DENTON – There is only one team in the Football Bowl Subdivision that has not trailed by more than one score in 2018, and it's not anyone playing in the College Football Playoff. It's the North Texas Mean Green.
Three short years ago, the outlook was not so rosy. North Texas saw itself trailing by multiple scores routinely during 1-11 season that saw a coach relieved of his duties midway through the year.
Members of the senior class have seen quite a bit in their time in Denton. Quarterback Quinn Shanbour, who is finishing his sixth season on campus, has a unique view of the changes at UNT. In his first season, the Mean Green win nine games and the Heart of Dallas Bowl; in his third, UNT went 1-11; now, he's been part of two straight nine-win seasons.
"I was very lucky to be a part of the 2013 season and obviously the 2018 season, and it feels like two mountain peaks and a real deep valley in between," Shanbour said. "Going out on a high is really big for me."
That valley was a major low point for a program in desperate need of a reset. Enter Seth Littrell. The former North Carolina offensive coordinator brought his high-flying Air Raid attack to Denton and made significant changes across the board to lift the program out of the doldrums.
The 2015 campaign was tough on everyone. Fans, coaches, administration, but, most of all, the student-athletes. Perspective, however, helped them climb out of it.
"I don't really look at 2015 as a tough year as much as it was a lesson," defensive lineman Ulaiasi Tauaalo said. "We came back the following spring and the biggest thing was that everyone bought in (with coach Littrell) quickly. Throughout the years there have been a lot of highs and lows, but everything has happened for a reason."
Littrell instilled a set of core values, and he and his staff transformed the culture. When Littrell told the room of 100-plus players on report day that their goal in 2016 was to win a bowl game that year, no one batted an eye, despite the fact that those outside that room would meet that statement understandably, with a whole lot of skepticism.
Littrell created a family-oriented environment. He made sure it was a true level playing field upon his arrival, and gave everyone the opportunity to compete for jobs and roles within the team. Shanbour, a walk-on when Littrell arrived in Denton, impressed his new head coach with his work ethic and attitude, becoming the first player that earned a scholarship under Littrell's guidance, which is a source of pride for the Oklahoma City native.
After a 5-7 regular season, the Mean Green earned a berth in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl thanks to a strong Academic Performance Rate.
"You can attribute a lot of the success to the change in culture," cornerback Nate Brooks said. "Before this coaching staff got here, the culture was just bad. There was no other way to describe it. It was a lot of players just doing what they wanted and not buying into the team and playing for themselves. Once this staff got in and changed the culture, it changed our team's mindset. Them changing the culture is a large part of how successful we've been."
The culture is built on family and accountability, and it started to take shape in 2016 and continued to grow as 2017 approached.
North Texas saw a massive jump in 2017, improving on its win total by four games, thanks in part to a breakout performance by quarterback Mason Fine and the offense that scored 35.5 points per game. Close wins were a calling card, as five of those nine wins were decided by one possession or less.
There were a lot of times, however, where the team found itself trailing. It was really good at climbing out of holes, but found themselves in that situation far too often.
But 2018 felt different. Expectations were sky high heading into the season and the Mean Green answered the bell early, opening at 4-0 with a landmark win at Arkansas. The standard was raised. That meant fan and media expectations were high as well, so when some losses came, so too did the criticism.
"We felt like the better team at all times this year," Shanbour said. "Thinking about never trailing by more than a possession, it means we are always in the game, which gives us a great chance every week. Unfortunately in the losses the opponents got that last drive on us."
It shows just how far the program has come in three short years that some were disappointed with a 9-3 season. Now, with an opportunity for a 10th win staring the Mean Green in the face, this group sees the chance to leave its legacy.
"The biggest thing is that the foundation is set now," Tauaalo said. "This is normal now. Knowing when we step out there that we're the better team, we know we built that from our workouts, from our summers, to spring, how everyone does the little things. Accountability for something small makes a big difference. Everyone takes care of business in a professional way like it should be.
