North Texas seemed to have a perfect path to a quick start to the Conference USA season this fall.
The Mean Green have been tough to beat at Apogee Stadium during five seasons under Seth Littrell.
Or at least that was the case until its first two home games in league play this year. UNT dropped both, a rough stretch that culminated with a 49-21 loss to Charlotte on Saturday.
The Mean Green came into the night aiming to turn the tide after a mistake-filled loss to Southern Miss to open league play and didn’t come close to reaching that goal.
Kicker Ethan Mooney missed three field goals and UNT gave up far too many big plays defensively in its fourth straight game, allowing at least 31 points.
Those issues left the Mean Green (1-3, 0-2 Conference USA) facing a daunting path as it looks to salvage its season.
UNT will face Middle Tennessee and UTEP on the road in its next two games.
“I’m not worried about conference play right now,” Littrell said. “I’m worried about getting our guys better and winning football games. Conference play doesn’t mean anything at this point. We have to get to the point where we are playing well enough to win a game.”
UNT will have to reach that goal on the road, where it didn’t win any of its six games last season. The hope was the Mean Green would build some momentum heading into a tough back half of its schedule.
That seemed like a reasonable expectation. UNT was 18-6 at Apogee under Littrell at Apogee heading into the season.
UNT has just two more games at Apogee after falling to the 49ers (1-2, 1-1).
The fact UNT will face UAB and Louisiana Tech down the stretch won’t help. Both are expected to be among the top teams in C-USA’s West Division this season and are 3-1.
UNT came into the game leading C-USA in both scoring offense (41.0 points per game) and total offense (573.7 yards per game). The Mean Green live up to their expectations of being one of the top offensive teams in the league against a solid Charlotte defense that turned back UNT when it mattered.
The Mean Green drove deep into Charlotte territory five times without scoring.
“We have to put points on the board and allow our defense to have momentum,” UNT receiver Jaelon Darden said.
Mooney missed a 32-yard field goal wide left on UNT’s opening drive of the game. The Mean Green came up short again a short time later when defensive end Tyriq Harris cut down running back Tre Siggers down for no gain on fourth-and-1 from the Charlotte 4-yard line.
“We have to do a better job of getting a first down when it’s fourth-and-1, get two yards,” Littrell said. “We talked about it last week. We run the ball well enough. When we go for it on fourth-and-1, I expect to get it.”
The play seemed to set the tone for the night.
The Mean Green never got on track offensively, despite a huge night from Darden.
UNT quarterback Austin Aune targeted the senior over and over again and saw him come up with a monster performance that included 13 receptions for 244 yards and three touchdowns.
That just wasn’t enough on a night when UNT’s defense continued to struggle. The Mean Green pulled within 14 points of Charlotte multiple times in the second half.
The 49ers had an answer each time. UNT’s last chance came after Darden caught a 9-yard scoring strike from Aune that pulled the Mean Green within 35-21 with 12:06 left in the fourth quarter.
Charlotte put UNT away less than a minute later when Aaron McAllister broke free for a 66-yard scoring run that pushed the 49ers lead back to 21 points.
The Mean Green spent the entire night playing catch-up.
“The little things hurt us, miscommunication and missed assignments,” defensive tackle Dion Novil said. “Those are things that we can improve on. Charlotte didn’t do anything that we couldn’t stop. We beat ourselves a little bit.”
Littrell spoke earlier in the week about the importance of avoiding slow starts after the Mean Green trailed by double digits early in each of its last two games.
That trend continued against Charlotte.
The 49ers jumped out to a 14-0 lead after Chris Reynolds hit McAllister behind UNT’s secondary for a 71-yard touchdown. Reynolds threw for 290 yards for Charlotte.
The Mean Green scored on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Aune to Darden. Charlotte answered with a 12-yard touchdown run from Tre Harbison and led 21-7 at halftime.
UNT came up with some offensive fireworks the rest of the night. Those big plays weren’t nearly enough to help the Mean Green avoid an 0-2 start in C-USA play, one that leaves UNT a difficult path to travel to turn its season around.
“We didn’t play good enough football to have success in all three phases,” Littrell said. “We were 1-for-4 in the red zone. Some of that is offense, some on special teams. We had way too many missed tackles in the back and were not good offensively on third down. You are not going to win games playing like that.”