Jan. 1, 2014
Marcus Trice and the NT defense held UNLV to just 70 total yards in the second half of the 36-14 win over the Rebels.
DALLAS - The 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl was a matchup of strength-on-strength: UNLV's unstoppable offense against the North Texas immovable defense.
Caleb Herring and UNLV came in averaging 31.2 points and 423 yards per game, but would be facing a terrorizing North Texas defense that led the nation in red-zone scoring defense and was ranked ninth in the NCAA with allowing just 18.1 points per contest.
While North Texas quarterback Derek Thompson threw for 256 yards and took home the MVP hardware, head coach Dan McCarney would tell you it was the Mean Green defense that won the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl with its bone-jarring play.
"When coach Mac took this job he laid out a plan to win," said senior Zach Orr, a three-time all-conference linebacker. "The number one thing on that plan was to play great defense. If you want to go out there and be bowl champions like we are today, you've got to start by playing great defense. We took pride in that plan, and that's the reason we're sitting in this position today."
Herring, a sleek and elusive quarterback, looked nearly invincible from the opening snap. He drove the Rebels 95 yards in eight plays and 3:07 to seize an early 7-0 lead. In fact, Herring would complete his first nine passes.
But that's where the cake-walk ended. The Mean Green defense adjusted and held Herring to 6-of-24 passing for the remainder of the game. After allowing 96 total yards in the first quarter, UNLV would muster just 166 more yards over the next three quarters. The Rebels would only move 70 yards in the second half.
Ten times this year the North Texas defense allowed its opponent to score the first points of the game. In seven of those games, including Wednesday's 36-14 win over the Rebels, the Mean Green would make the adjustments to come away with a win.
"I felt like that first drive where they went 95 yards on us, we were kind of playing on our heels and not playing Mean Green defense," Orr said. "I was telling our guys to settle in and play our style of football. We bounced back and pretty much shut them out the rest of the game."
Orr finished with a team-high nine tackles, which raised his career total to 365 and which tied him with Brad Kassell for the third most in school history. As the leader of this defense, Orr and the Mean Green left their stamp on a season that will go down as one of the best in school history.
Seven NT defensive players earned All-Conference USA honors in 2013, and only the 2002 NT defense recorded more sacks than the 39 put up this season. Many of those plays would find their way onto YouTube highlight videos as North Texas gained a reputation as a ferocious ball-hawking squad.
"They're going to beat you up a little bit," said UNLV coach Bobby Hauck. "They play very physical."
If any moment typified the season for the North Texas defense, it came during an epic goal-line stand for the ages that all but sealed the win over Rice, who would go on to win the C-USA championship. With a first and goal from the 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter of a tight ballgame, the Mean Green defense held the Owls on nine straight plays inside the 6-yard line.
That stand alerted the country that the North Texas defense was for real, and fueled the confidence of a unit that wasn't short on it in the first place.
"Good teams learn how to handle adversity," McCarney said. "When bad things happen, you don't go in the tank, you don't slump your shoulders or drop your head. You show the resiliency and resolve and pride that will make you a winner. I watched this team overcome adversity all season, and that's why they have nine wins and a bowl trophy."