THE MEAN GREEN OF NORTH TEXAS ARE TALKING THE TALK AS THEY PREPARE FOR OKLAHOMA. CAN YOU GAME-PLAN A MIRACLE?
THE SCULPTURE IN RICK VILLARREAL'S office defies one of the irrefutable laws of the universe. Everyone knows Wile E. Coyote never catches the Road Runner. But stationed on the North Texas athletic director's large desk is a gray metal piece that depicts the old boy climbing up the back of his longtime prey. Fork drawn, tongue out, he's ready to feast. After staring at that statue for a few minutes, visitors might begin to believe the impossible: that the world's greatest underdog is relaxing somewhere, savoring a leftover blue-bird sandwich.
This is how Villarreal chooses to think of his football team's upcoming colossal mismatch against Oklahoma. Everyone else can blindly accept that the D1 universe is jump-started each season by powerhouse programs crushing hopeless foes in a wink-wink trade of warmup "W" for much-needed trip to the cash machine. But don't ask Villarreal and the rest of the Mean Green to see it that way.
Maybe it's gumption. Maybe it's gullibility. Maybe it's what they mean in these parts by "all hat and no cattle." Villarreal likes the coyote's chances. "We aren't going to Oklahoma to pick up a check or just keep it close," he says. "We're going up there to win a football game. To play a team as prestigious as Oklahoma and have a chance to stand on that field a victor? That's what it's all about. You can't help but dream that dream."
The reality of the situation is a tad less rosy, of course, more like Wile E.'s being strapped to one of those Acme rockets headed straight for the side of a mountain. Oklahoma enters the season a consensus top-10 pick in search of its eighth national championship. North Texas has lost 18 games over the past two seasons, has a coach who was standing on a high school sideline last year and has failed to crack the top 100 in any preseason poll. Since moving up from D1-AA in 1995, the Mean Green have lost their 12 games against top-10 opponents by an average of 42 points (just one more than the current spread against the Sooners).
Of course, there are those who refuse to admit the obvious. "I don't look at it like David vs. Goliath," says Sooners coach Bob Stoops. "I look at it like any other game, and we'll prepare the same way. In college football today, with limited scholarships and parity across the board, there aren't a lot of mismatches anymore." You can't blame Stoops for not wanting to look past underdogs, not after he and his team spent the off-season grappling with their historic Fiesta Bowl loss at the devious hands of everyone's favorite challenger, Boise State.
North Texas senior defensive end Blake Burruss happened to enjoy that telecast immensely, watching the game unfold at a friend's house in Oklahoma City. Burruss grew up just seven minutes from OU's Memorial Stadium in a house full of Sooners disciples who still recoil in horror at the memory of Blake's attending a 2001 Sooners game dressed in Carolina blue to support the visiting Tar Heels. "I've seen my fair share of what Oklahoma does to teams in these 'warmup' games," says Burruss. "So I know what an awesome thing it is when someone silences that stadium, to look up from the field and see the blank stares from people who five minutes ago thought you were a joke."
After Boise State's stunning 43-42 overtime win, Burruss stood in that roomful of Oklahoma fans, shot his fists into the air and screamed into the heavens, "Stoops got outcoached! Stoops got outcoached!" The outburst nearly started a brawl with his buddy's dad, a guy Burruss fully expects to hear cursing him out from the stands on Sept. 1.
The 6'7", 275-pound Burruss was a standout at Westmoore High School, but like the rest of his Mean Green teammates, he never got so much as a glance from Stoops. That's just one reason the Mean Green have an equal amount of envy and enmity toward Oklahoma. It's nothing personal, though. Heck, none of the Mean Green starters has even met anybody on the Sooners' roster.
THEY SAY the game is an opportunity to knock off a giant, a chance to make history. But what really gets the Mean Green excited is the shot to be part of the big time-even if it means taking another hideous drubbing like the one they got in 2004 when Texas bullied them 65-0 while earning a 513- 38 advantage in rushing yards. "For the underdogs, these games are like being the heel in a wrestling match," says Burruss. "Everyone is just dying to see you lose. It's a chance to push it to the limit, to see if maybe you can be Buster Douglas for a day."
