"It will definitely test our defense to have a great running back coming in." Johnson said. "He was the number one running back in the country and we have a lot of respect for him. We're not going to hold anything back."
Cobbs is one of those undersized (5-9) dynamos capable of producing a Texas-sized headache. Former OU RB Quintin Griffin (now at Denver) comes to mind but Co-Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson says Cobbs' cutback, make-you-miss style reminds him of another Bronco; Terrell Davis. Last year, Cobbs averaged about as many rushing yards as Texas surrendered (152.5) as the run defense slipped to its lowest statistical ranking of the Mack Brown era. To be sure, Brown didn't hire Robinson to beat North Texas. But how Texas fares against a respected running back boasting nine straight 100-yard games serves as the first barometer of the job Robinson has done since arriving January 27.
"We'd like to see if we've made progress," said head coach Mack Brown. "You don't get all of the answers in the opening game. You want to win and that's the only important thing. But you'd like to see progress in the areas that you want to."
North Texas owns the Sun Belt Conference, having won three straight league crowns and returning six all-conference honorees. But it lusts for a statement game against a marquee program. That's why, to their credit, school officials have loaded up their non-conference slate the past five years against the likes of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Arkansas. The only ranked team the Mean Green has beaten was the 20-14 win over No. 20 San Deigo State in 1974. But UNT did upset Texas Tech in 1988, 1997 and 1999. And last year, the Denton boys bashed Baylor like a cheap piñata, 52-14. They've come close against Texas, falling 17-14 in 1976 and 27-24 in 1988 (a pair of non-winning seasons for the Burnt Orange).
"If you look at our scores against North Texas, traditionally, they've always been close," Brown said. "Only two of the games have been by more than 14 points. So its been a tight series for a long time."
Texas holds a 7-0 mark against North Texas but this series, begun in 1976, has been about as much fun as a trip to the dentist. During the first six matchups, the average margin of victory for the Horns has been just 11 points. It made the 27-0 win two seasons back look like a blowout, from which few fans went home particularly thrilled about the outcome. The Mean Green held Texas scoreless in the second half, limited the Horns to 37 net yards rushing after intermission and sacked the QB eight times.
At the same time, the Texas defense held its opponent to 90 yards rushing through three quarters. In fact, North Texas did not reach midfield until late in the third quarter as QB Chris Simms led Texas to scores on five of its first six possessions.
"We played pretty well in the first half," offensive coordinator Greg Davis said, "but in the second half, we didn't play very well at all."
As unsatisfying as was the most recent matchup, the 27-point margin of victory is the most lopsided in the short history of the series. The Mean Green prepared two years for that game in Austin, its coaches later told Brown. The Texas coach also believes the Denton bunch has been preparing for this Saturday night ever since it left town in 2002.
NORTH TEXAS OFFENSE
Robinson already knows North Texas' offensive game plan:
"Hand it off to No. 43."
That, of course, would be Cobbs, the 2003 Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year. If Cobbs duplicates last year's feats, he'll have to do it behind an OL that is replacing three starters.
"They'll run up the gut, they'll run to the outside, off-tackle," starting RDT Stevie Lee said. "They like to run to whatever Cobbs can get."
Senior center Andy Brewster has more career starts (38) than any other teammate. The first-team all-conference pick is also on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award, honoring the nation's top center. As head coach Darrell Dickey waits for the line to jell, the game plan will still be about ball control.
"They're going to do what they can to control the football," Robinson said, "and they've done a good job of that. Last year, as their season rolled on, they were very successful. They're really well coached. I know that's a coach's cliche, but I ran into their coach, and I'd never met him before and I told him, 'You guys do a good job.' They know very well what they're doing. Everything that they do has meaning. I've gone against offenses that was all bells and whistles. These guys have a purpose for why they go into motion, why they go into a certain formation. It's all good stuff and I believe it's because they understand defenses."
In fact, North Texas' best defense against the Horns should be its clock-eating, ball-control offense.
"They do a great job of time of possession and staying on the field and moving the ball," Brown said.
QB Scott Hall missed the 2002 season due to a torn pectoral muscle. He returned to start nine games last season and played well enough to earn first-team all-conference honors. With 30 career starts, Hall has totaled more yards than any QB under Dickey and led the conference in passing efficiency last season.
"He's a big, active football player," Brown said. "He can run and pass."
Hall's favorite target will be sophomore WR Johnny Quinn, one of only three UNT freshmen to lead the team in receiving yards (709). Quinn, however, missed several days of August camp due to a leg injury. The Mean Green also lost two receivers (Ja'Mel Branch, Joel Nwigwe) this season due to off-the-field circumstances.
Expect North Texas to operate out of the I-formation, plus throw a lot play-action pass and double tights at the defense. It's all under the direction of the youngest offensive coordinator in D-I football, 29-year old Ramon Flanigan.
"They do a great job of moving people around and running the football, throwing play-action passes and giving you problems rushing their passer and knowing where the quarterback's going to be," Brown said.
"They play great defense."
NORTH TEXAS DEFENSE
The Mean Green bases out of a 4-3 set with "a lot of two-deep coverage", Robinson said.
Any talk of North Texas defenses begins with senior DE Adrian Awasom and senior DE Evan Cardwell. Awasom is on the preseason Lombardi and Nagurski watch lists. Even without two-time conference Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Kennedy, Dickey thinks the defensive front as a whole should be better than the crew that led the conference (NCAA No. 17) by holding opponents to just under 105 ypg rushing.
Three-year starter Walter Priestly returns at CB while senior safety Jonas Buckles is a staple in the Mean Green secondary.
"The secondary has a great deal of experience," Robinson said. "In fact, the only area where there is not as much experience is at linebacker"
Indeed, linebacker has been the biggest question mark throughout August camp. With the loss of three all-conference starters, there were big cleats to fill in the middle. JC transfer Travis Thompson was expected to step up but suffered a season-ending injury during two-a-days. That leaves junior OLB Shawn Early, with 13 career appearances but no starts, as North Texas' most experienced 'backer.
PENN STATE, NOTRE DAME AND NORTH TEXAS
It's probably lost on the average fan but not on the good people of Denton: North Texas received as many votes in the preseason AP Poll as did Notre Dame and Penn State. That would be, uh, one vote. One. But it represents the first time in coach Darrell Dickey's seven-year tenure that UNT has received votes in the AP Poll.
A MOMENT OF SILENCE
A moment of silence will be observed at the start of the ballgame to honor former North Texas QB Andrew Smith, who was tragically killed in an automobile accident on August 7. He was killed in a head-on collision as he traveled from his home in Bay City to Denton at the start of two-a-days. Smith started 16 games during his first two seasons, seeing action against Texas in 2002, and leading the Mean Green to its only bowl victory (New Orleans Bowl) in the last 57 years. Smith started the first four games of 2003 before Hall regained his starting job. Teammates have made Smith an honorary captain for the 2004 season and will also wear a No. 12 decal at the back of their helmets.