DENTON - Saturday's game at Apogee Stadium bordered on an elimination game for the Mean Green in Conference USA's West Division. Lose and they'd be two games back of multiple teams, including the day's opponent, Southern Miss.
In a meeting of two of the top-scoring offenses in C-USA, it was the North Texas defense that vaulted the Mean Green back into the thick of the division battle, highlighted by defensive back Khairi Muhammad ripping the ball from the grasp of a Golden Eagles receiver at the North Texas 11-yard line when Southern Miss was driving for the lead in the second half.
The Mean Green defense forced turnovers in their own red zone, forced a turnover on downs with stops on third and fourth and 1 of USM's brace of bruising 240-plus-pound running backs, got two sacks each from E.J. Ejiya and LaDarius Hamilton, two pass breakups apiece from Jameel Moore and Cam Johnson, and held Southern Miss 25 points below their season-scoring average to lead the Mean Green to a 30-7 victory.
"They have a tough, physical defense," North Texas coach Seth Littrell said of the Golden Eagles. "It was our mentality all week to challenge our defense this week. They heard a lot about their defense, and we have a great pride in what we do. When we play with all 11 focused, we've got a very special defense as well.
"It starts up front," he added. "We did a great job of dominating the line of scrimmage, and that makes it hard to run the football. That makes it challenging when an offense gets behind the chains. We had some huge turnovers, some huge stops. It allowed our offense to regroup, and they were able to wear them down."
The North Texas offense struggled for consistency but came up with big plays of its own to hand Southern Miss its first C-USA loss. Quarterback Mason Fine threw for 292 yards, running back DeAndre Torrey rushed for 95 yards and three touchdowns, and Jalen Guyton, who torched the Golden Eagles a year ago for 14 catches and 211 yards, again tormented USM with seven receptions for 124 yards and the Mean Green's first touchdown of the game.
North Texas amassed 457 yards, the most Southern Miss (2-3, 1-1) has allowed all year.
"We haven't reached our potential yet," Fine said. "Our defense has had our back. It's time for the offense to step up."
The win lifts North Texas to 6-1, but more importantly it makes the Mean Green 2-1 in C-USA play, with the division's remaining undefeated leaders still ahead on the schedule.
After a scoreless opening quarter, both teams struck on big plays. North Texas went up 7-0 when Fine rolled to his right and found Guyton behind the USM defense. Guyton stretched out for the pass and snared a 53-yard touchdown, the longest UNT completion of the season.
But Southern Miss struck back on its next possession. Golden Eagle wide receiver Quez Watkins took a pass over the middle and wove his way back and forth through the UNT secondary, shedding would-be tacklers for a 44-yard score and a 7-7 game.
From there, each team made penetrations across midfield, but North Texas made two big plays to take a 10-7 lead to halftime. Guyton hauled in a pass from Fine and escaped a tackler up the sidelines for 32 yards on second and 18, which led to a 41-yard field goal from Cole Hedlund, his 13th of the season.
Southern Miss responded with a drive to the edge of scoring territory, where it faced third and one from the North Texas 44. Ejiya and Tyreke Davis stopped a third-down run for no gain, then Ejiya stuffed a fourth-down plunge for a one-yard loss to turn the ball over on downs.
The Mean Green defense kept swarming the Golden Eagles coming out of halftime, holding them to 125 yards in the second half. But despite its offensive struggles, Southern Miss had a chance to take the lead in the third quarter when it drove deep into North Texas territory. Trailing 10-7, USM was about the go in for a touchdown when it hit a pass at the North Texas 11-yard line. But Muhammad, not satisfied with making the tackle, ripped the ball from the receiver's hands.
"When he caught it, it was on his shoulder," Muhammad said. "I thought I could get my hand on the ball, and I just stripped it out. It was just trying to make a play."
"That was a huge momentum play," Littrell said.
The takeaway snuffed out the last Southern Miss' last scoring threat, while North Texas got its offense moving the rest of the half. Michael Lawrence pulled in a 33-yard pass to ignite a drive late in the third quarter, and Torrey capped the march with 6-yard run, squirming through the middle of the Golden Eagle defense for a 16-7 lead.
North Texas finished off the win with a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives, finished off by Torrey TDs.
"He ran the ball very hard today," Littrell said. "They load the box, so running backs have to run through tackles."