"My biggest takeaway from my time here is that I can leave here knowing that the foundation is set. That will keep me at peace. I'm walking away knowing that there's great things ahead for the program, and I'm just glad to be a part of the journey of what is next for this program."
Heading into this week's New Mexico Bowl against a very talented Utah State team, there is a lot at stake for North Texas. It can win 10 for the third time in 103 years of North Texas football, it can knock off a ranked opponent for the second time ever and first time in 44 years, and it can accomplish the mission set forth by Littrell in that meeting in August of 2016.
What would winning Saturday's New Mexico be like?
"That'll be my Super Bowl for right now," Brooks said. "It will probably be one of the greatest moments of my life up to this point."
DENTON - North Texas has accepted an invitation to play in the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 15 at Dreamstyle Stadium in Albuquerque against Mountain West foe Utah State.
“Conference USA has had a great relationship with the New Mexico Bowl and we are honored to be representing the league, the entire UNT community and the North Texas region in a postseason bowl game,” North Texas Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics and Director of Athletics Wren Baker said. “Coach Littrell, this coaching staff and these student-athletes have raised the level of expectations for this program. Playing in our third consecutive bowl game is something everyone associated with this university should take pride in.”
The Mean Green continue their streak of consecutive bowl appearances under head coach Seth Littrell, posting a 9-3 regular season record. Littrell guided UNT to its second-ever back-to-back seasons with nine wins (1977-78) and the Mean Green have an opportunity to win 10 games for the third time in program history.
This will be the 11th bowl game in North Texas history and third straight after playing in the 2017 R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl and the 2016 Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl. It will be the eighth bowl game for UNT in the last 18 years, and this is the Mean Green’s first trip to the New Mexico Bowl.
“We are excited to be playing in the New Mexico Bowl against a very good opponent in Utah State,” Head Coach Seth Littrell Said. “Albuquerque is an easy travel destination for our fans and alumni and I know this team is excited to play in front of a national audience on ESPN in the very first bowl game of the season. It will be a tremendous challenge but we are excited to get to work.”
North Texas was the only team in the Football Bowl Subdivision to never trail by more than one possession in 2018. The Mean Green had another banner year from their quarterback, junior Mason Fine, who has thrown for 3,734 yards with 27 touchdowns to only five interceptions, while also adding two more scores on the ground. The defense took a major step forward in 2018 for North Texas, as it improved its points-per-game allowance by 13.2 ppg and ranked fifth in the country in interceptions with 17. Offensively, The Mean Green are on pace to set a program record in points-per-game, at 36.4. The current record is 36.2, set in 1951. UNT also ranks within the top-25 nationally in 20 major team statistical categories heading into its bowl game.
This marks the first time since 2002-2004 that North Texas will play in a bowl game in three consecutive seasons. In those years, North Texas concluded the four-year run in the New Orleans Bowl after winning four consecutive Sun Belt Conference championships.
North Texas and Utah State have met seven times, with the Aggies holding a 4-3 edge. The last meeting was in 2004, when the Mean Green knocked off Utah State 31-23 in Logan, Utah. The Aggies finished the 2018 regular season with a 10-2 record and a 7-1 mark in Mountain West play. Following head coach Matt Wells’ departure to Texas Tech last week, the Aggies have tabbed Frank Maile as their interim head coach for the bowl.
Bowl tickets are now on sale. For ticket prices and to purchase tickets online from the North Texas Ticket Office, visit MeanGreenPostseason.com.
SAN ANTONIO - Mean Green senior linebacker E.J. Ejiya's 9-yard sack with five seconds to play shoved UTSA back to the edge of field-goal range, and an ensuing 48-yard attempt on the last play of the game drifted wide left as North Texas earned its first win in the Alamodome, 24-21.
