MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — North Texas head coach Dan McCarney and his players talked all week about just how close they were to reaching the goals they set months ago heading into a game at Middle Tennessee on Saturday.
UNT had a chance to jump into the Sun Belt Conference title chase and move tantalizingly close to becoming bowl-eligible with a win over the Blue Raiders.
That’s what made UNT’s 38-21 loss to MTSU at Floyd Stadium so frustrating for the Mean Green.
UNT (3-5, 2-2 Sun Belt) beat Louisiana-Lafayette last week for arguably its biggest win of the season and had a chance to get something going by following it up with a win over the Blue Raiders, and the Mean Green blew the opportunity.
It’s become a familiar refrain for UNT, which has now dropped 21 straight games following a win, a baffling streak that dates to 2004.
“We are very disappointed,” UNT defensive end Brandon McCoy said. “We felt like that was a win we needed last week against a really good ULL team. I don’t want to say that we were lackadaisical, but it seemed like we weren’t focused today.”
UNT had every reason to be anything but flat heading into its game against the Blue Raiders, who were looking for revenge after being drilled by the Mean Green 59-7 to end last season.
UNT posted its best game of the season offensively against the Ragin’ Cajuns, one that running back Antoinne Jimmerson put an exclamation point on with a 78-yard catch-and-run for a game-winning touchdown. A second straight win would have given UNT four wins, a 3-1 record in Sun Belt play and a lot to play for the rest of the season.
The Mean Green instead was left to sort through the fallout of a loss to MTSU (5-3, 3-1) when nothing seemed to go right.
McCarney suspended leading wide receiver Ivan Delgado for the game for a violation of team rules. To make matters worse, UNT lost Brelan Chancellor, its second-leading receiver — and arguably its most explosive player — to a broken collarbone on the opening kickoff.
“We couldn’t get anything going the first half,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “It kind of took the wind out of us when Brelan went down, but we know that we have to execute better. We moved it better in the second half, but it was too little too late.”
UNT needed what would have been an offensive explosion for a team that came into the night averaging just 21.0 points an outing to get back into the game after MTSU blitzed UNT early behind Logan Kilgore. The junior threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns and added a 45-yard touchdown run.
MTSU took a 7-0 lead on an 18-yard strike from Kilgore to Anthony Amos, which was an indication of what was to come the rest of the first half. Kilgore later found Kyle Griswould on a short slant that turned into a 72-yard touchdown strike.
The two then connected on a 49-yard touchdown that gave MTSU a 24-0 halftime lead.
Any hopes UNT had of rallying in the second half were extinguished when Jordan Parker scored on a 4-yard run to put MTSU up 31-0.
“There were some things that were very uncharacteristic of our team today,” McCarney said. “I saw more mental busts from our team today than I have seen all season long. Those lead to big plays defensively.”
MTSU scored three touchdowns on plays that covered at least 45 yards and had four pass plays of at least 30 yards.
MTSU had just eight passes that covered 30 yards in its first seven games of the season.
“It’s great to see it all come together today,” Kilgore said. “[UNT] did a good job on our running game, but we used the play-action pass well and were able to execute.”
UNT didn’t have enough firepower without Delgado and Chancellor to respond.
Thompson threw for 221 yards and a touchdown to lead UNT, but he was intercepted three times and sacked twice. Brandin Byrd rushed for 87 yards and Jimmerson added 85.
Jimmerson gave UNT a spark in the second half, scoring on touchdown runs of 2 and 15 yards.
The plays Jimmerson made late just didn’t matter much on a day when UNT got down way too far in the early going.
“It was big game for us,” Thompson said. “Both teams were in the hunt for becoming bowl-eligible. We came out flat. That doomed us.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.