North Texas Recovers, Rallies For Clutch Victory
Morris, Brooks Lead Mean Green To 29-23 Win Over Southern Miss
DENTON - There wasn't much on the line Saturday night - just an entire season's worth of sweat and labor and one last chance to keep alive an unthinkable dream.
The Mean Green's hopes of being bowl eligible, seeming so unlikely coming off a 1-11 campaign a year ago and on life support after losing the last three games, required wins in the final two games of the year, starting with the final home game against Southern Mississippi, a team likewise chasing a postseason bowl. So North Texas fired every bullet in its arsenal Saturday night.
They needed every one of them.
The Mean Green (5-6 on the year, 3-4 in Conference USA play) roared out to a 20-0 lead, saw Southern Miss score 23 unanswered points to take a 23-20 lead, then rallied for a touchdown with 7:34 to play and earn a 29-23 victory that lifts North Texas to within one win of realizing the team's goal of becoming bowl eligible.
"All we want is an opportunity to accomplish the mission," North Texas head coach Seth Littrell. "We have that opportunity. All our goals are still in front of us, and that makes life a whole lot easier."
The stars were aplenty Saturday night. Alec Morris, in his first start at quarterback since Week 1, threw for 267 yards and two touchdowns. Cornerback Nate Brooks make a pair of huge tackles to forestall an early threat and came up with a key turnover to spark a 17-point North Texas first quarter. Wide receiver Turner Smiley had the biggest game of any NT receiver this year with seven receptions for 162 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Willy Ivery rushed for career-high 111 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Safety Khairi Muhammad's first-career interception turned away the Golden Eagles' final threat, and Brooks' second interception of the game finished off the win.
North Texas was without multiple starters due to injury, including quarterback Mason Fine, who started the last nine games before sustaining an injury last week, running back Jeffery Wilson, out the past two weeks, and two offensive linemen.
"A lot of guys played well," Littrell said. "It was different positions stepping up. It's hard to fill those roles with just one player."
No one stepped it up more than Morris, who completed 14 of 29 passes. But he was never better than on the final go-ahead drive, when he sparked the 65-yard march with three-straight completions for 37 yards.
"I'm very proud of Alec," Littrell said of the senior from Allen who lost the starting job to true freshman Mason Fine early in the season. "He could have been a bad teammate, but he has done a great job being a great teammate. He's been a great mentor to Mason. For Alec to get an opportunity is pretty special. I'm excited for him to lead us and close us out."
On defense, Brooks was sensational, bouncing back from the last two weeks when the North Texas secondary was pillaged by Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky.
"If you've ever played that position, you've been burned," Littrell said. "That corner position is out on an island. Nate's a very confident player, and he has a lot of talent."
"I played the way I should have played all year," Brooks Said. "Leaving me on the island invites me to make my plays."
North Texas spotted Southern Miss an early interception, but seized control with clutch plays by Brooks and a pair of trick plays from the Mean Green offense.
Southern Miss (5-6, 3-4) intercepted the Mean Green's first pass of the game at the North Texas 34-yard line, but Brooks stopped the threat with a tackle for loss to force third and long, then a tackle on a screen to force a field goal attempt. The kick was wide and the early crisis was averted.
That was when North Texas began digging into razzle-dazzle portion of the playbook. Morris went in motion and split out wide left, leaving running back Andrew Tucker to take the snap. Tucker handed off to Smiley, who pitched to Morris as he swept into the backfield, and Morris threw deep over the middle to a wide-open Kenny Buyers for 49 yards. The trick play, the first North Texas has run this season, set up a 26-yard Trevor Moore field goal and gave the Mean Green a 3-0 lead, their first lead since the Army game on Oct. 22.
Having stopped the Golden Eagles' first threat and moved the game in the Mean Green's favor, Brooks now swung the momentum solidly to North Texas. The sophomore cornerback jumped a Southern Miss pass, laying out at the sideline for his second interception of the year. Morris quickly moved the Mean Green into scoring territory with a 32-yard pass to Smiley, then found Smiley in the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown.
Another trick play, a flea flicker, went for 55 yards to Smiley to make it a 17-0 lead, and the NT advantage went to 20-0 early in the second quarter.
Then the wheels came off. Southern Miss hit a trick play of its own to set up a touchdown with 25 seconds left in the first half, and the Golden Eagles kept up the assault in the third quarter, tying the game just six minutes into the second half, then going in front with 9:39 to play.
From that point, however, the Mean Green regrouped, then re-established control.
"Go back and do your job," Littrell said. "People were starting to press and maybe panic a little. We just had to settle down. The way we practice is good enough for the game, so don't see ghosts."
Morris was the catalyst for that rally, igniting the go-ahead drive that not only put the Mean Green on top but seemed to re-energize the defense.
"Going into that last drive, everybody knew the gravity of the situation," Morris said. "And not just in the game, but for the rest of the season."
Morris's three-straight completions set up Ivery for the finish, and he delivered a 17-yard run and an 11-yard scoring run, slipping through a pair of defenders at the line of scrimmage and bursting into the end zone.
From there, the defense put the game away, picking off two passes and shutting down the Golden Eagle attack that had been so unstoppable moments before.
"They continued to fight," Littrell said of his defense. "It's just a testament to how we've played all year."
North Texas will go for bowl-eligibility next week against UTEP in El Paso, while Southern Miss will also be playing for a chance to go bowling when it finishes the regular season against West-Division leader Louisiana Tech.
What They Said
"This was a tough loss. There was a lot on the line. This was a bowl-eligible game. We didn't make enought plays to pull out the win."
--Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson
"Alec won the game for us tonight. As of right now, that's how we're going forward."
--Littrell on who will start at quarterback next week
"I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel great."
--Morris on the win
"I get a lot of joy watching Mason out there. He's like a little brother to me, and he's going to be a great quarterback."
--Morris on his relationship to freshman QB Mason Fine
• North Texas was without leading rusher Jeffery Wilson, who was injured against Louisiana Tech. His status for next week's game against UTEP is uncertain.
• Wide receiver Turner Smiley had 104 yards receiving in the first quarter. It was the third time an NT receiver topped the century mark this season, and his 162 yards for the game is not only Smiley's high mark for the year, it is the best game by any Mean Green receiver this year.
• Josh Wheeler had a sack early in the second quarter to up his team-high total to 5.5 for the season.
• Defensive end Malik Dilonga recorded his second sack of the season, a thunderous hit that forced a fumble.
• North Texas picked up its fifth win Saturday, marking the first time they have had five in a year since the 2013 season.
• Freshman wide receiver Elijah McIntyre made his first career catch, a nine-yard gain in the first quarter.
• North Texas has 13 interceptions this season after only picking off four a year ago.
• Sophomore defensive back Nate Brooks recorded his third interception of the season, moving him into a tie for the team lead with junior safety Kishawn McClain and junior defensive back Eric Jenkins.
• Senior quarterback Alec Morris threw his first touchdown pass since Sept. 3 against SMU.
• Wide receiver Turner Smiley went over the 100-yard mark in the first quarter with three catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns. The 104 yards receiving by a single player is the most in a game this year by a Mean Green receiver.
• Senior linebacker Fred Scott recovered a second quarter fumble, his first recovery of the season after Brooks leveled Southern Miss quarterback Keon Howard to force the fumble.
• The Mean Green have 22 rushing touchdowns this year after just seven in 2015.
• Junior kicker Trevor Moore has made 92 consecutive extra points, extending his own school record after going 3-for-3 Saturday.
The Mean Green conclude the regular season at UTEP on Saturday, Nov. 26. Kickoff is 3 p.m. CT.