North Texas led by 17 in the first half, then fought off repeated Roadrunner rallies in Saturday's regular-season finale. Mean Green quarterback Mason Fine threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns, running back DeAndre Torrey rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown, wide receiver Jalen Guyton had a team-high five catches for 78 yards, and the North Texas defense made some critical stops, led by Kemon Hall's fifth interception of the year and Ejiya's two sacks, four tackles for loss and team-best 11 tackles.
The Mean Green finish the regular season 9-3, reaching nine victories in back-to-back years for the second time in program history. North Texas is 5-3 in Conference USA play. The Mean Green will learn their bowl destination on Sunday, Dec. 2.
"It was a hard battle," North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. "It was a dogfight, on the road at this place where we'd never won. I give our guys a lot of credit.
"You look across in country in these rivalry games, they're always battles," he added. "We ended up making enough plays to win."
The UTSA (3-9. 2-6), which has averaged just six points per contest over its last five games, built some momentum by converting some third downs on its opening possessions. But the first of those marches ended in the arms of Mean Green defensive back Hall, who intercepted a Roadrunner pass in the end zone for his fifth pick of the season, and another drive was stopped by a pass break-up by Jameel Moore.
North Texas, meanwhile, scored on its first three possessions, and its receivers consistently got open in the UTSA secondary. Fine threw for 201 yards in the first half and connected on 49- and 3-yard touchdown passes to Michael Lawrence and Kelvin Smith, respectively. Cole Hedlund mixed in a 20-yard field goal and the Mean Green built a 17-0 lead.
But North Texas has demonstrated the fleeting nature of its big leads throughout conference play, and Saturday was no different as the Roadrunners stormed back in the final 10 minutes of the second period. They scored their second touchdown in their last 14 quarters to shave the lead to 17-7, stopped a Mean Green drive with an interception in the end zone, then blocked a North Texas punt to set up a 3-yard scoring run by QB Bryce Rivers on the final play of the half to pull within 17-14.
Ejiya revived the Mean Green momentum in the second half with an 11-yard sack of Rivers to give the ball back to the Mean Green offense, and Fine and company responded with a 74-yard drive, on which Torrey topped the century mark for the fourth game in a row and scored his 17th touchdown of the year on a 3-yard run.
"He's running physically and explosively," Littrell said. "I'm proud of him for stepping up and playing at a high level."
Again, however, UTSA fought back. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Roadrunners drove 92 yards for a touchdown, starting with a 42-yard pass to midfield and rolling to the end zone from there.
North Texas got the ball back with 8:01 to play and began a clock-eating drive, converting two third downs, the second when Fine scrambled away from pressure and hit Keegan Brewer for 18 yards. But UTSA stopped the Mean Green on a fourth-and-1 at the Roadrunner 32-yard line with 2:28 to play to set up a final opportunity for the lead or a tie.
UTSA quickly reached the North Texas 35-yard line, when Garner threw Rivers for an 8-yard loss on third down. Facing fourth and 16, Rivers connected for 25 yards to the Mean Green 17-yard line with 30 seconds left. After an incompletion at the goal line, UTSA was penalized for delay of game with 11 seconds left, then Ejiya crashed through to sack Rivers for a 9-yard loss and push the Roadrunners back to the UNT 31 with five seconds remaining.
"Those guys did a great job," Littrell said of his defense. "They knew they had to make plays to push them out of field-goal range, and they came up big for us."
UTSA's field goal attempt from 48 yards on the final play of the game had the distance but was wide left.
This is the eighth time in program history the Mean Green have won nine or more games in a season, and the second time to do so in back-to-back seasons. North Texas went 10-1 in 1977 and 9-2 in 1978 under coach Hayden Fry.
North Texas has posted consecutive winning seasons in league play for the first time since joining C-USA, and first back-to-back winning conference record since 2003-04.
This was the Mean Green's first win at the Alamodome in its third trip to San Antonio.
