LYNCHBURG, Va. - On a wet, miserable Saturday night with lightning in the air, North Texas went to ground to extend its season-opening win streak.
In a game twice delayed by threatening weather and with both teams struggling to find rhythm and maintain momentum, Mean Green junior running back Loren Easly took over with a 177-yard, two-touchdown performance to lead UNT to a 47-7 win over the Liberty Flames.
"With all the delays, they never backed down," North Texas coach Seth Littrell said of his team. "They fought through the distractions, came back out and, to me, were the most excited team to play. We have a mature football team, and they truly believe in our core values and what we're trying to accomplish."
The North Texas running game, such a key contributor in the past two seasons but inconsistent through the first three games this year, amassed a season-best 346 yards and five touchdowns, seizing control and breaking open a close game in the third quarter.
"I thought Loren had a great night," Littrell said. "I feel good about our running backs group.
"Our tight ends, fullbacks, and offensive line were tremendous, the backs ran hard and ran through tackles, and our receivers knew they'd have to get down there and get ugly and dig out safeties in the run game. They were selfless."
The Mean Green defense, meanwhile, surrendered over 300 yards for the first time in 2018 but got stops from senior linebackers Brandon Garner and E.J. Ejiya, three pass breakups from senior defensive back Kemon Hall, an interception from Khairi Muhammad near the UNT goal line, and a big sack from junior linebacker Jamie King to turn away a Liberty drive shortly after the final weather delay, extinguishing the Flames' flickering last chance to get back in the contest.
The Mean Green's special teams advantage wasn't as sexy as a week ago in Arkansas, but was perhaps more substantial this week. In the abysmal conditions, North Texas' redshirt junior punter Alvin Kenworthy averaged 43.5 yards per punt, while Liberty struggled to a 20.7 per-punt average, resulting in a considerable field-position advantage for the Mean Green.
"It's a team-effort win," Littrell said. "I thought all three phases contributed."
North Texas (4-0) finishes the non-conference portion of its regular-season schedule undefeated for the first time since 1959, when it went 6-0 on its way to the Missouri Valley Conference championship; and the Mean Green have started a season 4-0 for the first time since 1966, when they finished 8-2 and also won the Missouri Valley Conference title.
For the fourth game in a row, North Texas got off to a strong start. The defense once again shut out the opponent in the first quarter while the offense put two touchdowns on the board on a pair of Mason Fine TD passes.
Liberty had some first-half success on the ground, then quarterback Buckshot Calvert ignited the Flames passing game to mount a pair of drives into North Texas territory. But both marches ended without points, once when the Mean Green's Taylor Robinson broke up a fourth-down pass and once when Muhammad came up with his third interception of the season at the Mean Green 2-yard line.
North Texas, however, could not build on its 14-0 lead. After amassing 121 yards total offense in the opening period, the Mean Green had just 47 yards on its next three possessions. The Flames, their hopes rekindled, put together a scoring drive to pull within 14-7.
However, the momentum shifted in a matter of seconds just before halftime. Liberty had a three-and-out possession from its own 19-yard line, burning only 18 seconds off the clock. On the Mean Green's first play following the ensuing Flames punt, Fine hit Jaelon Darden for 43 yards. Five plays later, Fine put in the end zone himself with a 4-yard run.
But Liberty, a program that has had a winning record for 12 years in a row and knocked off Baylor in Waco a year ago, refused to go away, holding the UNT lead to a tenuous 21-7 into the second rain delay. That's when the North Texas running game really stepped up.
Easly and fellow running back DeAndre Torrey carried for all 80 yards in a six-play scoring march, finished by a 9-yard Easly scoring run that put the Mean Green up 27-7 and was the start of four-consecutive North Texas touchdown drives. North Texas had 271 yards rushing in the second half alone.
Liberty's last chance to head off the North Texas momentum came after Easly's TD, when the Flames moved into North Texas 41-yard line. King, however, stopped the drive with his second sack of the season, throwing Flames' QB Calvert for a 9-yard loss.
"It's a great win," Littrell said. "We need to enjoy this win, but tomorrow we've got to reset."
The start of Saturday's game was delayed 42 minutes by lightning near Liberty's Williams Stadium, and the game was stopped again in the third quarter.
The North Texas defense has not allowed a score on the opponent's opening possession through four games, and has thrown a first-quarter shutout in three of four games.
Redshirt junior running back Loren Easly (Houston) had the first 100-yard game of his career and the Mean Green's first of the season. Easly had UNT's previous best this year with 68 yards against Arkansas.
It marked the first 100-yard rushing game for a Mean Green player since Nic Smith;s 178-yard game on 11/25/17 at Rice.
Junior quarterback Mason Fine (Peggs, Okla.) had multiple touchdown passes for the third game this season and 12th of his career.