The win makes North Texas bowl eligible with six wins, not that the Mean Green - having been to a bowl two-straight years and with significantly elevated goals this year - were particularly interested in that little nugget.
"I told them congratulations on being bowl eligible," Littrell said. "Not one of them cheered or anything. It's all about being focused and going 1-0 next week."
The start of Saturday's game was delayed 30 minutes by lightning storms in the Denton area during pre-game.
The Mean Green's 6-1 start is their best since 1988, and it's the 10th time in program history to start 6-1 or better.
Junior defensive end LaDarius Hamilton recorded his third sack of the season in flying fashion. Hamilton dove over a Southern Miss offensive lineman and landed on the back of USM quarterback Jack Abraham, crumpling him for an 11-yard loss. Hamilton had two sacks Saturday, his second multi-sack game of the year.
Junior defensive back Khairi Muhammad's theft of a pass from the hands of a USM receiver was his first forced fumble of the season and second of his career.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Jalen Guyton's 53-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter was the Mean Green's longest pass of the season.
Redshirt junior defensive back Taylor Robinson stopped a USM drive late in the first half with his second interception of the season.
Junior quarterback Mason Fine (Peggs, Okla.) became UNT's all-time leader in completions, slipping past Derek Thompson (2009-13) and Mitch Maher (1991-94). Fine has 653 career completions.
The gap between Fine and Maher for the all-time career passing lead is down to 685 yards. Maher finished his career with 8,519 yards and Fine is at 7,834.
Fine also took over third place in career pass attempts with 1053, moving ahead of Steve Ramsey (1967-69).
Fine's 292-yard performance Saturday ties him for the most 200-yard passing games in his career. Fine and Maher each have 23.
The senior linebacking duo of E.J. Ejiya (Blaine, Minn.) and Brandon Garner (Mansfield, Texas) continue to climb the school record book in tackles for loss. Ejiya had three tackles for loss, giving him 29.5 for his career and moving him into fourth place all-time at North Texas ahead of Brandon Akpunku (2008-11). Ejiya has 14.0 for the season, tied for fifth best in program history with Adrian Awasom (2004).
Garner, meanwhile, had a tackle for loss to lift his career total to 26.0, tying him with Corbin Montgomery (1996-99) for sixth on the all-time list.
Sophomore running back DeAndre Torrey (Gautier, Miss.) has two games this year with three touchdowns - but without rushing for 100 yards in either game. He had 95 Saturday.
Junior wide receiver Michael Lawrence topped 1,000 receiving yards for his career. Lawrence had two catches for 44 yards Saturday.
Junior wide receiver Rico Bussey, Jr. (Lawton, Okla.) had his 100th career reception.
Redshirt junior tight end Caleb Chumley had his first reception of the season, a 5-yard catch on the Mean Green's opening possession of the game.
This was the first game this year in which neither team scored in the opening period.
It was just barely enough.
Winless UTEP, playing like a team desperate to snap the nation's longest losing streak, hung with the Mean Green all night. Twice North Texas built a 10-point lead in the second half, and twice the Miners pulled within a field goal. It took a quarterback sack by North Texas' E.J. Ejiya and Bryce English in the final two minutes, then surviving a Miners' near miss on fourth down, before the Mean Green finally sent the Miners to their 18th-straight loss, 27-24.
"I want to give coach (Dana) Dimel and UTEP a lot of credit," North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. "They played extremely hard.
"But we have to play a lot cleaner," he added. "We couldn't get into rhythm or sync offensively in the first half. We didn't play to our standards whatsoever. Just way too many mistakes."
North Texas is 5-1, its best start since 1988.
The Mean Green got off to their slowest start of the season, failing to score on their opening two possessions as UTEP generated early pressure on Fine. The Miners, meanwhile, with Ryan Metz starting at quarterback for injured Kai Locksley, put together a pair of sustained drives and jumped out to a 3-0 lead. An interception by North Texas' Tyreke Davis, however, turned away the second threat.
North Texas mounted its first scoring drive late in the first quarter on the strength of a 38-yard pass from Fine to Bussey, followed by an 18-yard TD pass to Darden, who broke a tackle at the 7-yard line and tight-roped down the sideline for a touchdown.
