DENTON, Texas - After playing from behind in the first five games this year, North Texas finally got off to a fast start Saturday against Middle Tennessee. The Mean Green found the experience very much to its liking.
The North Texas running game, so silent through the past two games, roared to life for a season-high 303 yards. Running backs Brandin Byrd and Reggie Pegram both had career highs, with 139 and 88 yards, respectively, and Antoinne Jimmerson added a season-high 72 yards as the North Texas ground game dominated the Blue Raiders in a 34-7 victory at Apogee Stadium.
"Just a bunch of young men that took it personally," North Texas coach Dan McCarney said of his offense's reaction to its recent struggles running the ball. "We know our foundation is built on running the football. We've been extremely disappointed in two of our losses. Running the ball was almost non-existent. They took it personal, every guy on offense."
The Mean Green defense was just as dominant as the rushing attack, swarming MTSU all night and never allowing the Raiders to cross midfield in the second half.
Coming off two straight losses and with two road games ahead, the dominant victory was huge for a Mean Green team now halfway to its goal of being bowl eligible for the first time since 2005.
North Texas had chances to take control midway through the first half after putting together a 71-yard touchdown drive and getting a blocked field goal from linebacker Zach Orr. But James Jones's apparent touchdown return off the Orr block was wiped out by a penalty, and MTSU got a pair of interceptions on tipped balls to scuttle Mean Green drives and keep Blue Raiders in range of a tying score, which they got early in the second quarter.
But the Mean Green did take control late in the second quarter. After North Texas got a one-yard scoring run from Byrd for a 14-7 lead, safety Lairamie Lee picked off an Austin Grammer pass and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown and a 21-7 advantage that MTSU could never challenge.
What They Said
"We won with our preparation There was about as much intense preparation and focus this week as I've seen I took the job here."
--North Texas coach Dan McCarney
"Our main focus all week was to be able to run the football."
--North Texas running back Brandin Byrd
"Speed, quickness, consistency, and great understanding of what we're trying to do."
--McCarney on what was behind his defense's performance
"I was pleased with our effort and our competitiveness overall but we just couldn't get anything going. They dominated us at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. We weren't able to protect or establish any type of running game. We weren't very good on third down. Give North Texas credit, they got after us pretty good."
--Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill
The North Texas defense came out attacking the Blue Raiders' offense, getting solid open-field tackles from Kenny Buyers and Zac Whitfield, a pair of flying tackles by Will Wright, a jarring hit from Zach Orr to open the game, and an early fumble caused by James Jones.
North Texas had a season-high 303 yards rushing, topping their previous high this year of 231 against Ball State. Running back Reggie Pegram had a career-high 88 yards and two touchdowns, Antoinne Jimmerson had a season-high 72, and Brandin Byrd rolled up a career-high 139 yards and a touchdown.
Senior linebacker Zach Orr recovered a fumble on MTSU's first possession of the game, giving him a team-high three for the year. The fumble was forced by James Jones, his second of the year.
Junior running back Reggie Pegram's five-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was the first time this season that North Texas has scored first, and the first time in 12 games the Mean Green has scored the first touchdown of the game.
Pegram's run also gave North Texas 43 yards rushing for the game, surpassing their total of 41 yards from the two previous games combined. By the end of the half, the Mean Green ground game had 115 yards, almost tripling their output from the Georgia and Tulane games.
The Mean Green defense allowed a season-low 205 yards of total offense, including 66 yards passing, the fewest opponent passing yards surrendered at Apogee and the fewest since 2010.
Middle Tennessee had a touchdown pass overturned on replay, which showed a hit by North Texas defensive back Marcus Trice sending the Blue Raider receiver out of the back of the end zone before he could come down in bounds.
Following Trice's big hit, Zach Orr got the first field-goal block of his career
Junior defensive back Lairamie Lee got the Mean Green's first pick six since 2011 when he intercepted a pass from MTSU's Austin Grammer and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead. It was Lee's second interception of the season and third of his career. The ball was tipped by Will Wright. It was also the Mean Green defenses' first score of the year.
Although quarterback Derek Thompson was intercepted twice in the first half, both on passes that that were tipped off the hands of receivers, he finished with an efficient 13-of-19 for 113 yards, giving him 6,010 yards passing for his career and moving him past Scott Hall into fourth place all-time at North Texas.
Brelan Chancellor had his third punt return of more than 40 yards this year with a 55-yard return in the second quarter, which set up a 21-yard Zach Paul field goal. It was Chancellor's second-longest return of the season, bested only by his 62-yard return against Idaho.
The Mean Green's 17 points in the second quarter were the team's most points in a period this season.
This was the second game in a row North Texas did not allow a point in the first quarter.
Marcus Trice, who had another outstanding game, had his first punt return of the year. In the fourth quarter, a Middle Tennessee punt took at North Texas bounce, springing backward through the Blue Raider coverage team. Trice scooped up a friendly hop and went 23 yards to the MTSU 25, setting up a 22-yard Zach Paul field goal.
North Texas is on the road the next two weeks, beginning with a game against Louisiana Tech on Saturday, October 19, at 2:30 p.m. in Ruston, Louisiana.