Welcome to the seventh in a series of weekly articles that pose the big question facing The University of North Texas in their upcoming game.
A late penalty killed a great looking play and ended up snuffing UNT's gutty climb out of a 21-3 hole against Arkansas State last Saturday.
While I hope the defense will take ownership and not allow Florida International to get out to an early lead, my question this week is not "Will the defense give up an opening drive TD for the seventh week in a row?"
I know the answer to that. They won't.
In fact, I think they will come out strong and it will probably be a close game at the half.
My question is:
Will UNT own the second half?
The bottom line with UNT this year is they don't know how to win.
They don't know how to raise their level of play late and close out a game. That goes for the offense and the defense.
That is why they lost to ULL and Arkansas State. Both of those teams annually flirt with .500. They aren't great teams, but their players have a pretty good idea how to close a game.
Florida International on the other hand is just as bad about closing as UNT.
If UNT is going to learn to close out a game, this is the game to figure it out. This is a game where UNT's leaders need to learn to lead, carry, cajole and inspire their teammates to victory.
This will not be an easy game for UNT. Far from it. FIU always plays UNT well.
FIU may actually be a more talented team than Arkansas State or ULL. They held Texas A&M to 27 points. They barely lost to A&M and Rutgers.
I believe FIU has one of the worst coaches in the Sun Belt, if not the worst, but that said, their coaching staff has owned Todd Dodge's staff.
FIU also has a QB who made the SEC all-freshman team a few years ago. He can play.
FIU is a dangerous team for UNT.
Everyone has a Lot to Prove in this Game
If a losing team hopes to ever become a winning team, they have to be able to draw a line in the sand and know they absolutely are going to win a game. There can be no finger-pointing. No divisiveness. Everyone has to do what the game requires of them individually. If they do that the team will likely win.
In a matchup of good or average teams with similar talent a big play can decide a game. In a matchup between evenly matched losing teams, usually one team loses rather than one team wins. Usually the team that plays smarter and does all the little things wins.
For losing teams mistakes are always lurking. Controlling mistakes and avoiding situations that lead to penalties or turnovers is the key to winning.
UNT has to come out ready to play on both sides of the ball. Individual players have to run the right plays. Players can't jump offsides. Players need to focus on tackling with good form on every play.
Receivers need to catch any ball that touches their hands. Receivers need to remember they are there to catch the ball—running after the catch is secondary. Players need jump on any loose balls and secure them, not try to pick them up. Players can't hit people late or when they are out of bounds. Runners will need to cover up the ball in traffic.
The winning team will do the fundamental little things right all game and then sharpen their focus in the second half and play even better.
Teams that don't know how to win are in pressure cooker situations. Some players will melt down. They may hit someone out of bounds, jump off sides or even start a fight getting themselves kicked out and screwing with their teammates' focus. The team that has those players will probably lose this game.
What to Expect from FIU
FIU gives up the fewest yards per game in the Sun Belt. Their pass defense is very good giving up the second fewest yards per game in the conference and allowing only a 50.8 completion percentage. They have a very strong pass rush.
Like every other Sun Belt school not named Troy or Middle Tennessee, their run defense is a little suspect. They give up 4.6 yards per carry. UNT should be able to run fairly well, and should be a little better able to score TDs.
If UNT sticks with their bread and butter, they should be in this game offensively.
Beyond the great resume of their QB, nothing about FIU's offense looks dominating, but that is always the story with FIU coming in. Every year FIU rolls into town with a suspect passing game and an average to pedestrian running game. They don't roll up a ton of yards on UNT, but they seem to generate just enough TDs to win—outperforming their reputation.
The UNT defensive coaching staff has a lot to prove this week.
Defensively, UNT has to stop giving up TDs in the red zone. If they generate some red zone stops and force more field goals, this team will do much better vs. FIU (and much better in the win-loss column in the season's second half).
FIU shares many of the same weaknesses with UNT. This game will probably be decided by which team takes care of the little things and keeps its composure—and which team doesn't.
Finally...I am Hoping Against Logic for a Big Early Arriving Crowd
Fouts is a lousy stadium that saps a energy out of a crowd. I think that and fact that half of the crowd doesn't find their seats until halfway through the first quarter tends to hurt the team's energy early.
I hope that fans who are always a little late to arrive might show up a little early for this game to give the team a little more energy. Afterall, if you are going to attend the game, you are there to hopefully see the team win. Giving them a little juice out of the gate will only help them in that regard.
To the UNT fans who are not attending due to issues with Dodge still being the coach, I would strongly encourage you to think about the ramifications of your actions.
I believe UNT can draw a consistent 23-24,000 per game.
UNT drew 23,743 vs. Rice, 17,015 vs. ULL and 14,589 last week. So far UNT is averaging 18,449. If they draw another 15,000 this week that average will drop to a little over 17,500.
How attractive does annual attendance of 17,000 look to CUSA?
You can't just expect CUSA to forgive it because UNT had a coach you didn't like. CUSA will look at it and RIGHTLY think that one third of UNT's fan base loses interest in the team if the team loses.
What over the last 30 years suggests UNT would be a winning team in CUSA? And if UNT is losing, are you going to like the coach?
That means that to CUSA, UNT is what they draw.
If you want UNT in a better conference home, go to the football games.
Starting with this one.