DENTON (11/16/02) -- An explosive offense highlighted by senior Kevin Galbreath's rushing and redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Smith's two touchdown passes propelled North Texas to an overpowering 38-27 victory over New Mexico State Saturday that clinched the 2002 Sun Belt Conference championship and the league's berth in the New Orleans Bowl in December.
The win before 20,064 at Fouts Field nailed down the Mean Green's second consecutive Sun Belt championship and earned North Texas (6-5, 5-0) a second straight trip to New Orleans as the host team in the New Orleans Bowl.
"The kids never gave up," said NT head coach Darrell Dickey. "They love to play this game and we kept playing hard to the end and were able to make a couple of plays. Give New Mexico State a lot of credit because they ran up and down the field on us in the first half and we had a lot of trouble containing them."
In handing the Aggies (6-5, 4-1) their first conference loss, the Mean Green secured the victory with 17 fourth-quarter points on TD runs by Galbreath and Smith and a 42-yard field goal by Nick Bazaldua.
Galbreath's score, a 19-yard run around left end with 9:29 left that gave NT a 31-27 edge, capped a glorious game for the senior from Edmond, Okla. He rushed for a career-high 175 yards on 31 carries and ran his season rushing total to 1,105 yards. He's the first running back in North Texas history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.
North Texas stuck to its ground-first plan of attack, with Patrick Cobbs adding 66 yards on 12 carries. Fullback Michael Hickmon carried just once for 13 yards, but it caught the Aggies off guard and resulted in a first-quarter touchdown that gave NT a 7-0 lead. The Mean Green's ground game amassed 263 yards and accounted for three touchdowns.
Hickmon, one of 16 seniors appearing in their final home game in a Mean Green uniform, actually scored three touchdowns in the game. Early in the second quarter he pulled in an 11-yard scoring pass from Smith which gave North Texas a 14-13 lead, and late in the third period he and Smith connected on a 12-yard scoring pass play.
Smith played one of his better games of the season by completing six of 10 passes for two touchdowns. He avoided getting sacked and did not throw an interception. In addition to his two scoring passes, Smith also scored on a one-yard sneak with 2:55 left in the game that widened North Texas' lead to the final 38-27 margin.
"Andrew deserves a lot of credit tonight because he really stepped up and made some big plays when we needed him to," said Dickey. "He really showed how far he has matured."
Three times in the game North Texas had to battle back from a deficit. Eleven seconds into the second quarter NMSU went up 13-7 on a 62-yard pass play and the Aggies were able to post a 20-14 halftime lead after driving 69 yards to score with 4:04 remaining before the break.
The Aggies reclaimed the lead in the game early in the fourth quarter on a 56-yard pass play that gave NMSU a 27-24 lead with 12:34 left in the game.
North Texas' final comeback was keyed by a pair of defensive turnovers. After Adrian Awasom recovered a fumble by NMSU quarterback Paul Dombrowski at the Aggie 19-yard line, Galbreath scored on the Mean Green's first offensive play.
Later in the fourth, NMSU back-up quarterback Buck Pierce fumbled and NT's Brandon Kennedy recovered at the one-yard line. Smith was able to sneak over on the Mean Green's first play to go up 38-27 with 2:55 left.
Interceptions by North Texas' Don McGee and Markeith Knowlton accounted for two other New Mexico State turnovers in the game.