Fine's assault on the North Texas record book continues. His marks this week:
third place in career passing yards with 6,952, overtaking Scott Davis (1987-90);
second in career 200-yard passing games with 21, edging past North Texas All-Century QB Steve Ramsey (1967-69) and Derek Thompson (2009-13);
fourth in career passing attempts with 934, slipping past Scott Davis.
Senior defensive back Kemon Hall (Calhoun City, Miss.) had three passes broken up for the second week in a row.
North Texas has scored in 16 consecutive quarters to start the season.
Redshirt senior linebacker E.J. Ejiya (Blaine, Minn.) upped his career total of tackles for loss to 24.5, seventh most in school history.
Fellow redshirt senior linebacker Brandon Garner (Mansfield, Texas) matched his career high with 3.0 tackles for loss, giving him 24.0 for his career and tying him for eighth all-time at UNT with Aaron Bellazin (2010-13).
Garner recorded his 10th career sack. He has 3.5 on the season, which leads the team.
Junior wide receiver Rico Bussey Jr. had the 13th touchdown reception of his career, moving him into a tie for 10th all-time at North Texas.
With the win Saturday, the Mean Green are 4-1 in their last five road games.
North Texas is the fourth opponent all-time to travel more than 1,000 miles to play at Liberty, but the Mean Green are the first of those foes to defeat the Flames.
This was the first time North Texas has faced Liberty in any men's sport. The Mean Green and Flames women previously met in softball, tennis and swimming & diving.
The Mean Green return to Apogee Stadium on Saturday, September 29, to open Conference USA play against one of the top challengers to North Texas' West Division title, Louisiana Tech. Kickoff is 6:30 p.m.
The game will be preceded by two special ceremonies: the groundbreaking for the Indoor Practice Facility at 3 p.m., and by the unveiling of a statue of Mean Joe Greene in front of Apogee Stadium's Gate 2 at 4 p.m.
The North Texas redshirt sophomore wide receiver and con man suckered Arkansas on a play North Texas practiced for a short-field punting situation, and Brewer sold and executed the ambush beautifully. Brewer, who at first glance appeared to fair catch a punt at the UNT 10-yard line but never put his arm above his head to actually signal the fair catch, stood still while the Arkansas coverage team ran past him and gave up on the play, then took off for a 90-yard punt return and a touchdown that sparked the Mean Green to a 44-17 drubbing of the Razorbacks Saturday afternoon.
Dominating SMU and Incarnate Word was a strong start to the 2018 season. Dominating a Power 5 opponent from the Southeastern Conference on the road and silencing 62,355 pig-sooie-screaming fans, however, is a bit more impressive.
Whether Saturday's victory will be regarded as a signature win may depend on the results of the coming weeks, but what's certain now is that North Texas moved up in weight class in Week 3 and repeated its Week 1 and Week 2 successes. The Mean Green defense turned in another commanding performance that controlled the Hogs' run game, pressured the quarterback and grabbed six interceptions; special teams kept Arkansas bottled up and remained perfect on field-goal attempts; and the offense continued to make big plays and took advantage of the field position its defense provided.
"I'm so proud of how far we've come and the way we continue to build within our culture," North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. "They're playing in all three phases together, and that's what it takes.
"I felt like our team came in confident, and we felt we were the better football team," he added. "And we proved today we were."
This wasn't a case of a lightly regarded Group of Five squad sneaking up on a complacent Power 5. Arkansas could hardly have overlooked a North Texas team ranked 20th in the nation in total defense and No. 1 in the country in passing offense. The Razorbacks, meanwhile, were coming off a loss a week ago to Colorado State in which they squandered an 18-point, third-quarter lead, and ahead of them lies a four-week meat grinder through the heart of their SEC schedule. Arkansas needed this game.
The Hogs (1-2) may have needed it, but North Texas (3-0) wanted it. The Mean Green were the aggressors throughout, striking first, taking charge and responding to an Arkansas comeback that drew the Razorbacks within a touchdown in the second quarter with a flurry of game-clinching blows for a 34-10 halftime lead.
The win is UNT head coach Seth Littrell's first over a Power 5 opponent and the program's first road victory over a Power 5 since 1999 when it knocked off Texas Tech in Lubbock - at a time when the phrase Power 5 was just entering the college-football vernacular.
The Mean Green jumped on top on a sequence that was emblematic of the season: the defense set it up with a big play, and Mason Fine and the offense overcame a third and long to capitalize.
Senior defensive back Nate Brooks came up with the first of two North Texas first-quarter interceptions to put the Mean Green in business at the Arkansas 44. After Loren Easly ran over a Razorback defender for a 24-yard gain, Fine hit Michael Lawrence to convert a third and 10, and Fine finished the drive with a 2-yard run and a 7-0 lead.
But it was the fake fair catch that demoralized the Razorbacks and their fans while turning an early lead into early control of the game for the Mean Green.
"That's a play we've had in our book," Littrell said. "You have to give Keegan a lot of credit. It takes guts to stand back there and not call a fair catch, not knowing if someone is going to bust you. It's just awesome to see that unfold. When something like that works, it builds your confidence."