But the North Texas offense could not find consistency. Big plays were followed by critical mistakes, including dropped passes by multiple receivers and an inconsistent running game. UTEP, meanwhile enjoyed success through the air, especially on yards after catch, including turning a short toss into a 29-yard touchdown early in the second quarter to give the Miners a 10-7 lead.
However, North Texas made three plays late in the half to stem UTEP's momentum.
First, wide receiver Cudjoe Young fought his way through a defender for a 23-yard reception on third and 10. Five plays later, Cole Hedlund made a 52-yard field goal, the longest of his career and tied for the ninth longest in school history, to tie the game at 10-10. Then defensive back Nate Brooks stopped a UTEP threat just before halftime with his fourth interception of the season at the goal line.
"We had some come-to-Jesus talks," Littrell said of the Mean Green halftime locker room. "We had too many drops. That's when we lose focus a little bit."
The Mean Green found its offense in the third quarter, getting another field goal from Hedlund and an 11-yard touchdown on a shovel pass from Fine to Bussey for a 20-10 lead, as Fine completed 14 of 15 passes in the second half.
But UTEP refused to fold. It responded early in the fourth quarter with a 90-yard scoring drive, the longest march North Texas has allowed this year, to edge within 20-17 with 10:43 to play.
North Texas answered with a nine-play, 75-yard drive, burning up half of the period's remaining clock and opening a 27-17 lead on a Nic Smith 20-yard touchdown run.
And UTEP struck back immediately with a 67-yard touchdown pass.
The Miners then stopped the Mean Green's next possession, setting the stage for one final comeback attempt. That final rally, however, was foiled by Ejiya and English, who sacked the Miners' QB for a 10-yard loss to set up fourth and 17. The fourth-down play narrowly failed when a pass over the middle slipped off the receiver's finger tips.
"A W is a W," Littrell said. "We're going to enjoy this win. But we are going to clean up these mistakes."
North Texas' 5-1 start is its best since 1988, when it opened 6-1. The 1988 and 2018 starts each include a road win over a Power 5 opponent; at Arkansas in 2018, at Texas Tech in 1988.
Junior quarterback Mason Fine (Peggs, Okla.) moved into second place in career passing yards at North Texas, surpassing Heart of Dallas Bowl MVP Derek Thompson (2009-13). Fine has 7,542 yards, and trails only Mitch Maher (1991-94) on the all-time list. Maher had 8.519 yards. If Fine maintains his current pace, he will overtake the top position this season.
Fine had the 22nd 200-yard passing game of his career, second most in UNT history.
Sophomore defensive back Tyreke Davis (Denton Ryan) had the Mean Green's 11th interception of the season and the first of his career when he undercut a UTEP receiver and made a diving catch to stop a Miner drive at the North Texas 28-yard line.
Junior wide receiver Rico Bussey, Jr., (Lawton, Okla.) continued what is becoming the best season by a North Texas wide receiver since Casey Fitzgerald rewrote the UNT record book in 2007 and 2008. With 117 yards on 8 receptions against UTEP, Bussey is on pace to join UNT's list of top-10 single-season receiving seasons in yards, receptions and touchdowns.
An 11-yard score in the third quarter was Bussey's eighth receiving TD of the year, which ties for the 10th most in a single season at UNT with Troy Redwine (1993-95).
Bussey had the sixth 100-yard receiving game of his career, which ties for sixth most all-time at UNT with Johnny Quinn (2003-06), Redwine and David Yaege (1971-72).
Senior wide receiver Cudjoe Young (Chattanooga, Tenn.) had the longest reception of his career, a 23-yard catch to set up UNT's game-tying field goal in the second quarter.
Senior kicker Cole Hedlund (Argyle, Texas) hit a 52-yard field goal in the second quarter, the longest of his career and tied for the ninth longest in school history.
Sophomore wide receiver Jaelon Darden (Houston) had a career high in receiving yards with 91, on 5 catches.
Senior defensive back Nate Brooks (Whitehouse, Texas) recorded his fourth interception of the season, matching his season best in 2016. It was the eighth of his career.
Redshirt sophomore running back DeAndre Torrey (Gautier, Miss.), who took over the primary rushing duties following the season-ending injury to Loren Easly, had a career-high 70 yards on 19 carries.
Sophomore defensive lineman Dion Novil (Abilene, Texas) had the first field goal block of his career, tipping a 53-yard attempt in the third quarter. It was the Mean Green's first field-goal block since Zach Orr blocked a field goal in 2013, also against UTEP.