Junior quarterback Mason Fine (Peggs, Okla.), who became North Texas' all-time leading passer this season, is ascending the ranks of college football's all-time career passing leaders. Following Saturday's regular-season finale, Fine has 9,358 career passing yards and climbed to No. 161 on list. Among those he passed this week: 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson (Louisville), Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins (Michigan State), 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow (Florida), All-Pro QB Matt Ryan (Boston College), and Super Bowl champion and Hall of Famer John Elway (Stanford).
Fine owns the top two seasons in school history in terms of touchdown passes. He threw two TDs Saturday, giving him 27 this year and surpassing Mitch Maher (1994) for second place. The only better tally is Fine's 31 TDs last year.
Fine has thrown a touchdown pass in his last 23 games.
Kicker Cole Hedlund (Argyle, Texas) is making his lone season with the Mean Green count. The graduate senior, a transfer from Arkansas, has 19 field goals this year, tying Keith Chapman (1989) for the second most in a season at North Texas. Hedlund also has 50 points after touchdown, surpassing Zach Paul's 2013 campaign for the second most in a season and the eighth most in a career at North Texas.
In his debut season, sophomore running back DeAndre Torrey (Gautier, Miss.) is joining elite company. The transfer from Gulf Coast Junior College didn't become a starter until week 6, but has amassed 17 touchdowns (rushing, receiving and returns), tying Jamario Thomas (2018) for third-best single-season total in school history.
Torrey has 14 rushing TDs this season, tying Jeffery Wilson (2016) for fifth most in UNT history.
With 155 yards rushing Saturday, Torrey has four consecutive games rushing for 100 yards or more, the seventh longest such streak in school history.
Torrey and place kicker Cole Hedlund are climbing the UNT record book in points in a single season. Hedlund has 107, fourth most in season at UNT, and Torrey has 102, tying Jamario Thomas (2004) for fifth most.
Senior linebacker Brandon Garner (Mansfield, Texas) has 17.0 tackles for loss this year, tying Jeremiah Chapman (2007), Brad Kassell (1999) and Brandon Kennedy (2003) on UNT's all-time single-season list.
With 27 yards Saturday, junior wide receiver Rico Bussey, Jr., (Lawton, Okla.) has 1,017 receiving yards this year, the seventh 1,000-yard receiving season in school history. His total is the sixth best in school history, moving him ahead of David Brown (1994) with 1,013 yards and John Love (1965) with 994 yards. Bussey left Saturday's game in the first half with a leg injury.
Redshirt senior linebacker E.J. Ejiya (Blaine, Minn.) registered two sacks, giving him 16.0 sacks for his career, eighth most in program history and moving him past Brandon McCoy (2010-13), Aaron Bellazin (2010-13) and Jeremiah Chapman (2004-07). Ejiya has 9.0 sacks this year, tying Brandon Kennedy (2002) and Brad Spinks (1996) for sixth most in a single season.
Senior defensive back Kemon Hall (Calhoun City, Miss.) had his fifth interception of the season on UTSA's opening drive of the game. The pick, on a Roadrunners pass into the end zone, was the sixth of Hall's career.
Junior wide receiver Michael Lawrence (Sweetwater, Texas) hauled in a 49-yard scoring toss on the Mean Green's opening possession, his second TD of the season.
Redshirt junior tight end Kelvin Smith had his first touchdown reception of the year and third of his career on a 3-yard pass in the second quarter.
Redshirt senior wide receiver Quinetin Jackson (Granite City, Ill.) had his second reception of the season Saturday. The 14-yard catch is his longest of 2018.
North Texas has set school records for most points per game (36.4), most yards total offense per game (472.8), and most passing yards per game (316.3).
The Mean Green's 27 passing touchdowns this season are the second most in school history.
DENTON - For the fourth time this year and second time in as many weeks, North Texas saw a double-digit first-half lead evaporate. And its own comeback attempt was dealt a massive blow when quarterback Mason Fine - the leading passer in the conference and among the top 10 QBs in the nation - absorbed a savage hit, suffered a deep gash to his left wrist and left the game with 10:48 to play in the third quarter.
