A Heart-Breaking Loss At Heart Of Dallas

Rico Bussey, Jr., pulls in a touchdown pass from Alec Morris
Dec. 27, 2016

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DALLAS - The Zaxby's Heart Of Dallas Bowl came down to the thinnest of margins Tuesday at the Cotton Bowl. A fake punt, a clutch touchdown pass, a key fumble recovery, a big run. The ebb and flow of momentum was the stuff of bowl legend.

It was fitting that four quarters were not enough to decide it.

North Texas senior quarterback Alec Morris, who threw for a career-high three touchdowns, completing 26 of 38 for 304 yards, rallied the Mean Green from a 17-point deficit and directed a drive to set up a game-tying field goal with 28 seconds left in the game, while the NT defense made key stops in the fourth quarter to keep the rally alive.

Ultimately, however, the game turned on the ability of Army's triple-option offense to make first downs. The Black Knights rushed for 480 yards, converting 11-of-17 third downs and two-of-four fourth downs, including the pivotal fourth and goal from the 3-yard-line in overtime that lifted Army to a 38-31 victory.

"We didn't win the game, but we got better today," Mean Green coach Seth Littrell said. "This team has done an incredible job setting the foundation that will be key to our success in the future, and we will have success.

"I'm just really proud of the team, and I've had a lot of fun," he added. "This has been awesome."

The Mean Green finish the season 5-8, while Army is concludes the year 8-5.

North Texas fell behind 24-7, rallied to within three points before halftime, then again fell behind by double-digits, 31-21, in the third quarter. But the Mean Green got a fumble recovery from Kenny Buyers to set up a touchdown pass from Morris to Tyler Wilson, and got another defensive stop to set up a 50-yard drive that ended with a 37-yard field goal by Trevor Moore with 28 seconds to play to force overtime.

OT, however, went the way of much of the day. Army, which threw only four passes all day, completed a 15-yard pass to set up a first and goal from the North Texas 8-yard-line. After NT's Joshua Wheeler made a stop on Army on third and goal, the Black Knights eschewed a field goal on fourth down from the 3, depending on its powerful run game to punch in the go-ahead score on a run by Jordan Asberry.

"They made a great play," Littrell said. "They stretched us out and found a crease. They made some great plays to get them in that situation."

North Texas, pressured by a blitzing Army defense, could generate nothing on its possession in OT, ending the game with an incomplete pass.

"We didn't make enough plays to win," Littrell said. "We may not have accomplished our mission of winning our bowl game, but these men sitting up here and those men in that locker room downstairs accomplished a lot this season, and the things they did accomplish set a solid foundation for the future."

Just as it did at the Heart of Dallas Bowl three years ago, North Texas fell behind on the opening possession of the game. Army's ground game chewed up 75 yards - all on running plays - for a touchdown. North Texas, however, responded to Army's methodical march with a more dynamic drive, powered by a 22-yard pass from Alec Morris to Turner Smiley and a 22-yard touchdown run by Jeffery Wilson.

But the Black Knights took charge from there. Army rushed for 175 yards in the first quarter alone, mixed in one pass for 38 yards, and scored on its first four possessions. It converted its first six third downs and compiled 332 yards total offense in the first half. The saving grace for North Texas was extra points. Army missed the point-after attempt on its first score, then failed on two-point tries after its next three TDs to limit the damage to an 24-7 deficit early in the second quarter.

The Mean Green got back in the game before halftime. The rally started with a screen to Jeffery Wilson that went for 22 yards and a touchdown to cut the lead to 24-14. On the following Army possession, North Texas finally stopped the Black Knights when defensive end Jareid Combs made a stop on Army's Kell Walker to force the Black Knights' first punt of the day.

Starting from the NT 32, Morris quickly worked North Texas down field. He threw to Tyler Wilson for 23 yards, scrambled for 15 yards, then hit Rico Bussey, Jr., with a 27-yard touchdown pass to cut the gap to 24-21 at intermission.

With momentum on its side, North Texas took the second half kickoff and jump-started a drive with a successful fake punt, a pass from Eric Keena to Kenny Buyers. But after an unsportsmanlike penalty stuck NT in a second and 24 situation, Army delivered a crushing blow to Morris as he threw, forcing his pass to fall short and be intercepted at the Army 16-yard line.

Six plays later, Black Knight quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw, who was named the game's most valuable player, burst 65 yards for a touchdown to push the lead to 31-21.

But the Mean Green made repeated defensive stands down the stretch to re-ignite the rally. Defensive back Dee Baulkman stopped Army on fourth down from the NT 34, and Buyers recovered an Army fumbled punt return at the Black Knights' 18.

On the next play, Morris connected with Tyler Wilson for a touchdown to cut the margin to 31-28.

The North Texas defense shut out Army in the fourth quarter, but the Mean Green's final hope needed one more stop from its beleaguered defense, and it got it when Wheeler stuffed Army on fourth down at the North Texas 30 with 2:25 to play.

Morris hit Tyler Wilson, who finished with a career-high five catches for 81 yards, for 17 then 9 yards, connected with Turner Smiley for 11 on third and 10, then got the Mean Green into field goal range with a 14-yard toss to Tyler Wilson and a 7-yard screen to Jeffery Wilson.

"It wasn't necessarily the prettiest drive I've ever had, but I think that's been a pretty common theme for this team this year of overcoming adversity, and it was exemplified in that one drive."

What They Said

"Alec did a heck of a job. I felt he had his best weeks of preparation. He's an unbelievable teammate."
   --Seth Littrell on quarterback Alec Morris

"You have to read your keys, and if you get your eyes wrong, it gets you in trouble."
   --Senior linebacker Fred Scott on facing Army's triple option

"I think our future is very bright. I think we've got men that are learning what it looks like, understand what our culture is going to be moving forward, and I'm excited to get back to work."

Quick Hits

• The weather could not have been better Tuesday. It was sunny with a gentle breeze and temperature at 57 at kickoff.

• Attendance was announced at 39,117, topping the crowd count of North Texas appearance in 2014 of 38,380.

• Junior running back Jeffery Wilson added a rushing touchdown Tuesday to his season total, giving him 14 for the year, his high for rushing touchdowns in a single-season and the fourth best in school history, surpassing Lance Dunbar's 2010 campaign.

• Wilson also had his first receiving touchdown of the season, taking a screen pass 22 yards for a score in the second quarter.

Alec Morris threw for a school bowl-record 304 yards.

• Army's 70-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was the Black Knights' longest rush of the season.

• Army had 213 yards total offense in the first quarter, the most yards any team has had in the first quarter of any of this year's bowl games to date.

• Wide receiver Rico Bussey, who missed seven games due to injury, returned to the lineup Tuesday and caught his first pass since Oct. 1, a 30-yard completion in the second quarter.

• Bussey's second reception of the game was good for the first touchdown of his career, a 27-yard catch for the score just before halftime that pulled North Texas within 24-21.

• North Texas was successful on a fake punt in the third quarter, a pass from punter Eric Keena to Kenny Buyers. The Mean Green was three-for-three on fakes punts this season.

• This was the fourth overtime game in Mean Green history. North Texas is now 2-2.

What's Next

Signing day. The next generation of Mean Green will ink National Letters of Intent on Feb. 1.



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