Senior linebacker E.J. Ejiya (Blaine, Minn.) had one tackle for loss Saturday to give him 26.5 for his career, moving ahead of Corbin Montgomery (1996-99) for fifth most in UNT history.
UNT's Keegan Brewer, of the famous punt return against Arkansas, was again on punt return duty. Each time Brewer called a fair catch, the Miners had a defender keeping a close eye on Brewer until he actually surrendered the ball to the officials.
Although North Texas and UTEP have met in football 27 times (with UNT holding a 16-8-3 advantage), this was just the sixth meeting since 1980. All six have been since the Mean Green joined Conference USA in 2013. This was UNT's first win in El Paso since 1980, and it levels the C-USA series against the Miners at 3-3.
Saturday was UTEP's homecoming, and the Miners celebrated their 1988 team. A member of that squad was North Texas defensive coordinator Troy Reffett, who, in addition to playing at UTEP, was on the Miners' coaching staff for 14 seasons.
The UTEP-UNT connections run both ways. UTEP offensive coordinator Mike Canales was offensive coordinator, associate head coach, quarterbacks coach and twice an interim head coach at North Texas from 2010 to 2015, and UTEP offensive line coach Mike Simmonds held the same position with the Mean Green from 2011 to 2015.
DENTON - In front of the largest home crowd in school history, North Texas suffered through a disastrous second quarter that wiped away a 21-6 lead and from which the Mean Green ultimately could not rally in a 29-27 loss to Louisiana Tech Saturday at Apogee Stadium.
UNT quarterback Mason Fine, battered, sacked five times and limping from a leg injury suffered in the third quarter, led the Mean Green on three second-half drives to attempt to bring North Texas back from a 29-21 deficit. The Mean Green scored late in the third quarter on a Fine pass to Rico Bussey Jr., but that was as far as UNT could come.
A two-point conversion attempt following the Bussey TD fell inches short. A 41-yard field goal attempt midway through the fourth quarter hit the left upright and bounced away. And a 46-yard field goal attempt with 41 seconds remaining was blocked.
"That was two teams fighting extremely hard," North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. "I'm not disappointed in how hard we fought or how hard we played. We just made too many mistakes to beat a good football team.
"We just made some mistakes that we haven't made this year."
Among those mistakes were two lost fumbles that led directly to seven points at the end of the first half and four penalties for 55 yards - not a lot of flags or yardage, but they kept alive a Louisiana Tech second-quarter drive that resulted in points.
After playing with a lead for four-straight games and through the first quarter Saturday, North Texas finally struggled in the second quarter, getting out-scored by the Bulldogs 20-0.
"That second quarter was as bad football as we've played in a while," Littrell said. "That's the first adversity we've faced."
"We gave them too much time to throw," North Texas linebacker E.J. Ejiya said. "Louisiana Tech is a great team. They came out ready to play, and their quarterback was a little too comfortable in the pocket."
It was the league opener for both teams, who were preseason picks to finish 1-2 in Conference USA's West Division. It was the first loss of the season for the Mean Green (4-1, 0-1) and the first home loss for North Texas since it lost in 2016 to Louisiana Tech (3-1, 1-0).
As they have all season, the Mean Green started fast, putting together three scoring drives in their first four possessions, all ending in touchdowns. North Texas ripped off yards in chunks. Screens to DeAndre Torrey, Nic Smith and Loren Easly netted 79 yards, Easly had runs of 23, 13 and 9 yards, and Fine threw a 36-yard scoring strike to Michael Lawrence. Easly followed his 177-yard performance a week ago with a 111-yard effort Saturday.
The Bulldogs responded with three scoring drives of their own, fueled a 48-yard run, a 43-yard pass, and a trio of conversions on third-and-long situations. Each time, however, the North Texas defense limited Louisiana Tech to field goals to build a 21-9 lead midway through the second quarter.
But for the first time this year, things began to unravel for North Texas. The Louisiana Tech pass rush began to take a toll on the Mean Green, holding them scoreless in the second quarter, the first period in which UNT has not scored this year.
The Bulldog offense finally broke through late in the half, reaching the end zone on a 8-yard touchdown pass 4:30 before halftime to cut the gap to 21-16, then tacked on a fourth field goal to draw within 21-19. The Bulldogs amassed 272 yards in the first half, the most the Mean Green has allowed before halftime all year.