And the Mean Green rallied and won. And exorcised some demons in the process.
Back-up quarterback Quinn Shanbour stepped in to guide North Texas to a pair of touchdowns against Florida Atlantic - both on quarterback runs - before Fine returned, the Mean Green defense came up with stops in the fourth quarter, Mean Green running back DeAndre Torrey scored on a 92-yard run with 4:06 to play, and Khairi Muhammad extinguished FAU's final comeback attempt with an interception with 1:53 to play for a 41-38 win in Thursday's home finale at Apogee Stadium.
"I'm extremely proud of our kids," said North Texas coach Seth Littrell, whose team moves to 8-3 on the year and 4-3 in Conference USA. "Our kids were relentless, and it was a total team win. We knew it was a game we had to keep fighting for each other. We overcame adversity a lot better this week."
North Texas, which was torched by FAU twice a year ago, didn't really stop Owls running back Devin Singletary, the leading rusher in Conference USA, but it contained him. Singletary, who averaged 6.7 yards per carry in two games against North Texas a year ago, averaged 4 yards a carry Thursday, finishing with 91 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His backfield mate, Kerrith Whyte, Jr., rushed for 76 yards.
Torrey out-gained both of them. He had a career-best 184 yards rushing, added 38 yards receiving and scored a rushing TD and a receiving TD.
"That's impressive," Littrell said. "Their guys are unbelievable. DeAndre knew we were going to lean on him, and he made a huge play. Our o-line did a great job tonight, too."
Florida Atlantic (5-6, 3-4 in C-USA) won the opening coin toss but instead of deferring their choice to the second half - the popular choice this year - it took the ball, looking to unleash its rapid-fire offense and smash the Mean Green in the mouth as it did in both meetings a year ago.
This year, however, the game's start couldn't have been in greater contrast to either of the 2017 games. This year it was North Texas coming out flying, making stops, making big plays, and building an early lead - something the Mean Green never held against the Owls last year.
On the opening possession, North Texas got a diving open-field tackle by Nate Brooks to help force a three-and-out - something the Mean Green did not cause in the regular-season meeting last year. The Owls tried to seize the momentum on their next drive by going for it on fourth and four near midfield, but a pass breakup by Kemon Hall forced a turnover on downs. FAU's third possession ended in another three-and-out.
The North Texas offense, meanwhile, rolled up 218 yards of offense in the first quarter. Fine dissected the Owls, completing 12 of 14 for 210 yards in the opening period to lead the Mean Green on a trio of scoring drives. Wide receiver Jalen Guyton had four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown to spark the attack, Torrey scored his 15th touchdown of the season on a 13-yard toss from Fine, Cole Hedlund hit a 38-yard field goal, and North Texas was in command at 17-0.
And that momentum unraveled in the blink of an eye.
With the Mean Green defense focused on stopping Singletary, the Owls hit a 56-yard touchdown pass. FAU put together a 75-yard scoring drive capped by Singletary, then got an interception from Rashad Smith, who stretched to tip and pull down a pass bound for Rico Bussey, Jr., streaking through the secondary. One play later, Whyte burst 29 yards for a touchdown, and FAU was up 21-20.
"You're going to have adversity," Fine said. "FAU's not going to lie down."
But North Texas stopped the bleeding, got a couple of stops to slow the Owl onslaught, and got to halftime only down one.
"We have a history with this team that's not been good," Littrell said. "But we were poised in the locker room at halftime. We knew the type of battle we were in for. Before the game I told the team we'd find a way to win. They believed and trusted in that, and they found a way to win."
The Mean Green regrouped in the third quarter. Down 24-20, Torrey ripped off a 46-yard run to set up UNT in scoring position, but on third down from the FAU 15, Fine went down, his wrist gashed by the impact of two FAU defenders.
"The blood was gushing," Fine said. "But the doctor gave me a few stitches and I was good to go."
"It didn't look too good," Littrell said. "But I know Mason well enough to know that if it's not broken, he'll be back."
