DENTON, Texas - North Texas head coach Dan McCarney has been looking for big plays out of his football team all year long. In Saturday's final home game of the season, the Mean Green delivered game-changing plays on both sides of the ball.
The result was a 24-14 North Texas victory over South Alabama at Apogee Stadium, keeping alive the Mean Green's hopes of being bowl-eligible and completing their home schedule with a winning record for the second-straight winning season. If North Texas (4-6 on the year and 3-3 in Sun Belt play) wins its final two games of the season, both on the road, it will be bowl eligible.
"We did what we had to in the second half," McCarney said. "This is a big step. We opened Apogee a year ago and we're 7-4 at home. If you're going to turn a program around - which we are - it starts at home."
The Mean Green got its two longest rushes of the season - both for touchdowns - to power the offense, while a defense led by Zachary Orr came up with critical stops and a third-quarter fumble recovery that allowed North Texas to take the first two-score lead of the game.
Orr, who came into the game as the Mean Green's leading tackler, had a game-high 12 tackles and a fumble recovery as North Texas tossed a shutout in the second half.
"I really saw the defense come alive tonight," McCarney said.
"It's such a big win," said North Texas defensive end K.C. Obi, who had one of the Mean Green's two sacks and six tackles for loss. "Coach has been on us to get more turnovers, and we got those tonight."
After getting no turnovers in the last two games, North Texas forced three turnovers Saturday.
North Texas quarterback Derek Thompson saw his streak of seven-straight games with over 200 yards passing snapped, but his 106 yards Saturday moved him into sixth place on the Mean Green career passing-yard list.
Most of the Mean Green offense came on the ground. Junior running back Brandin Byrd had a career-high 109 yards rushing, including an 85-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that put North Texas in front for the first time. It was the longest run of the season for North Texas and the longest of Byrd's career.
Momentum was fickle throughout the first half. South Alabama (2-8, 1-5) took used a 90-yard, 13-play drive to take a 7-0 lead, and the Jaguars were driving again when they faced fourth and two at their own 49. North Texas stopped the fourth-down run, and two plays later, the Mean Green's Jeremy Brown escaped multiple tacklers and went 51 yards for a game-tying touchdown.
South Alabama responded with its second scoring drive of the half to take a 14-7 lead, but back came North Texas. The Mean Green drove to the Jaguar 10-yard line where it faced fourth and six, but successive penalties against South Alabama gave the Mean Green a first down. One play later, Thompson then hit Drew Miller with a two-yard scoring pass.
South Alabama appeared to have retaken the momentum with a 14-play drive to begin the second half, but came up empty when it missed a field goal. On the next play, Byrd took a hand-off on the right side and went 85 yards for a touchdown.
From there, the North Texas defense controlled the game. Zach Orr recovered a South Alabama fumble at the Jaguar 39 to set up a 33-yard field goal for a 24-14 lead. Aaron Bellazin had a pair of big tackles for loss, including a 12-yard sack, while the secondary had several key pass break-ups.
North Texas will finish the season on the road, beginning at Louisiana Monroe next Saturday at 3 p.m.