Welcome to the second of a series of weekly articles that would pose the big question The University of North Texas faces for each of their upcoming games.
With the loss of CB Stephen Ford, I thought perhaps the question should be how will UNT control the scheme and speed of Rice, but I think there is actually a much bigger issue this week.
Will UNT play like a team that is executing a plan to win, or will they once more play like a team that is playing to compete with only vague hopes of winning?
The former demands all players play with constant focus. The latter is what UNT has done for years, responding to offensive success or turnovers with defensive sleepwalking only to find at the end of the game they are a few points short.
After last season's catastrophe Rice was in the market for a new offensive coordinator. They re-hired a guy I think is one of the next great college head coaches in former local high school coach and former Rice and Kansas receivers coach David Beatty.
Against UT's top notch defense, Rice scored 17 points. They have a burner at WR in Donte Moore who could be a real problem for UNT. He is not a proven dominant player, but UNT doesn't have anyone left at CB with that kind of speed.
After Ford went down, I thought it might have made sense to play Ira Smith at CB opposite Hill to handle fast receivers, possibly slot Robbie Gordon back into the CB rotation, and go with a three headed monster of Will Wright, John Shorter, and Ryan Downing at Smith's safety slot. I think our safety depth is way too talented to sit anyway.
I think long term that makes sense, but really as highly as I think of Beatty, his ability to develop receivers, and his intricate knowledge of both the Tom Herman offense that hung 77 points on UNT last time these schools played and the potent Mangino Kansas offense (with it's Todd Dodge influences), the big question in this game is in UNT's heads.
This week should be a big week in terms of UNT learning how to win if UNT hopes to do well this year.
UNT has to win four or five of the next seven games. The preseason is over. It is time to play to win.
Rice may have stunk last year, but they were 10-3 in 2008. It is not like at UNT where no one on the roster has won at the FBS level. Rice underproduced in 2009 but were a CUSA power in 2008.
If UNT expects this to be a matchup of near peers that UNT will win strictly on the merit of slightly greater depth, the odds are they will lose.
Rice has experience in knowing how to win. They know how to emotionally manage success and rough spots in games and still end up on the right side of the scoreboard at the game's end. That is the big edge they have over UNT.
If UNT takes a lead and the Mean Green defense reverts to their old habits and takes a series off, Rice will come back on the Mean Green and keep the game within reach for the Owls.
If UNT's offense turns the ball over and UNT's defense doesn't control that emotional swing by immediately stuffing the Rice offense, it will be a huge swing that could throw the game to the Owls.
And none of this even takes into account that the UNT offense may have some issues. While it was great to see them control the clock on Clemson and roll up big yards with an extremely well designed and implemented game plan, the Mean Green only scored 10 points. When you get into the red zone precision is very important.
Some local reporters think that was strictly due to a talent differential. If that was the case how did Jacksonville State score so many points on Ole Miss?
More to the point how did Beatty coax 17 points out of his unit versus UT's dominant defense? Rice could be a little better at red zone play than UNT at this point.
Precision, patience at QB, and tight execution is required for a team to excel in the red zone. Do we have that yet in the early days of the Mike Canales era?
The assumption is this will be track meet game. It might not be. If UNT allows Rice to score in the 30's or even the high 20's, there may be a problem. We really haven't seen enough of the UNT Canales offense in the red zone to assume they excel there.
UNT needs to start learning to put away a team with peer level talent this week. It is very important for the future. The defense needs to approach every series and every play with the edge that they show from time to time.
I think they need to play the game with one of their many goals being the idea of pitching a shutout. At this point in the development of the defense it should be in the back of the team's head that a shutout is a realistic goal against every peer talent level team. Setting goals like keeping an opponent under 10 points or 17 points would be good secondary weekly goals as well, but the idea that a shutout is possible should be introduced to the defense's world view. That should start this week. The talent is there that being content to play track meet games should no longer be acceptable.
Now obviously you cannot pitch a shutout if you are mentally and emotionally taking series off. Having that as a team goal requires a commitment among the defensive players to each other to show up on every play. That is really what needs to be secured.
The defense needs to take the next step and become a factor in the games.
Teams that generally win two of the three areas (offense, defense, and special teams) usually win. UNT needs to play with the play to play consistency of effort and focus that winning teams exhibit to win the game on both sides of the ball and notch their first win.