But for the moment, Fine was in being escorted to the locker room and Shanbour, the senior and career backup, came in.
"There's not much time in a situation like that," Shanbour said. "You want your other quarterbacks to be ready. I just tried to do my job."
He did the job brilliantly. With the possession kept alive by a roughing the passer penalty, Shanbour finished it with a 4-yard run for the first rushing touchdown of his career. And after Nate Brooks snared his fifth interception of the season on FAU's next possession, Shanbour again drove the Mean Green to the end zone, getting key blocks from Kelvin Smith and Manase Mose on an 18-yard keeper for the second rushing touchdown of his career and a 34-24 UNT lead.
"This was my last time at Apogee Stadium," Shanbour said. "I lost a loved one this week, and it was tough. But these guys are loved ones, too."
"This was his last time out on that field," Littrell said. "I'm so excited for Quinn. He's a great leader, and he does not get enough credit for all he's done. He was phenomenal."
Back came the Owls. They drew within 34-31 and had a chance to tie with a 40-yard field goal, but it bounced off the right upright to preserve the UNT lead. After another stop by the UNT defense, Torrey's 92-yard explosion appeared to seal with win with 4:06 to play. However, FAU scored just 38 seconds later on a 55-yard pass, and when North Texas couldn't move on its next possession, the Owls got the ball back at their own 40 with 2:30 remaining.
But the North Texas defense stepped up again. Defensive lineman Roderick Young threw FAU quarterback Chris Robison for a 5-yard loss, and on third and 15, Muhammad, who had a season-high nine tackles, took the ball away from an FAU receiver for his fourth pick of the year, sealing the victory.
"We came together and won," Brooks said.
"That's football," Littrell said. "They're all a challenge."
After not forcing any three-and-outs from FAU in the first meeting a year ago and only two in the second, North Texas forced four three-and-outs from FAU in the first half.
Senior defensive back Nate Brooks (Whitehouse, Texas) had his team-leading fifth interception of the year. That's a single-season best for Brooks, and gives him nine for his career. He matched his season high with eight tackles.
Senior quarterback Quinn Shanbour (Oklahoma City) had the first two rushing touchdowns of his career, scoring twice in the third quarter after Mason Fine was forced out of the game temporarily with an arm injury.
Junior quarterback Mason Fine (Peggs, Okla.) became UNT's all-time leader in career passing yards a week ago. Thursday, he became UNT's leader in career yards of total offense with 9,172, bumping Mitch Maher (1991-94) from the top spot.
This is the third time in program history that North Texas has won eight or more games in back-to-back seasons: the first was under head coach Jack Sisco in 1931-32, the second under Darrell Dickey in 2002-03. North Texas has never had back-to-back season with nine or more wins, but can accomplish that feat with one more victory this year.
Sophomore running back DeAndre Torrey (Gautier, Miss.) has 16 touchdowns this year, tying for fourth on UNT's list of single-season touchdowns (rushing, receiving and returns) with Michael Jones (1977), Lance Dunbar (2010) and Jeffery Wilson (2017). He has 13 rushing TDs this season, surpassing Wilson for fifth most in a single-season rushing.
Torrey's 92-yard scoring run was the longest run of the season for North Texas and the fourth longest in school history.
Junior wide receiver Rico Bussey, Jr., (Lawton, Okla.) moved to eighth among UNT's all-time single-season receiving leaders. He has 990 yards this year.
Senior linebacker Brandon Garner (Mansfield, Texas) had 2.5 tackles for loss to lift his career total to 32.5 and pass Adrian Awasom (2001-04) for fourth place all-time at UNT. Garner has 15 tackles for loss this year, passing Awasom for sixth on the UNT single-season list.
Redshirt defensive back Taylor Robinson (Keller) had 10 tackles, a career high.
Thursday's crowd gives North Texas an average attendance this year of 23,355, breaking last year's record of 22,362.
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