Defense, Running Game Lead NT To Win Over Marshall
Mean Green Halfway To Bowl Eligibility With 38-21 Victory
DENTON - In a hard-hitting, back-and-forth affair between two teams in need of a win to keep their bowl hopes viable, it was a young North Texas squad that made the big plays on both sides of the ball down the stretch against a perennial bowl team.
North Texas combined another strong defensive effort with a career-best performance by running back Jeffery Wilson for a 38-21 victory over Marshall Saturday night at Apogee Stadium. The win lifts the Mean Green to a 3-3 record and halfway towards bowl eligibility at the halfway mark of the season. North Texas is also 2-1 in Conference USA play.
"It finally came together for us," North Texas head coach Seth Littrell said. "I feel like we were progressing the last couple of weeks.
"We fought extremely hard, executed a lot better in all three phases, and, I tell you what, our defense was special tonight."
The North Texas defense recorded five sacks and kept pressure on Herd quarterback Chase Litton all night, held Marshall to just 13 yards rushing and 270 yards total offense (140 below their season average), then iced the win with an Eric Jenkins interception returned for a touchdown.
The Mean Green offense hammered the Herd for 252 yards rushing, with 188 yards coming on 26 carries from Wilson, the junior from Elkhart, Texas, who scored two touchdowns, including a 72-yard run in the third quarter that gave the Mean Green the lead for good.
"That's a quality win against a quality opponent," said Littrell of a victory over a team accustomed to contending for conference titles and bowls. Marshall slips to 1-4 and 0-1 in C-USA with the loss.
One of the sparks for the win came from one of the most unlikely of positions: punter. With the game tied at 14-14 following Marshall's 99-yard return of the second-half-opening kickoff, North Texas senior punter Eric Keena picked up a first down with an 18-yard run on a fake punt. The fired-up Keena got into a scuffle after getting shoved into the Marshall sideline and drew a 15-yard penalty, but his first down led to a momentum-shifting touchdown pass from NT quarterback Mason Fine to Tyler Wilson.
"No, it was not a designed fake," Keena said. "I saw their whole team turn. It was a huge opening, and I had to take it. It was definitely a big spark."
For the second week in a row, North Texas scored on its opening drive of the game, a 75-yard mix of run and pass capped by a Wilson 4-yard touchdown run. But whereas the North Texas offense fell silent following a game-opening TD drive a week ago, the Mean Green kept moving the ball, controlling the line of scrimmage.
"We've had to shuffle some guys in and out at different positions," Littrell said of his offensive line. "We're starting to get a little more chemistry up front."
The Herd converted six of 11 third downs in the opening half but struggled to sustain drives, and Marshall finished the half with just 153 yards total offense. The Herd, however, drew even after forcing a fumble from Fine, recovering at the NT 14 and scoring four plays later.
Fine made amends on the next North Texas possession, throwing for 35 yards and rushing for 18 on a 75-yard scoring march, accouting for the final 9 yards himself to put the Mean Green back up, 14-7.
The North Texas defense, meanwhile, continued to hem in the Herd, turning back two scoring threats at the end of the half - the first aided by a phantom roughing the passer penalty that replay showed was incorrect, the second set up by a North Texas fumble at the Mean Green 45. North Texas stopped both threats shy of the red zone, forcing a pair of long field-goal attempts that were both wide left to preserve a 14-7 North Texas lead at halftime.
Marshall's kickoff return and their lone long scoring drive of the evening pulled the Herd into a 21-21 tie in the third quarter, but North Texas had the better of play the rest of the way. The Mean Green running game pounded away at the Herd in the fourth quarter, while the NT defense pressured Litton and kept the Herd from crossing midfield the rest of the night.
After Jeffrey Wilson gave North Texas the lead for good with his 72-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, he and fellow junior running back Willie Ivery fueled an offense that controlled the ball throughout the fourth quarter.
"Was it a complete game?" Littrell said. "No. But it's the best we've played at all three phases this season."
What They Said
"That's a tremendous effort by those guys. I like where we are on defense. They know how much improvement we still have to make, but they're playing at a high level."
--Littrell on the North Texas defense
"It was designed enough that it got a first down. It gave us much needed energy."
--Littrell on Keena's fake punt
"It's a huge win, and brings a lot of momentum."
--Quarterback Mason Fine
"The offense came to play, so we had to return the favor."
--Cornerback Eric Jenkins
"It's a perfect time for a bye week. We're banged up at a lot of different positions."
--Littrell on his team getting a bye next weekend before embarking on the second half of the 2016 season
• This was Marshall's first visit to Denton.
• Junior running back Jeffery Wilson scored twice, giving him a team-high nine touchdowns, the most Wilson has had in a season.
• After going without a touchdown on their opening drive for 17-consecutive games, the Mean Green scored on their first drive Saturday for the second week in a row.
• Senior defensive back James Gray had a sensational tackle for loss in the first quarter, throwing Marshall running back Anthony Anderson for a 4-yard loss, with an assist from defensive end Malik Dilonga.
• Dilonga also had a big tackle for loss on third down in the second quarter, assisted by Gray.
• Senior linebacker Courtney Finney had a nice pass break-up in the end zone, staying with a receiver 20 yards down field.
• Quarterback Mason Fine scored the first rushing touchdown of his career from 8-yards out.
•Fine has been impressive early in his freshman season but he has some issues to clean up. Fine fumbled against Marshall, his sixth fumble of the year. Two of those have been lost.
• Junior defensive end Joshua Wheeler had a sack Saturday night, giving him a team-high 3.5 for the season.
• Junior defensive back Kishawn McClain got his first career sack, coming on a corner blitz in the fourth quarter.
• Junior wide receiver Turner Smiley had a 21-yard punt return in the fourth quarter, the longest of the year for North Texas.
• Junior kicker Trevor Moore made 4-of-4 extra points and was 1-of-2 on field goals for the Mean Green. He now has made 77-straight extra points and made his first field goal since Sept. 10 against Bethune-Cookman
• Junior corner Eric Jenkins, making his first career start, had an interception that he returned 52 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
The Mean Green are off next weekend but return to play on Saturday, October 22, when they take on Army at West Point, NY. Kickoff is 11 a.m. central time, and the game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.