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.