The Mean Green defend home turf in the Heart of Dallas Bowl
By Matthew Postins
The University of North Texas’ vaunted defense lived up to its billing as one of the nation’s best, while the offense put on a clinic on how to convert on third down as the Mean Green claimed a 36-14 Heart of Dallas Bowl victory over the UNLV Rebels on Wednesday at the Cotton Bowl.
The post-game trophy ceremony turned into a party for the Mean Green, who were playing their first bowl game in nearly a decade. A few hundred Mean Green fans spilled onto the field to join the team during its post-game celebration. More than 38,000 showed up for the game, with the Mean Green fan base dominating the lower seating bowl.
The win was a culmination of UNT’s rise from a 6-37 stretch that ended in 2010.
“So many things went into it,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “Everyone has to buy into it. Everyone has to be on the same page and have the same expectations and you must have guys like these seniors work every single day and set an example.”
The bowl game was the first New Year’s Day game for both programs, and after the two teams fought to a 7-7 draw in the first half, the Mean Green (9-4) took control.
UNT entered the game ranked in the Top 10 in FBS in five different defensive categories – red-zone defense (No. 1), fewest fourth-quarter points (No. 2), takeaways (No. 4), fourth-down defense (No. 4) and scoring defense (No. 9). They were in the Top 30 in five other categories.
The Mean Green held the Rebels (7-6) to 262 total yards, well below their season average of 423.8 yards per game. UNLV’s all-time leading rusher, Tim Cornett, managed just 33 yards on 11 carries. The Rebels’ 14 points scored were below UNT’s points-allowed average of 18.1 points per game. UNLV managed just one red-zone chance in the contest and was 1-of-2 on fourth down. UNT also sacked UNLV quarterback Caleb Herring five times.
After scoring midway through the first quarter, the Rebels didn’t score again until late in the fourth quarter.
“They (UNT) pressured a little bit but it wasn’t wild,” UNLV head coach Bobby Hauck said. “They won some battles up front. We didn’t handle some situations particularly well. They did a nice job.”
The turnaround started coming out of the locker room in the second half. UNLV started with the football but couldn’t get out of its own end of the field, despite converting a 3rd-and-10. Herring was sacked for a loss of 8 yards on the next series and UNLV was forced to punt to the UNT 40.
From there the Mean Green went 60 yards in 12 plays to break the 7-7 tie on a 7-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Derek Thompson to tight end Drew Miller with 6:07 left in the third quarter. The Mean Green converted four third downs on the drive, including a 3rd-and-16, and that became a theme in the second half.
“It’s uncanny how well we’ve played coming out of the break,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. “We came out and they stopped us and then they scored, and that was a change for us.”
For UNT the drive was much needed momentum after its offense sputtered in the first half.
“We knew we had to pick up the tempo and do some things differently,” Thompson said, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player after throwing for 256 yards and 2 touchdowns.
It got worse for the Rebels. UNT’s defense forced a three-and-out, leading to UNT’s next possession at the Mean Green 26. UNT put together another long possession with three third-down conversions, ending with Brelan Chancellor’s 3-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter, making it 21-7. Later in the fourth quarter Thompson connected with Darnell Smith for a 34-yard touchdown pass to make it 28-7 UNT.
At that point UNT had converted nine straight third downs on offense. UNLV’s defense simply could not get the Mean Green off the field.
UNLV tried to make something happen, as Herring connected with Jerry Rice Jr. for a touchdown catch with 4:56 left to cut the lead to 28-14.
But UNLV chose to kick it to UNT and the Mean Green turned that into their final score, a 15-yard touchdown run by Chancellor.
The two teams traded scores in the first half. Herring – who threw for 196 yards and 2 scores – connected with Marcus Sullivan for a 9-yard touchdown pass with 7:31 left in the first quarter, giving UNLV its only lead. UNT answered with 1:47 left as Antoinne Jimmerson scored from a yard out to tie the game.