Denton, Texas, is just 151 miles to the south of Norman, Okla., but the Mean Green exist in a very different world than the Sooners do. North Texas won four Sun Belt titles from 2001 to 2004, but the school remains far more renowned for its arts program, the albino squirrels that populate the campus and Dr. Phil. After pro Hall of Famer Joe Greene, the most famous football player to put on the pads at North Texas is Kathy Ireland, who starred in Unnecessary Roughness, which was, incidentally, filmed on campus.
While Oklahoma will rake in an estimated $5 million from the game, North Texas' payout will be about one-tenth that (but $125,000 more than it earned in the 2004 New Orleans Bowl). After student fees and alumni contributions, football is North Texas' biggest moneymaker. There's a direct connection between the team's 56-3 loss to LSU in 2005 and the fact that the tennis team plays in a brand-new facility instead of on cracked asphalt courts. Says one UNT athletics official: "Everyone around here benefits from our guys getting creamed by Oklahoma."
Hoping to shock the world, new head coach Todd Dodge persuaded most of his Mean Green to spend the summer together on campus. In mid-July, those who stayed pushed through brutal preseason conditioning drills in the threealarm heat. Players completing a series of 40-yard sprints gritted their teeth and growled as they crossed the goal line- partly from pain, partly to choke back vomit. Exhausted, demoralized and disheveled, and still a month away from kickoff, Dodge's team was more green than mean. A skinny, pale jogger entered the stadium and was told that the track was closed for football practice. He looked out at the turf and laughed nervously, as if he weren't in on the gag.
At times, that's exactly what it feels like to be on this team. If others see the game as a gag, the players can't allow themselves to acknowledge that they're the punch line. It's less about denial than about rationalizing to survive and play another day. Mean Green seniors have lived through a half-dozen of these routs. Each one makes the next harder to prepare for.
It messes with you, admits senior running back Jamario Thomas. "Sometimes there's nothing you can do to stop your opponent, and that's hard to forget," he says. "But you have to, or it will affect everything you do afterward." No one will come out and say, "Psst, let's get real here-we know we don't have a chance." (The biggest betting line a D1 football team beat to win outright is 37 points.) Instead, the phrase you hear is "Hey, it's just one game."
But to some, it's one chance to shock the world. Brandon Jackson sat in the players lounge one evening this summer. On the table in front of him were college football magazines, many with the Sooners on the cover. He casually flipped those over as he spoke. "I tell the critics, you can watch it on TV, you can read about it in the paper, or you can drive to Norman and see for yourselves, but we're gonna win. We're gonna beat Oklahoma. I know it."
During off-season workouts, the word "Oklahoma" was never uttered. But how could it not be on their minds? Back in April, Burruss watched the Sooners' spring game on television and jotted down notes about how to attack their massive O-line. He daydreams on his way to class and between weight sets about picking off a Sooners pass for a TD.
There will be more than fantasies on the line in Norman. These are football players with careers of their own, like Thomas, who, as a freshman in 2004, gained 247 yards against Colorado and led the nation in rushing. But hamstring injuries and an inconsistent line have limited him the past two seasons. Now, whatever hopes the senior still harbors of playing at the next level could come down to his performance against the Sooners and in another showcase at Arkansas on Sept. 29. Junior quarterback Daniel Meager has struggled to pick up Dodge's complicated vertical schemes and knows a weak showing in the season opener could open the door for true freshman Giovanni Vizza. The new coach knows what he's in for. After taking the job, in December, he met with his former team at Southlake Carroll High to encourage them to keep their 48-game winning streak alive. "The Dodge streak, well, it's got a much better chance of taking it on the chin," he told them. "I'm not sure if y'all have seen our schedule, but we open up with a little team called the Oklahoma Sooners." Ever since arriving in Denton, though, Dodge has followed every page of the underdog playbook. He refuses to let Oklahoma loom over his program. Instead, he has used the exhaustion of two-a-days to isolate his players from the noise. In mid- August, he abruptly closed practice to the public, invoking the time-honored us-against-the-world bunker mentality. Dodge, the starting quarterback for the Texas Longhorns from 1983 to 1985, also installed the quick-strike, four-wide spread offense Boise State used to give the Sooners fits.
As the opener approaches, he will narrow the team's focus with an OU-specific list of tangible goals: third-down conversions, turnover ratios, sacks, completion percentages. And during game week, Dodge plans to hit them with his Dream the Impossible Dream speech, the one that leaves the Denton rotary club buzzing and inspires the mayor, Perry McNeill, to predict a 56-55 upset. It ends with the question: "If Rutgers, then why not us?"
