FACTS & STATS: Site: Apogee Stadium (30,850) -- Denton, Texas. Television: None. Home Record: Idaho 0-0, UNT 0-0. Away Record: Idaho 0-0, UNT 0-0. Neutral Record: Idaho 0-0, UNT 0-0. Conference Record: Idaho 0-0, UNT 0-0. Series Record: North Texas leads, 5-4.
GAME NOTES: Former foes in the Sun Belt Conference, the Idaho Vandals and the North Texas Mean Green kick off the 2013 football schedule against each other on Saturday night at Apogee Stadium in Denton, Texas.
Idaho doesn't currently have a conference affiliation, after spending several years as part of the Western Athletic Conference, but following this campaign as an Independent the program plans on rejoining the Sun Belt, having left the league prior to the 2005 season.
Last year, the Vandals continued to slide in the wrong direction, winning just one game after posting a 2-10 record in 2011 and a 6-7 mark two years earlier under head coach Robb Akey. Unfortunately for Akey, he never made it through all of 2012, let go in the middle of October after the team was blitzed by Louisiana Tech in an awful 70-28 showing.
Offensive coordinator Jason Gesser filled in as the interim head coach, but still Idaho lost six straight games to close out the campaign. Eventually, Paul Petrino, who served as an assistant at Idaho between 1992-94, was brought in to take over the program. Paul Petrino is the brother of Bobby, now the head coach at Western Kentucky.
As for the Mean Green, they are a team that hasn't had a winning record since going 7-5 in 2004. Last year, UNT won a total of four games, but failed to put together back-to-back victories during a campaign in which it was 3-5 versus the rest of the Sun Belt Conference for head coach Dan McCarney, a former assistant head coach with Florida.
In terms of the all-time series, the Mean Green own a one-game advantage over Idaho at 5-4.
Four times last season the Vandals were held to single digits in points, resulting in a scoring average of just 15.8 ppg which was last among the 120 programs at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. Honestly, Idaho can't get much worse on offense, then again it is breaking in a new starting quarterback in redshirt freshman Chad Chalich.
Some good news for Chalich is that a pair of wide receivers in Najee Lovett and Jahrie Level, who were second and third, respectively, in receptions a year ago, return. Lovett reeled in 50 balls for 548 yards and a team-best six touchdowns, while Jahrie caught four fewer passes, leading to 538 yards, but just two TDs.
After ranking 116th in the country in rushing (89.3 ypg), the Vandals could fall even deeper into the hole this season because there is little experience and familiarity filling the positions behind the quarterback.
The offense for the Vandals has a long road ahead, but it is not nearly as long as the one that will be traveled by the defense. With so many issues to contend with, Idaho, which held just one opponent (New Mexico State) under 20 points, ended up ranking 118th in the country with a whopping 42.4 ppg allowed.
Many of the defenders who were able to make any kind of an impact in 2012 are now gone, specifically the top six tacklers, which means the squad is again in rebuilding mode. Bradley Njoku is the top returning tackler for the group after posting 43 stops. He appeared in all 12 games but started just two, so assume that he'll elevate his play in order to earn more time this season.
Defensive end Maxx Forde was one of the more impressive performers with his five tackles for loss, four sacks and two fumble recoveries, but unless the rest of the defensive line meshes well opponents will be able to key on him and make sure he has even less of an influence moving forward.
The top offensive effort for the Mean Green a year ago came against Texas Southern (34-7), a squad which finished a mere 2-9 as a member of the Football Championship Subdivision. Averaging 20.9 ppg, UNT was 103rd in the country in that department, and yet the team was still good for almost 400 ypg and ranked first in the nation with just .50 sacks per game allowed.
The unit brings back eight starters, including quarterback Derek Thompson who has 24 career starts to his credit. The signal-caller threw for more than 2,600 yards and 14 TDs in 2012, but he was also picked off just as many times which means he has to make better decisions moving forward.
Brelan Chancellor, Carlos Harris and Drew Miller will be the primary targets for Thompson, the first of whom turned just 25 catches into 450 yards and a team-best five scores in only eight games last season.
Running back Brandin Byrd took the ball 205 times in 2012, logging almost twice as many carries as anyone else on the unit, leading to 875 yards and four TDs, making him a key figure in the offense moving forward as well.
Senior linebacker Zachary Orr has the most career starts (22) on the defensive side of the ball for UNT, and comes back after being the top tackler a year ago with 108 stops. However, he and his teammates will have to make up for the loss of K.C. Obi who was tops in both tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (5.5).
The good news is that Aaron Bellazin is back at his defensive end position after ranking second with nine TFL and five sacks, not to mention coming up with a couple of forced fumbles.
Youth and inexperience will be the death of the Vandals for the foreseeable future and it doesn't help that the squad is having to begin the season on the road. However, North Texas is far from a juggernaut which means Idaho still has a fighting chance in this encounter.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: North Texas 35, Idaho 23
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