North Texas then compounded its problems with two fumbles late in the half, the first setting up a Louisiana Tech punt that UNT fumbled and the Bulldogs recovered at the Mean Green 5-yard line with 38 seconds left in the half. On the next play, the Bulldogs got their second TD pass of the half. For the first time this season, North Texas found itself trailing, 26-21.
"Louisiana Tech is a great team," North Texas linebacker E.J. Ejiya said. "They came out ready to play. Their quarterback was a little too comfortable
Louisiana Tech added another field goal in the third quarter but that was all the offense the Mean Green defense allowed in the second half, giving the North Texas offense a chance for a comeback.
The rally started well. Easly had 9- and 11-yard runs sandwiched around a 23-yard pass to Bussey to move UNT deep into LA Tech territory. Faced with fourth-and-2 from the Louisiana Tech 7-yard line, Fine tossed a shovel pass Bussey, who swept around the left side for a touchdown. Bussey finished with nine catches for 112 yards and two touchdowns.
The two-point attempt, however, fell short when Jaelon Darden, on a reverse run-pass option, was tackled inside the 1-yard line, inches away from tying the game.
The Mean Green defense, which picked up the intensity in the second half, forced the Bulldogs to punt on their final possessions to give the offense a chance.
Twice more North Texas drove into scoring position, including on its final drive in the last two minutes of the game, but the two field goal attempts failed.
It was throwback day at Apogee Stadium. In honor of Mean Joe Greene, North Texas wore 1967 uniforms and helmets, and the scoreboards referred to North Texas as NTSU. The day began with the unveiling of a statue of Mean Joe in front of gate 2 on the west side of Apogee Stadium, an event that drew multiple NFL hall-of-fame players, including Tony Dorsett, Charles Haley, Franco Harris and Earl Campbell.
As a part of the celebration, North Texas brought Greene's retired No. 75 out for one night. It was worn by junior defensive end LaDarius Hamilton (Corrigan, Texas)
Saturday's attendance was 30,105, topping the previous Apogee high set against SMU in the season opener.
Junior wide receiver Michael Lawrence (Sweetwater, Texas) had his first touchdown reception of the year, in the first quarter.
That TD toss put junior quarterback Mason Fine (Peggs, Okla.) over 7,000 passing yards for his career, the fourth player in UNT history to reach that mark.
Fine moved past North Texas All-Century QB Steve Ramsey (1967-69) for third place in career passing yards at North Texas. Fine has 7,248 yards.
Fine threw three touchdowns Saturday, giving him 50 for his career and tying him for third all-time at North Texas with Scott Hall (2000-04).
Fine has 21 career 200-yard passing games, surpassing Steve Ramsey (1967-69) and Derek Thompson (2009-13) for second most in program history.
Junior wide receiver Rico Bussey Jr. (Lawton, Okla.) has 15 career touchdown receptions to move into a tie for seventh all-time at North Texas with George Marshall (1999-02).
Redshirt senior linebacker E.J. Ejiya (Blaine, Minn.) upped his career total of tackles for loss to 25.5, passing Zach Orr (2010-13) for sixth most in school history.
Redshirt senior linebacker Brandon Garner (Mansfield, Texas) had half a tackle for loss Saturday, giving him 24.5 for his career, seventh most in school history.
Redshirt freshman defensive back Jordan Roberts (Ardmore, Okla.) had the first pass break-up of his career, tipping away a Louisiana Tech deep pass in the third quarter.
Senior kicker Cole Hedlund (Argyle, Texas) had his streak of consecutive field goals made snapped at 10 when a 42-yard attempt in the fourth quarter hit the upright.
Redshirt junior running back Loren Easly (Houston) had his second 100-yard rushing game of the season and second in as many weeks. Easly had 110 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown.
North Texas, which allowed just six sacks through the first four games, gave up a season-high five sacks Saturday.
North Texas' streak of scoring in consecutive quarters to start the season was halted at 17 when it did not score in the second quarter Saturday.
The North Texas defense had its streak of not allowing points on the opponent's opening possession snapped at four games. Louisiana Tech kicked a 28-yard field goal on its first drive.
North Texas faces its first road C-USA game when it travels to El Paso to take on the UTEP Miners Saturday, October 6, at 6:30 p.m. central time. The game will be televised on beIN.