Defense leading turnaround at North Texas

North Texas (4-3) has won two straight under coach Seth Littrell, double the Mean Green’s victory total from a year ago.
North Texas (4-3) has won two straight under coach Seth Littrell, double the Mean Green’s victory total from a year ago. AP

If you forecast before the season that North Texas had a real chance at bowl eligibility with five games to play because of some heavy lifting from a defense that wore footprints on its back a year ago you have a future as a palm reader.

The Mean Green is again really that on the defensive side — mean — entering Saturday’s game at UT San Antonio as the top scoring defense in Conference USA. North Texas has held opponents to a conference-low 27.1 points per game, and lead C-USA in interceptions after four pickoffs in a victory last week against Army. In total, the opportunistic Mean Green collected seven turnovers.

North Texas has intercepted 10 passes this season, compared to four all of last season.

That’s how you beat all the doomsday season projections in which many didn’t expect the Mean Green to win twice much less two straight, the team’s winning streak. North Texas (4-3, 2-1 C-USA) kicks off against the Roadrunners (3-4, 2-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Alamodome.

27.1 Points allowed per game by North Texas.

“We don’t listen to outside talk,” said Brandon Garner, a redshirt sophomore from Mansfield Timberview, who has been pressed into action with an injury to inside linebacker Fred Scott of Kennedale. “We stick to what we believe in … and we believe what we can do.”

Co-defensive coordinators Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett “have us prepared the right way. We’re more excited to play than the other team is.”

Perhaps no unit is more different from the seasonlong misadventure a year ago when the defense yielded 42 points per game in a 1-11 campaign. Perhaps most impressive is the defense appears to get stronger as the game progresses. It has given up 7.6 points per game in the first quarter, 6.3 and 6.9 in the second and third, but 5.4 in the fourth.

It has a star on the rise in sophomore safety Kishawn McClain, who is meeting and perhaps surpassing expectations as a preseason all-conference pick by finding himself around the ball at all times. He leads the team in tackles and is second in C-USA in interceptions, ranking 16th nationally.

North Texas is allowing 415.6 yards per game, 201.4 yards through the air.

Garner, too, has been particularly good.

Last week against the Black Knights, Garner had the best day of his brief career with 11 tackles and a fumble recovery. His two recoveries this season are tied for most in C-USA. Garner also had a significant impact in an upset of Marshall earlier in the month with three tackles-for-loss and two sacks.

Garner said the turnovers are something “we’ve been stressing. We’re always talking about turnover battle and winning the ball on offense, defense, and special teams. They take great pride in it. We practice it a lot and it transitions to the game.”

With all that said and the good vibes bubbling over, Garner assured that his teammates are not looking ahead to postseason possibilities. North Texas appears on the rise and two more victories feasible, but as Littrell said this week each of the last five games — a difficult stretch, by the way — are all winnable and losable.

“When you win, you build confidence,” Littrell said. “Every game in this league will be a challenge. You can get beat by anybody. It’s who is the best prepared and who has the best week of practice” who will likely win week to week.

North Texas at

UT San Antonio

6 p.m. Saturday

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