NT Falls Short Of Bowl Eligibility In 52-24 Loss
Mean Green Fail To Earn Sixth Win, Succomb To UTEP's Big Plays
EL PASO - North Texas had everything to play for Saturday. The Mean Green were completing an amazing turnaround from a year ago and needed just one more win to realize their goal of being bowl eligible.
UTEP, on the other hand, had little to play for. The Miners were finishing a disappointing season and entered the regular-season finale in last place in Conference USA's West Division.
Which makes it all the more difficult to comprehend Miners' 52-24 demolishing of the Mean Green Saturday afternoon at the Sun Bowl.
UTEP scored five touchdowns on plays of more than 30 yards - three of more than 50 yards - and rolled up 555 yards total offense - 384 on the ground - while keeping North Texas from any big plays and forcing the Mean Green to mount long drives which they could not sustain.
"They hit us with some big plays and it just kind of snowballed from there," North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. "We couldn't dig ourselves out of the hole."
The defeat means North Texas finishes the season 5-7 - still a remarkable record after going 1-11 a year ago. And, with the shortage of bowl-eligible teams this year, it remains possible that the Mean Green could receive a bowl invitation due to the team's strong Academic Progress Rate, which is the 26th best in the nation in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
But a win Saturday would have clinched bowl eligibility and virtually assured the Mean Green of playing December football.
North Texas got off to a decent start, taking a 7-3 lead on a 14-yard run by Willy Ivery. That's when the Miners unleashed their one-man wrecking crew.
UTEP came into the game with only one offensive threat: running back Aaron Jones. He was enough. The junior, who Saturday became the Miners all-time leading rusher and topped 1,700 yards for the season, had 175 yards rushing by the 13:57 mark of the second quarter, a total that included 83- and 48-yard touchdown runs. He finished Saturday with 301 yards and four touchdowns.
"He did a great job," Littrell said of Jones. "They came out and played, and they were obviously the most excited team out there."
The combination of Jones and an ineffective North Texas offense created a horrific stretch in the first half that saw UTEP take complete control, scoring 28 unanswered points while the Mean Green failed to generate a first down.
After Jones' two long TD runs, the Miners scored on a 30-yard pass, then inflated the advantage to 31-7 when North Texas punter Eric Keena fumbled a snap at his own goalline and was swarmed by UTEP defenders who recovered the loose ball in the end zone.
The Mean Green, however, got back in the game before halftime. Quarterback Alec Morris directed a 75-yard drive, completing four passes including a 10-yard TD toss to Thaddeous Thompson. After forcing a rare three-and-out from UTEP, North Texas added a 48-yard field goal from Trevor Moore for cut the margin to 31-17 at intermission.
North Texas appeared to have a chance to cut the gap to just one score early in the third quarter when linebacker Fred Scott intercepted a UTEP pass and returned it to the Miner 18-yard line. The pick, however, was wiped out by a facemask penalty against the Mean Green.
On the next play, Jones struck again, this time on a 58-yard touchdown run to boost the lead to 38-17 and put the game out of reach.
This is the 70th anniversary - almost to the day - of North Texas earning its first bowl invitation. On Nov. 23, 1946, NT, under first-year head coach Odus Mitchell, defeated East Texas State, 47-7, to capture the Lone Star Conference championship and send the Eagles to the first bowl game in school history. The 1946 season marked the program's return after a three-year hiatus due to World War II. Mitchell went on become the winningest coach in team history, capturing 216 victories and 10 league titles.
Running back Jeffery Wilson, just three weeks after arthroscopic knee surgery, returned to play Saturday. His first touch was a screen pass that he turned into an 11-yard gain.
UTEP running back Aaron Jones had 127 yards rushing in the first quarter, his sixth 100-plus-yard quarter of the season. Jones became the Miners' all-time leading rusher Saturday.
Junior running back Willy Ivery scored his sixth rushing touchdown of the season and the team's 23rd on a 14-yard run late in the first quarter.
Senior wide receiver Thaddeous Thompson caught a 10-yard TD pass from senior QB Alec Morris, giving Thompson two touchdowns on the season, which ties for the team lead on the season with two other players.
Junior placekicker Trevor Moore has now made 95 consecutive extra points, extending his own school record after going 3-for-3 Saturday.
Moore also improved to 8-for-12 on the year in field goals, converting a 45-yarder late in the first half.