HIS PLAYERS have answers. "Maybe you start out thinking they're celebrities you can't get near because they play for Oklahoma," says Jackson. "But by the time the whistle blows, everything shrinks to just a game. I don't see a guy from a magazine cover or from television or headed for the NFL. I just see a corner, and I'm begging him to man-press me one-on-one so I can show him, show the world." First, the Mean Green will have to get over the shock-and-awe noise of Owen Field. After that, there's the small task of reversing the laws of physics. Even players as big as Burruss must find a way-technique, strategy, heart-to compete against opponents who outweigh them at nearly every spot, some by as much as 75 pounds. Then they'll need truckloads of luck-turnovers, fluke scores, a few early defensive stops that turn touchdowns into field goals. Even still, the best the Mean Green can hope for is that the game comes down to a single series at some point early in the second half.
"There's a moment-you can feel it," says Burruss. "It's tangible, when all the air gets sucked out of the stadium and everyone is like, Whoa, what's gonna happen next? At that moment everything is equal, and the underdog either takes it to the next level, or the bigger guy crushes his will. That's what you play these games for, that's what you live for, that one moment when you're equal. You either become a big-time player or go back to being just another guy in a helmet."
A thin, wily smile dissects Burruss' face as he walks toward the shade. "It's a minor percentage chance," he shouts over his shoulder. "But so is the lottery. Someone always wins the lottery, right?"
Why not the coyote?
Without North Texas he'd be just Phil McGraw, some guy with an awesome 'stache, passing off bromides as existential wisdom on a busy street corner. Eventually, after an injury ended his football career at Tulsa, McGraw came to Denton to earn a Ph.D. in clinical psych. The rest is self-help history. With UNT facing a 23rd straight blowout to a ranked foe, maybe 's take on Dr. Phil's very own Life Laws can make it all right.
LIFE LAW NO. 1: YOU EITHER GET IT OR YOU DON'T. North Texas gets it. A team that won a game last fall in seven OTs isn't about to lay down. Of course, it scored only 25 points in beating winless Florida International-but it didn't give up!
LIFE LAW NO. 2: YOU CREATE YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE. In 1975, in front of 72,670 screaming Vols fans in Knoxville, then-coach Hayden Fry led North Texas to a 21-14 upset win.
LIFE LAW NO. 3: PEOPLE DO WHAT WORKS. The Mean Green doesn't have to unleash the Statue of Liberty, but its spread schemes do a good job of mimicking Boise State's. "Our offense is daunting," says DE Blake Burruss. "I hope Oklahoma is in shape."
LIFE LAW NO. 4: YOU CANNOT CHANGE WHAT YOU DO NOT ACKNOWLEDGE. Well, maybe you can. "Everyone around you might think you're going to lose 100-0," says WR Brandon Jackson. "But you can't listen to it or you'll start to believe it too."
LIFE LAW NO. 5: LIFE REWARDS ACTION. The players who worked out in Denton this summer aren't Coach Dodge's only believers. Son Riley, a QB who was the Texas Class-5A player of the year, decommitted from Texas to be one of nine UNT verbals.
LIFE LAW NO. 6: THERE IS NO REALITY, ONLY PERCEPTION. That's right. DB Antoine Bush (175 pounds) has nothing to fear but fear itself (and maybe 350-pound Sooner OT Phil Loadholt).
LIFE LAW NO. 7: LIFE IS MANAGED; IT IS NOT CURED. Actually, this one becomes relevant only if there is a tinea pedis outbreak in the Mean Green's locker room before game time.
LIFE LAW NO. 8: WE TEACH PEOPLE HOW TO TREAT US. "Oklahoma says, 'We'll push this little team around until they want to give up,'" says Burruss. "These games are about the little guy pushing back."
LIFE LAW NO. 9: THERE IS POWER IN FORGIVENESS. Daniel Meager threw 14 picks and only 8 TDs in 16 starts, but Dodge ignored it all to name him his QB. "Whoever starts for us," says Dodge, "will be sent out with the full confidence of our staff and players."
LIFE LAW NO. 10: YOU HAVE TO NAME IT BEFORE YOU CAN CLAIM IT. "Some people call these 'money' games or even 'body bag' games, but I call this game a great opportunity," says Dodge. "It just happens to be against one helluva football team, that's all."
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