DENTON, Texas - North Texas was looking for momentum Tuesday night - a spark as it enters the meat of its Sun Belt Conference schedule.
It took a lot of work, a night's worth of resiliency to dig out from under missed opportunities and a 14-point deficit. It took clutch third-down pass completions, some critical open-field tackles and pass break-ups, and tough running from multiple running backs. But the Mean Green may just have found the momentum that eluded them through the first half of the season.
The final spark came in the form of a screen from quarterback Derek Thompson to Antoinne Jimmerson, who broke three tackles and went 78 yards for a tie-breaking touchdown, sending North Texas to an extremely hard-earned 30-23 win over Louisiana-Lafayette Tuesday night before a loud Apogee-Stadium crowd and an ESPN2 national-television audience.
"The fight on this football team is unbelievable," Thompson said. "We played with our hair on fire. When the momentum switched on our side, we just went with it."
North Texas defensive backs Zac Whitfield and Marcus Trice combined to ice the victory when Whitfield jarred loose a fumble and Trice recovered to end the Ragin' Cajuns' final possession.
"We beat a really good team," head coach Dan McCarney said. "I challenged the team at half to go out and win, and they did."
Louisiana-Lafayette (2-1 in conference, 4-2 overall), which came into the game in first place in the Sun Belt, led 20-6 with 12:35 to play in the third quarter. From that point, the Mean Green (2-1, 3-4) defense shut down the Ragin' Cajuns attack while the North Texas offense scored 17 straight points to take a 23-20 lead. Louisiana tied the game with a 45-yard field goal with 3:01 to play before Jimmerson's game winner.
The heroes Tuesday were many, as were the big plays that turned the game around.
"We wanted to showcase this team," Thompson said. "We had a chance to show what we're made of, and we dug down deep."
"Keep fighting, keep fighting," linebacker Zach Orr said.
Louisiana scored on the opening possession of the third quarter to open the game's biggest lead at 20-6. The North Texas rally was briefly delayed when the Mean Green was stopped on fourth-and-goal from the ULL one-yard line, but the defense forced the Cajuns to punt from their own five, giving NT the ball at the ULL 46. A key third-down conversion on a pass from Thompson, who had an efficient night with 17-of-28 passing, no interceptions and two touchdowns, to Chancellor set up Jimmerson's first score of the night, a 28-yard run to cut the gap to 20-13.
The North Texas defense, which held ULL to two yards rushing in the third quarter and just 106 for the night, pinned ULL deep and forced a punt that again gave the Mean Green field position, this time at the Cajun 34. Two plays later, Brelan Chancellor swept around the left side for a 34-yard tying touchdown.
Again, North Texas stopped the Cajuns, keyed by big plays from Jeremy Phillips and Whitfield. This time the Mean Green offense started from its own 18, but converted a pair of third downs and got a 41-yard run by Brown to set up Olen's third field goal of the game, putting North Texas ahead 23-20. Olen, who struggled early in the season, was three-for-three Tuesday and has hit five straight kicks.
Louisiana's defense rose in the fourth quarter and backed the Mean Green up, giving the Cajuns field position that led to a tying field goal from 47 yards with 3:01 to play before the Mean Green's final, furious burst.
"We've got to stop losing and find ways to win," McCarney said. "That's what we're doing. We had some guys really rise up and make some plays. When you win a game, all the little things pay off."
Louisiana-Lafayette started the game with a pair of long drives. But while the Ragin' Cajuns burned over ten minutes on the two marches, they came away with just a 6-0 lead. ULL scored on its opening possession but missed the extra point, and two open-field tackles by the Trice and a blitz by Orr stalled the second Louisiana drive.
A few minutes later, Orr struck again with a sensational, leaping interception of ULL quarterback Terra Broadway, only the Cajuns' second interception of the season, at the Louisiana 37 yard line. From there, a great catch by Andrew Power set up a 25-yard field goal by Olen to draw North Texas within 6-3.
The advantage, however, immediately swung back to the Cajuns. Terra Broadway shook a pair of tackles for a 75-yard touchdown run, the longest run allowed by North Texas this year, and a 13-3 lead.
North Texas responded with its best drive of the half, a 14-play, 78-yard march highlighted by a pair of passes from Thompson to Ivan Delgado and strong five carries for 32 yards by Jimmerson. But on fourth and one from the Cajuns' two-yard line, the Mean Green was called for a false start and backed up to the seven, and Olen came on for his second field goal to cut the gap to 13-6 at halftime.
The Mean Green's next game will be Saturday, October 27, when they travel to Murfreesboro to play Middle Tennessee.