A second first-period interception, off a pass tipped by North Texas linebacker Jamie King and picked by Khairi Muhammad, set up a 24-yard Cole Hedlund field goal. Sandwiched around Brewer's punt-return deception, the interception-enabled scores gave the Mean Green a 17-0 lead.
Arkansas regrouped and responded with two scores, including a 54-yard field goal, to draw within 17-10, but North Texas fired back. Fine displayed his passing touch by dropping balls into Jaelon Darden, Rico Bussey, Jr., and Jalen Guyton to fuel three second-quarter scoring drives. The North Texas running game, which has struggled in the first two weeks, also made a contribution behind Easly, who rushed for 47 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
"It's a great feeling," Fine said. "Defense was great, special teams were great, it's a great win for our team."
"I knew I had a lot of support," Fine added, referencing the large contingent of fans - including his parents - from Peggs, Oklahoma, that made the trip to Fayetteville. "I had to try not to do too much and just play my game."
Fine finished 24 of 45 for 281 yards and a touchdown and no interceptions against an Arkansas defense that had forced seven turnovers in its first two games. Darden was the Mean Green's leading receiver with five catches for 87 yards.
After opening the second-half with a 14-play, 72-yard drive for a third Hedlund field goal, the air came out of the North Texas offense. But the Mean Green defense kept up the pressure. It recorded five second-half sacks from E.J. Ejiya, Brandon Garner, LaDarius Hamilton (with two) and Darrian McMillan, and that pass rush forced an underthrow on a flea-flicker that UNT's Taylor Robinson intercepted.
"They were aggressive, and that takes everyone making routine plays and takes everyone doing their job in order to get those turnovers," Littrell said. "We really dominated up front. It was impressive to watch those guys flying around."
"It feels great," Garner said. "From going 1-11 my freshman yeare to going to SEC country and dominating the whole game. It happened the way we thought it would."
It was the defense put the finishing touches on the blow-out. Kemon Hall came up with his second pick 6 of the season, returning his third interception of the season 24 yards for a touchdown, and Muhammad collected his second interception of the day.
The Mean Green's victory is the biggest by a Conference USA team over an SEC team since 2004 and the second-largest margin against the SEC in C-USA history.
Senior defensive back Nate Brooks had his second interception in as many weeks, snaring a Razorback pass in the first quarter to set up the Mean Green's first points of the day.
North Texas has eight interceptions this season. It had eight all of 2017.
Keegan Brewer's 90-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter was his first collegiate touchdown. It was also the third longest punt return for a touchdown in program history. The record is 91 yards, which has been done twice.
The Mean Green are 3-0 for the first time since the Bush administration. The first Bush administration. North Texas was Division I-AA when it opened the 1989 season 3-0.
Next week, UNT will try for 4-0 for the first time since 1966 and/or 1977. The Mean Green went 4-0 in 1966 on the way to an 8-2, Missouri Valley Conference championship season. In 1977, North Texas lost the opener at Mississippi State, but the Bulldogs later had to forfeit the game due to ineligible players, retroactively giving UNT an 8-0 start, which matched the program's best-ever start, the 8-0 mark in 1959.
The Mean Green are raining on honeymoons this year, going 3-0 against first-year head coaches. By a strange coincidence, North Texas opened with three-straight opponents led by coaches in their inauguaral campaigns: Sonny Dykes of SMU, Eric Morris of Incarnate Word and Chad Morris of Arkansas.
North Texas has scored in all 12 consecutive quarters, and has outscored its opponents this year 148-56.
Senior placekicker Cole Hedlund is 10 for 10 on field goals.
Redshirt junior running back Loren Easly's 24-yard rush on the second drive of the game was the longest UNT rush of the season, and his 66 rushing yards are a season high for any Mean Green player.
UNT's defense held a team scoreless on its opening drive for a third-straight game.
The Mason Fine record watch: Fine moved into fifth in career passing attempts at North Texas with 907, surpassing Giovanni Vizza (2007-08).
UNT's 44 points are the most its ever scored against an SEC team.
Nate Brooks' two interceptions ties a career high. The last time he had two interceptions in a game was Nov. 19, 2016, versus Southern Miss.
North Texas intercepted six Arkansas passes Saturday, which is a season-high and the most they've had under Seth Littrell. The program-record is seven versus Wichita State in 1971.
E.J. Ejiya has a season-high 12 tackles, which ties his scareer-high. Its the third time he's had 12 stops in his UNT career.
Khairi Muhammad's two interceptions is a career best.
Arkansas played three quarterbacks, including the debut of Highland Park's John Stephen Jones in the fourth quarter.
North Texas is scheduled to play the Liberty University Flames, who knocked off Baylor a year ago and is in their first season as an FBS program. The game is slated for Lynchburg, Virginia, on Saturday, September 22, at 5 p.m.