, or more actual personnel changes in the starting lineup.
The Hilltoppers don't have a bad offense, their offense just lacks the talent at the receiver spots and on the OL to score more than their defense allows.
The thought of UNT's defense just sucking also ignores the fact that the Hilltoppers had this game marked on their schedule for months. They came to play, and played their best game of the year against UNT chasing a win.
Additionally, as I stressed in the preview, UNT had not generated much in the turnover, or sack department in several games. Really the UNT defense hadn't stopped any opponent with any consistency in quite a while, and had just been run off the field by an average Troy offense.
For a team like WKU with a good QB and some good runners, but a thin OL and few receiving threats, this was exactly the kind of opponent against which the Hilltoppers were likely to have a big offensive game.
The Hilltoppers caught UNT's defense at it's mental and emotional worst, in a transition, with little support from the home fans.
For a half to arguably three quarters, UNT endured a worst case scenario. UNT's down linemen looked like they were on rollerskates in the first half. They stood up their blockers and slid with them down the line of scrimmage on a series of slow developing run plays, but WKU's backs are very well coached and quite explosive. They would wait for the entire line to be flowing one way and then cut back hard the other direction getting by the defensive linemen before they could react.
The UNT DL seemed almost hurt by the fact that WKU didn't have that great of a line. They would essentially beat their men working for the play and then be out of position on the cutback.
To compile the problem, the back 7 were not making many big play saving tackles in the first half.
After halftime, UNT's defensive linemen maintained their position better and WKU's offense had a much harder time of it.
The coaching staff marched the safeties up and overcommitted to the run in the fourth and WKU was smothered. I think it would also be accurate to say that The UNT defense took charge in the fourth. The defense put aside the loser mindset that they have not been able to shed all year and made their own destiny with a dominant finish.
UNT does have to take a hard look at the defense and address the issues of the last three games, but there are positives there too, even after giving up 99 points in two games to average to poor offenses.
Perhaps due to Sam Owusu-Hemeng's absence (and perhaps not) Eddrick Gilmore played the game at DE to great affect giving the team the pass rusher who can power rush it has needed at an end spot all season. Gilmore was as guilty as any of the rest of the DL in not overpursueing vs the run in the first half, but he looked great in the second half and had his best game of the season overall. He recorded a sack for a safety and had the pressure which helped force the game tying turnover at the start of the third.
The staff switched Tevinn Cantly and Gilmore, so Cantly was in the 4 man defensive tackle rotation. Like Gilmore and everyone else on the DL, Cantly didn't play well in the first half, but he was very solid in the second half. Cantly seems a little better of a run defender at DT than he was at end. That positional change looks like another good move by Defensive Coordinator Gary DeLoach.
The question is will the moves stick when Owusu-Hemeng returns?
I was not enthralled with KC Obi's play. He plays hard and understands what is needed, but really is not much of a playmaker at this point. He is more of just a perimeter runner today. If Gilmore doesn't force Jakes out of the pocket, Jakes would not be in Obi's path. He is undoubtably a great prospect, but I think he needs an off-season in the weight room upgrading his strength more than UNT needs his speed right now.
DE Brandon Akpunku had a bad game overall. He jumped off sides numerous times and had some other penalty resulting in a first down and missed at least one tackle on a cut back run that went for big yards. He did have a nice fourth quarter though with a tough guy sack and a couple good tackles. Even when Akpunku has an off game, you have to like the fire with which he plays. If all of the defense played with that passion we'd have a dominant unit. Even though he really needs to sit for about half of the plays, it is hard to advocate benching that fire.
I think the coaching staff really needs to consider working Draylen Ross in at DE too. With Cantly, Jackson, and Atkinson, UNT has a nice 3 tackle rotation. Ross, Gilmore, Akpunku, and (when he returns) Owusu-Hemeng would be a salty mix of speed and size at the ends.
Jeremy Phillips probably earned some PT with his big interception. That is probably a good thing as our starting trio of linebackers do not make plays, but Phillips did blow a pretty easy tackle on a kickoff return earlier in the game that does raise some concerns about his ability to tackle. Still, more PT for Phillips makes sense. Hill could pick up some safety time if that were to occur as well.
The defensive dominance of the fourth quarter coincided with much more aggressive play calling vs. the run. That is a marked departure from earlier in the year. If UNT's defensive staff feels comfortable putting their solid CBs on islands more, this could trigger a remarkable turnaround on defense.
Really my point is that the defense seems to be finding itself. To me, that is not as big of an issue. In a way, it might be accurate to view the defensive part of this game like one might a scrimmage as so many players had shifted positions. The team got better as the game progressed and they got mor comfortable in their roles. That is what you want to see.
I think the most important element to take from the last few games is that the team looks like it is learning not to give games away and how to close, and I think those have been far bigger issues for this team.
All of that bodes very well for the remaining schedule.