NORMAN, Okla. — When Oklahoma takes the field of newly renovated Memorial Stadium on Saturday night, the top-ranked Sooners won't be looking past North Texas.
After all, the Mean Green went 8-5 last season and is riding a seven-game winning streak, which includes a 24-19 victory over Cincinnati in the New Orleans Bowl last December.
"Our players understand North Texas is a team that's won back-to-back (Sun Belt) conference championships and are expected to win it again this year," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. "They've got a good number of starters back."
In 2001, OU spanked North Texas 37-10, but Mean Green coach Darrell Dickey is confident this year's team is much improved from two seasons ago.
"Overall it is," said Dickey. "The big question mark for us is our offensive line. We've got some talent there. We've got some guys who have played a little, but for what we do offensively that unit is going to have to carry a big share of the load and come together quickly."
Offensively, North Texas returns five starters, but only two are linemen. Senior guard Nick Zuniga (6-3, 319) anchors the offensive line and has 36 career starts.
Junior Scott Hall (6-1, 211) returns at quarterback after sitting out the 2002 season, but will split time with sophomore Andrew Smith (6-0, 180). Hall was the team's starter last year, but gave way to Smith after being injured in the season opener at Texas.
Senior wideout Ja'Mel Branch (5-7, 180) and senior tight end Randy Gardner (6-4, 245) lead the North Texas receiving corps. Branch was the team's third-leading receiver last season with 24 catches for 357 yards, while Garnder caught five balls for 84 yards. Michael Thrash (6-2, 187) will start at the other wideout and the senior was the team's fourth-leading receiver a year ago with seven catches for 84 yards.
"We've got some guys that can make things happen," said Dickey. "We've just got to be able to get the ball to them and try to be a little more balanced on offense this year than we have in the past."
With starting running back and Oklahoma native Kevin Galbreath gone due to graduation, North Texas reloads with Tecumseh junior Patrick Cobbs, who was named Sun Belt Conference preseason offensive player of the year last month. The 5-foot-9, 189-pounder rushed for 770 yards on 155 carries last season, while backing up Galbreath.
"Patrick has performed quite well in the spring and during two-a-days. He is now the starter," said Dickey. "We will rely heavily on him."
Even though North Texas has several question marks offensively, their defense is dominating. Last season, the Mean Green led the Sun Belt Conference in rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense (14.8).
North Texas returns eight starters on defense and is led by defensive tackle All-American candidate Brandon Kennedy. Kennedy, who is 5-foot-10 and 315 pounds, was the Sun Belt Conference's most valuable player last year after recording 72 tackles, nine sacks and 24 tackles for loss.
"Everybody says he was too short to play, at least that's what they thought during recruiting," said Dickey. "We're very happy they thought that. Defensive line coaches across the country teach their linemen to stay low and for Brandon he can't help but to stay low because of his height. So, it's actually an advantage."
Along with Kennedy and defensive end Adrian Awasom (6-5, 270), North Texas also returns all three of their linebackers and three more starters in the secondary. Safeties Craig Jones (6-0, 211), Jonas Buckles (5-11, 213) and cornerback Walter Priestley (5-10, 178) have a combined 102 games of starting experience between them.
Senior linebacker Taylor Case (6-3, 215), who led the Mean Green in tackles (111) last season, also returns for a defensive unit that posted three shutouts last season.
"We feel like we play pretty good defense here," said Dickey. "We lost three starters off of a defensive team that played pretty good a year ago. The three starters we lost though were very valuable players and we've got some holes there that we've got to fill. We feel comfortable with the guys who are there, but we just lack experience."
North Texas also returns both kickers from 2002 in sophomores Nick Bazaldua and Brad Kadlubar. Bazaldua led the Mean Green in scoring last season after connecting on nine of his 14 field goals and 22 of 28 extra point attempts. Kadlubar averaged 42.3 yards per punt, which included a 71-yard boot.
"We've been through some of these type of games before, not as stiff a challenge as this, but we've been in some of these types of games," said Dickey. "I think our kids will handle the environment better. We're playing against one of the greatest teams we'll ever have a chance to play against."
When North Texas has the ball
Dickey's concern for his inexperienced offense doesn't bode well for the Mean Green against OU's defensive line, which is arguably the nation's best. North Texas will also try to run the ball first and pass second, playing right into the hands of the Oklahoma defense.
When Oklahoma has the ball
This should be interesting. Quarterback Jason White doesn't have the luxury that he did last season when the Sooners opened against bottom feeder Tulsa. North Texas may have a better defensive unit than some in the Big 12, but the Sooner defense should spot the OU's offense with enough field position to rack up the points needed to cover the game's 33.5 point spread.
2002 North Texas Results
at Texas, L, (27-0)
Nicholls State, W, (23-0)
at Alabama, L, (33-7)
at TCU, L, (16-10)
at Arizona, L, (14-9)
South Florida, L, (24-17)
at Arkansas State, W, (13-10)
at Louisiana-Lafayette W, (27-0)
Louisiana-Monroe, W, (41-2)
Idaho, W, (10-0)
New Mexico State, W, (38-28)
at Middle Tennessee, W, (30-20)
vs. Cincinnati, W, (24-19)
Scouting North Texas
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