Mean Green Celebrate Homecoming With Title
North Texas Rolls Past UTEP To Clinch West Division Crown
DENTON - North Texas clinched the Conference USA West Division championship and virtually assured itself of a bowl bid with a 45-10 victory over UTEP Saturday night at homecoming in front of Apogee Stadium's largest crowd of the season.
Freshman wide receiver Jaelon Darden scored two touchdowns - the first multi-TD game of his career - to spark the Mean Green offense, and running back Jeffery Wilson, quarterback Mason Fine, and the North Texas defense took it from there. Wilson rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown and had a career-high seven receptions for 58 yards, Fine threw for four touchdowns, and a dominating defense allowed season-lows in points and yards of total offense.
And in just his second year at the Mean Green's helm, Seth Littrell earned the first title of his head-coaching career - all the more remarkable because he arrived in Denton days after North Texas completed a 1-11 season. The reversal of fortunes that will propel North Texas (7-3 on the year and 6-1 in league play) to the C-USA championship game on Dec. 2 has been startling.
"Having an opportunity to play for a championship, that's the standard we want to set," Littrell said. "These coaches and players have put in a lot of work.
"We had an opportunity to win the west, and getting that monkey off our back is huge," he added. "The hardest one to get is that first one."
This is North Texas' first regular-season championship since 2004, when the Mean Green won the last of four-straight Sun Belt titles.
"It's a huge accomplishment," Fine said. "Now we're in the conference championship game. We just have to stay focussed."
"That's something that I've wanted to do since I came here," Wilson said of the title. "It's a feeling I've wanted all my life. To have my family here tonight, it's a blessing."
The Mean Green struggled in the first half against the winless Miners, who took a 7-0 lead when UTEP's Kahani Smith returned a North Texas fumble 45 yards for a touchdown on the Mean Green's first possession of the game.
"I knew it was going to be a dog fight in the first half," Littrell said. "They've been very competitive in the first half this year. We just wore them down in the second half."
But North Texas slowly began to exert control. The Mean Green defense held UTEP to just 80 yards total offense and 2-of-7 third-down conversions in the first half, while the offense pieced together 64- and 81-yard scoring drives - both capped by Mason Fine to Darden TD passes - to take a 14-7 lead to halftime. North Texas then took the second-half opening kickoff and rolled through the Miners for a Wilson 1-yard touchdown run and a 21-7 advantage.
The Mean Green, however, have tended towards generosity when holding a lead this year, allowing six opponents to rally from deficits.
Not this time.
The North Texas defense smothered the Miners, allowing a season-low 10 points, a season-low 231 yards total offense, and tied a season-low for first downs with 15. It kept up pressure on UTEP quarterback Zack Greenlee and permitted the Miners to convert just 4-of-15 third downs. North Texas' Nate Brooks had a team-high eight tackles, LaDarius Hamilton had an interception to set up a field goal, and Dee Baulkman had his second punt block of the year.
"Every week, we want to try to come out and be the most ferocious defense on the field," Hamilton said. "Domination is the word. They (UTEP) like to run the ball, we like to stop that. It's gang tackles all night, and eventually you'll break the will of the running backs."
The Mean Green offense then finished off the game with a 17-0 run. North Texas answered UTEP's only scoring drive of the game - a 66-yard march for a field goal - with a 60-yard touchdown pass from Fine to Rico Bussey, Jr., then got a 66-yard rush from Wilson to set up a 2-yard TD pass from Fine to Jalen Guyton for an insurmountable 35-10 lead.
What They Said
"The defense was dominant. We've seen flashes of that this year. This was one of our more complete games."
--Seth Littrell on his defense's performance
"He's a special player. The great thing about him is he's still getting better."
--Littrell on running back Jeffery Wilson
"That was wild. To see them come out, that was a great feeling"
--Wilson on the Apogee crowd, the largest of the season
"The energy was great. I feed off the energy here. I play better at home."
--Fine on the homecoming crowd
- This is the Mean Green's 26th regular-season title in football, but the first division crown. North Texas has won 25 conference championships and will try to make it 26 in the C-USA title game on Dec. 2.
- North Texas has won championships in three sports in the last seven days: soccer won the C-USA tournament last Sunday, volleyball captured the C-USA regular-season title Saturday morning, and football earned the C-USA West Division crown Saturday night.
- It's the first time the Mean Green have won three titles in one semester in three different sports. (Some sports, like soccer, volleyball and basketball, can win two titles - regular season and tournament - in one year.)
- It's also the first time the Mean Green have won three titles in different sports in the same school year since 2012-13, when soccer, men's golf and tennis won championships. North Texas' best year came in 1941-42, when it won championships in football, men's golf, men's track and field, and men's basketball.
- Senior running back Jeffery Wilson's first carry of the game was good for 10 yards, pushing his season total over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career.
- Wilson scored his 14th rushing touchdown of the year, which ties for fourth on the North Texas all-time list with his own performance in 2016.
- Wilson had 20 rushes Saturday, giving him 543 attempts for his career to take over eighth place all-time. Seventh is Ken Washington, quarterback from 1974-77, with 532 rushes.
- Wilson had his longest carry of the season on the last play of the third quarter, a 66-yard run that put him over the century-mark for the fifth time this year.
- That carry also moved Wilson into fourth place in career rushing yards with 3,133. He surpassed the 3,120 yards of Ja'Quay Wilburn (1997-2000).
- Wilson also has 3,934 career all-purpose yards, the fourth-best total in school history, surpassing Johnny Quinn (2003-06) at 3,835.
- Sophomore quarterback Mason Fine's four TD passes give him 28 for his career, passing Vidal Carlin (1965-66) for eighth on the all-time list. He also has 22 for the season, the fifth-best single-season total in school history.
- Fine has 2,712 passing yards this year, the fifth best single-season total in school history, surpassing the 2,649 yards of Derek Thompson in 2012.
- Fine has seven consecutive 200-yard passing games, the third best streak in North Texas history.
- Sophomore wide receiver Rico Bussey, Jr., has scored a touchdown in five of his last six games.
- Jason Guyton caught his eighth receiving touchdown, tying him for ninth-best in a single season with Troy Redwine (1995). Tied for seventh are Johnny Quinn (2004) and Charlie Murray (1978) with 9.
- Trevor Moore his his 14th field goal of the season, which ties him with six others for the fourth most in a single season.
The third meeting in 13 months against Army. The Mean Green will host the Black Knights next Saturday, Nov. 18, at 5:30 p.m. at Apogee Stadium in UNT's final home game of the regular season.