Mike Canales and UNT's players treated the Mean Green fanbase of 14,289 fans to something they haven't seen in years last night: 60 minutes of a football slugfest against Troy.
While UNT did not win this game, they probably should have, and that is not something we can say about a game against Troy in quite a while.
This is the kind of game against a strong Sun Belt team we expected from this team entering the year and that suggests they are starting to play to their potential.
The last few years UNT's players would enter the Troy game already mentally conceding it. They didn't yesterday. They fought them tooth and nail for 60 minutes. This was an important step for this team.
If the Mean Green have either a similar close loss or actually defeat MTSU, UNT will enter next year with no Sun Belt team owning their heads. That is an important step for a team in becoming a contender.
Mike Canales is doing a great job of focusing the players and setting up the team for a good season next year. He is coaching himself on to the front runners list for the head coaching job next year.
Still it wasn't all roses...UNT's defense was again slow out of the gate
It has been the story all season. UNT surrenders a TD on the first drive and sleepwalks through the first half, assuring the team has to play from behind in the second. UNT has surrendered on average 18.2 points in the first half of games (hell, if you eliminate the WKU game, the only game all year where UNT's defense played tough from start to finish, UNT is giving up 20.1 points each game in the first half).
UNT was down 24-14 at the half Saturday. They surrendered 252 yards passing on 13-of-20 with 3 TD and 1 INT and an added 35 yards rushing.
They were on pace to give up 48 points and surrender 574 yards with the best clock control offense in the Sun Belt helping them? This is good defense?
This Troy unit has rolled up big yards all season but has self destructed at key moments. With that in mind, UNT didn't do anything all that amazing as a unit all game.
I love the players, but UNT has the most overrated defensive unit in the Sun Belt. Surrendering 26.7 points per game is a vast improvement over previous years, but lets be honest—how much of that success is actually a reflection of the fact UNT's offense is at the top of the Sun Belt in time of possession and rushing yardage (ranked 30th at the FBS level)?
UNT's offense does a lot to cool down an opposing offense and they do it just about every week.
UNT surrendered 41 points to Troy. Only one team surrendered more points to Troy all season.
There are a number of ways you can look at this. Perhaps Troy was very sharp after an embarrassing loss. Sure, that is reasonable. Is it reasonable to think Troy gave their best effort of the year against an historic doormat? That is much less so.
Lets looks at it from a pessimistic angle. Perhaps UNT has the second worst players Troy has played all year or other defensive coaching staffs did a better job preparing their players than UNT's defensive staff did.
The answer is proabably in there somewhere.
UNT yielded nine points MORE than Troy's season average. It was not like UNT's offense kept turning the ball over in scoring position. There were no UNT turnovers. UNT's defense was constantly put in pretty good situations.
To read a lot of local content, the conventional wisdom is this is a great defense.
This to me is not on the defensive players. There was good effort overall against good talent. Plus there were a ton of great individual efforts last night.
While I do acknowledge that this coaching staff does a great job at making halftime adjustments, this season does seem to imply they are pretty lousy at coming up with a defensive game plan that anticipates what their opponent will do. If this doesn't change, the defense's performance has to be weighed impartially in the off-season.
Has UNT progressed as far as today's Gary DeLoach can take them? It is a harsh question, but the defense has been at this level for over a season now. When will they consistently take the next step?
It is not good enough to be one of the better defenses in a conference where no one plays good defense.
What is the difference between allowing 26.7 points per game partnered with the conference's best running game and the conference's best ball control attack vs. giving up 29.7 ppg like Arkansas State's defense which is partnered with the league's second worst ball control attack? Is there a difference?
I think in terms of talent, there certainly is.
If the defense continue at this level, whether coaching was a problem is a question that seems likely to be asked following the season.
Taking a very granular look, in my opinion, with the talent on hand this should not be the second worst defense Troy played all season. Do you disagree?
But the players did well
The players showed a ton of heart. They do most weeks, so just showing heart may be seen as nothing out of the ordinary there.
What was out of the ordinary was that they showed it against the league powerhouse. They showed up and didn't quit all night. That is the kind of maturity in their play that frankly Dodge never was able to extract. It is the kind of good play regardless of opponent that could dramatically increase the team's chances of success next year.
If you want to call it maturity or even courage or guts, that is fine. Whatever you want to call it, they showed it.
Riley Dodge stepped up and played his best game in forever. He kept grinding away until he hit three or four big passes. He ended the night 17-of-29 for 269 yards with 3 TD and no turnovers despite the fact that he was wearing Troy DE J. Massaquoi all night (three sacks).
Dodge is really owning the QB job. I think at this point it looks like he may be the starter next year. He is playing with fire and guts and IMO it appears to be inspiring the whole team. This week he took his game up a notch, topping past efforts with effective mid-ranged passing to the wide receivers.
