Dan McCarney and his players talked all week about making a statement when they had a rare opportunity on national television late Tuesday night in a game against Louisiana-Lafayette.
That is exactly what they felt like they did in a dramatic 30-23 victory at Apogee Stadium in front of a crowd of 17,055.
Redshirt freshman running back Antoinne Jimmerson caught a short pass from Derek Thompson with time winding down in the fourth quarter and raced 78 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.
The fact that the win came in a national appearance on ESPN2 made the victory even sweeter — not to mention more important — for the Mean Green, which now has won back-to-back Sun Belt Conference games.
“This is a big win,” UNT head coach McCarney said. “It’s a great victory for North Texas. I’m happy for the guys. We’ve got a long way to go, but it’s a great win and I’ll take it. The bottom line is that we stepped up and made plays when we had to and that resulted in a win.”
No one made a bigger play than Jimmerson, who came through just when it looked like ULL (4-2, 2-1 Sun Belt) might push the game to overtime.
UNT (3-4, 2-1) was backed up at its own 22-yard line with just over two minutes remaining, facing a third-and-8 situation.
Thompson swung the ball to Jimmerson out of the backfield. The former DeSoto standout did the rest, weaving his way through the ULL secondary.
The play was the highlight of a breakout night for UNT’s offense, which racked up 524 yards, its highest total since posting 583 yards against Western Kentucky in 2009.
Thompson threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns in his fifth straight 200-yard passing performance.
Brandin Byrd added 88 rushing yards, while Jeremy Brown posted 72.
“We were able to get the ball to a lot of different people,” Thompson said. “I think that kept their defense guessing.”
Thompson connected with seven receivers and four different players posted at least 35 rushing yards, but it was Jimmerson who made the biggest impact. He scored on both of his receptions on the night — covering 28 and 78 yards — and added 35 yards on the ground.
UNT rushed for 242 yards against ULL, which came into the game allowing an average of just 107.2 rushing yards a game.
The Ragin’ Cajuns had won five straight against UNT, a streak the Mean Green knew it would snap when safety Marcus Trice recovered a fumble by ULL running back Effrem Reed on the Ragin’ Cajuns’ final possession
ULL came into the night in a three-way tie atop the Sun Belt standings and had dropped just one game all-season, a 65-24 decision against Oklahoma State.
The Ragin’ Cajuns had scored at least 24 points in each of their games before running into a UNT defense that bounced back from a tough 44-21 loss to Houston last week to post one of its best outings of the year.
UNT held ULL to 371 yards, most of which came on 265 passing yards from Ragin’ Cajuns quarterback Terrance Broadway.
ULL led 20-6 early in the third quarter before UNT outscored the Ragin’ Cajuns 24-3 the rest of the way.
“I was disappointed in our play in the second half defensively,” ULL head coach Mark Hudspeth said. “We didn’t take advantage of some situations where we had them pinned deep.”
UNT scored 17 consecutive points and took a 23-20 lead on Zach Olen’s 22-yard field goal at the 11:44 mark of the fourth quarter.
The Ragin’ Cajuns answered when Brett Baer connected from 47 yards out with 3:01 left, but never got on track offensively in the second half
“Our technique was better and our coverage was better,” McCarney said. “We started collapsing the pocket, and that put some pressure on their quarterback in the second half.”
UNT also was much better offensively in the second half after squandering several opportunities and settling for a pair of Olen field goals, including a 25-yard kick following a key defensive play by Zach Orr. UNT’s middle linebacker jumped up and intercepted a Broadway pass to set up the Mean Green at ULL’s 37-yard line.
UNT blew another chance to score after driving to the ULL 2-yard line late in the first half, where the Mean Green faced a fourth-and-1 situation. UNT elected to go for the first down but had to reconsider when tight end Tanner Smith jumped offside.
UNT finally got on track in the second half after squandering yet another opportunity deep in ULL’s end of the field.
Brandin Byrd was cut down on fourth-and-goal from the ULL 1-yard line.
UNT forced the Ragin’ Cajuns to punt and quickly converted when Jimmerson scored on a 28-yard pass from Thompson.
The Mean Green’s defense came up with another stop and gave its offense another short field to work with. UNT took over at the ULL 34-yard line and scored two plays later on a 34-yard touchdown run by Brelan Chancellor.
“We started off slow and were down in the first half and were down at the half, but we came out in the second half and were a different team,” Thompson said. “We didn’t change much at the half. We stuck with what got us here.”
UNT easily could have let the win slip away after ULL tied the game late, but it came up with the key play on Jimmerson’s touchdown catch on a night when the Mean Green wanted to put its best foot forward.
“Coach Mac always talks about giving your fans something to be proud about and showing the country what we can do,” Orr said. “On Saturdays there are 60-some games on TV. We were the only game on TV tonight. We knew that people were going to be tuned in.”
UNT gave those fans something to be excited about with their win over the Cajuns.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.