BOCA RATON, Fla. — What started out looking like a walk in the park for North Texas against Florida Atlantic turned into a nail-biter Saturday night.
UNT had a 17-point lead and a load of momentum in the second half.
Most of that lead and all of that momentum disappeared in a flash, before the Mean Green did just enough late to hang on for a much-needed 20-14 win at FAU Stadium that snapped a two-game losing streak.
UNT moved to 2-3 for just the third time since 1997 and broke through for its first Sun Belt Conference win of the season, evening its league record at 1-1.
UNT has a long way to go to get into the Sun Belt title chase, but the win ensured the Mean Green isn’t out of it just two games into the conference campaign.
“It’s a very big win for us,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “So many crazy, wild things can happen on game day. It was a great team win, showing that resolve and finding a way to win a game.”
UNT appeared as if it would coast for most of the night against the Owls, who have just one win on the season — a 7-3 decision against Wagner.
FAU (1-4, 0-2 Sun Belt) didn’t appear as if it had much of a chance to add to its win total after Drew Miller caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Derek Thompson that gave UNT a 17-0 lead in the third quarter.
At that point, FAU had squandered two scoring chances on turnovers deep in UNT’s end of the field.
The Owls came into the night averaging just 12.8 points a game.
That was when things got a lot more interesting than UNT had hoped they would.
Damian Fortner capped a nine-play, 73-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown run to give the Owls momentum.
FAU defensive back Keith Reaser intercepted a pass from Thompson on UNT’s next possession, setting up an 11-yard Graham Wilbert touchdown run that pulled the Owls to within 17-14.
Thompson led UNT with 251 passing yards and two touchdowns and outplayed Wilbert, who threw for 142 yards and a pair of interceptions.
“Football games aren’t much fun when they are blowouts,” Thompson said. “We have to give coach McCarney a few more gray hairs.”
There were plenty of times over the last few years when games turned in a terrible direction for UNT in similar situations.
Just last week, UNT had a horrible game on special teams and inside the 30-yard line in a 14-7 loss to Troy. UNT missed three field goals and failed to convert on five possessions inside the Trojans’ 30.
This time, UNT came through in a similar situation. The Mean Green used a methodical 16-play drive that Zach Olen capped with a 28-yard field goal.
Olen actually made three kicks on the drive, including one from 36 yards that was taken off the board for an FAU personal foul that gave UNT a first down, and a 39-yarder that was erased when UNT accepted a roughing the kicker penalty that gave the Mean Green another first down.
Olen hit the third kick to put UNT up 20-14 and leave FAU with just 7:29 to work with.
Olen hit both of his field goals that counted and also hit both of his extra points just one week after missing two key field goals and being benched in the loss to Troy.
“I just had to trust in myself and my ability,” Olen said. “I know I’m a good kicker. I just have to go out there and act like it.”
FAU had two chances to drive for a game-winning touchdown, but went three-and-out and then failed to pick up a first down on its final drive when Wilbert’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
UNT made a couple of stands that were equally important in the first half, when the Mean Green jumped out to a 10-0 lead.
FAU drove to the UNT 11-yard line on its first possession before safety Marcus Trice intercepted a Wilbert pass in the back of the end zone.
The Mean Green came up with a second key turnover at the end of the first half after FAU reached the UNT 15-yard line. Defensive tackle Tevinn Cantly went through FAU’s offensive line, sacked Wilbert and forced a fumble that defensive end K.C. Obi recovered.
“That was a big turning point,” said UNT linebacker Derek Akunne, who finished with nine tackles and an interception. “To be able to stop them in the red zone and not allow any points is a really big deal. We are happy about that.”
UNT didn’t do much offensively in the first half but came up with the only touchdown when Thompson hit Brelan Chancellor for a 68-yard score on the possession following Trice’s interception.
Olen later hit his first field goal from 48 yards out.
At that point, UNT appeared to be in cruise control. The game got a lot more interesting a short time later — not that it mattered to UNT.
“It doesn’t matter how you win football games, as long as we have more points than them. That’s all that matters,” Thompson said. “We played with a lot of grit and toughness tonight.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.