Canales, for his part, has been calling inspired ball since he landed the head coaching position. He was certainly pretty good before, but he has risen to the occasion, amped up his aggressiveness, and is keeping opponents guessing and the chains moving. Hopefully the UNT passing game will continue along on this path of recent improvement.
It was particularly encouraging to see UNT throw the ball up field more and to see Canales clear out some space for Dunbar to work on the TD pass. Jamaal Jackson was sent down field. The very reliable Alex Lott was thrown the ball.
Dunbar is only half the player he could be because UNT does very little to throw Dunbar the ball in space. It bodes well for the future production of UNT's offense if Mike Canales is now starting to utilize this talent better.
Lance Dunbar will take some heat for the penalty that killed what should have been the game winning drive, but he deserves a little bit of a flier. Dunbar played one of his best games ever against a good defense and left it all on the field. He had to get help from the trainers for cramps to get off the field on the play he was flagged.
The kid carried UNT's offense all game long and he is such a competitor that you know he will feel a need to make it up to the team next week. Fans should lay off him.
The offensive line suffered injuries to Kelvin Drake and Matt Tomlinson and kept hitting people.
Brelan Chancellor and Zack Olen have played a big part in turning UNT's special teams from below average to quite good over the last few weeks. Chancellor was terrific last night averaging 26 yards per carry on kickoff returns and playing well on coverage.
Olen may have narrowly missed a 42 yarder last night, but the quick height on his kicks assured that there was no risk of a block. His kickoffs could be deeper, but looked pretty solid to me. I think there is a gain in placement.
DEs Brandon Akpunku and Brandon McCoy had sacks. Kelvin Jackson and Shavod Atkinson played well again at DT.
MLBs AJ Penson and Zack Orr both continued to ramp their games. Orr had 8 tackles and a break up; Penson had an Interception.
Craig Robertson had another good game with a team leading 14 tackles. Jason Phillips had a pretty good game too.
Royce Hill had some really nice moments and a nice break up.
UNT's big interception to set up what should have been the game winning score was made by one of this year's three star recruits who had been glued to the bench for most of the year (just saying).
It was a great read and a great play.
Heart and maturity. Hopefully Mike Canales will be able to continue to help the players see and play to their potential.
Canales is proving to be the kind of snake oil salesman UNT fans have long felt the program needed at the top
There has been a belief for years that UNT needs a used car salesman in charge. Someone who can sell the university even when there is nothing much there to sell. There is growing evidence that Canales fits that bill.
It goes without saying that UNT Athletic Director Rick Villareal is somewhat intrigued by him (otherwise why do you fire Dodge early and why do you give Canales the interim job over DeLoach?).
He has charmed the local media better than any snake charmer could soothe a pit of cobras.
The players appear to have bought into what he is selling and are giving great effort each week.
And his machine gun fire responses of sensible football chat on his radio appearances have the fans thinking, "This guy could be the real deal. Maybe we shouldn't rush out to land someone else."
Where Todd Dodge may have at times assumed his resume would carry him, Canales is working hard to win one convert at a time.
A final note on attendance
Attendance is short hand for the size of a schools fan base and the simple reality is that UNT will have crappy attendance numbers in both revenue sports this year.
Coming off a win and pulling the largest Sun Belt traveling fan base all season long, UNT drew 14,289 last night dropping their season average to 16,870 (for the season, UNT has drawn 84,354 fans to the piece of crap with a track that is Fouts Field).
Attendance is one of the few hard numbers conferences have to look at. This total would be one of the lowest numbers in CUSA.
The schedule in basketball is loaded with games that are irrelevant to UNT fans, so in spite of a great returning team with legitimate NCAA tourney-run aspirations, basketball attendance is likely to lag again this year as well.
I mention this because Mean Green fans need to think about what this says about UNT.
If UNT has another dog football turnout and then draws poorly in basketball, at best it says UNT fans will only support the football team if it is winning and that they won't support basketball at all.
Is there anything in the last 3 decades that suggests that CUSA should anticipate UNT being a winning football program in their conference? They have to assume UNT will be a losing school in CUSA and UNT fans won't show up or watch the games on TV.
The interpretation that schools hostile to UNT will push is that UNT fans just don't support either of their revenue sports.
UNT's poor turnouts will certainly reduce the attractiveness of UNT to CUSA and give added weight to anything bad SMU may want to say about UNT.
If UNT's fans don't want to show up, they really shouldn't bother talking about CUSA, because barring a series of highly improbable tumblers, it ain't happening.
I mean come on! Old Dominion started playing football two years ago at the freaking FCS level and they have a significantly better per game turnout in football AND basketball and they have a pretty good market to boot. It can be argued they are a better candidate for CUSA and perhaps even a more likely one should they decide to move up!
If you are going to talk about CUSA and dreamily knit your CUSA sweaters—at least go to the freaking games.
If not, you'd better be prepared for a long Sun Belt future.