MONROE, La. — Kolton Browning wasn’t supposed to be back in Louisiana-Monroe’s lineup until the Warhawks played in a bowl game — if they got there.
ULM’s quarterback returned a little earlier, and just in time to officially spoil what North Texas hoped would be a late run at a break-even season.
Browning made his first appearance since injuring his foot early in a loss to Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 3 and looked like his old self in a 42-16 thrashing of UNT on Saturday at Malone Stadium.
Browning torched UNT for 324 yards and three touchdowns, adding another chapter to his dream season that began with a dramatic overtime touchdown run to give ULM a win over Arkansas.
“We were kind of surprised that he came back, but he’s a heck of a football player,” UNT defensive end Brandon McCoy said. “You could see that he was hurting out there, but he kept fighting.”
UNT head coach Dan McCarney vowed that the Mean Green would do the same despite seeing its opportunity to become bowl-eligible officially slip away.
UNT (4-7, 3-4 Sun Belt) can’t reach the six-win mark now and is headed for its eighth straight losing season.
“It’s obviously disappointing,” McCarney said. “There are a lot of things that we are trying to do to get better, but it’s not about the future now. It’s about this team.”
One characteristic of UNT throughout the year has been a struggle to score offensively.
That didn’t change against ULM, which had given up at least 40 points in three of its last four games.
Quarterback Derek Thompson threw for 322 yards, and freshman wide receiver Carlos Harris posted eight catches for 118 yards, totals that were both career highs.
UNT just didn’t turn those yards into points often enough. The Mean Green settled for a field goal after picking up a first down at the ULM 2-yard line and later failed to convert on fourth down at the Warhawks’ 1-yard line when Brandin Byrd was cut down short of the goal line.
“We are not going to win many games scoring 16 points,” Thompson said. “We have gotten into the red zone and struggled all year. We knew coming in we were going to have to score touchdowns to win.”
ULM cashed on its scoring chances and jumped out to 14-3 halftime lead.
The Warhawks led 7-0 when UNT failed to capitalize on a key opportunity to tie the game after Thompson scrambled to the ULM 2-yard line and picked up a first down.
Jeremy Brown was dropped for a 4-yard loss on first-and-goal before Byrd was cut down back at the 12 for a 6-yard loss. UNT settled for a 29-yard Zach Olen field goal.
“We didn’t get it done like we wanted to,” Brown said. “You can see that by the score.”
UNT paid the price when the Warhawks extended their lead to 14-3 on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Browning to Brent Leonard.
UNT had a chance to answer just before half, but Rob’Donovan Lewis intercepted a Thompson pass in the end zone. The interception was one of two in the first half for Thompson, who was picked off by Isaiah Newsome after UNT’s defense came up with a stop on fourth-and-1 at the Mean Green’s 45-yard line.
ULM pushed its lead to 21-3 after a key UNT penalty. The Warhawks settled for a 29-yard Justin Manton field goal, but picked up a first down when safety Marcus Trice was flagged for roughing the kicker.
The Warhawks cashed in with a Mitchell Bailey 7-yard run on a day they got back on track with Browning in the lineup.
ULM came into the game leading the Sun Belt in scoring at 36.1 points a game and didn’t look like the team that had averaged just 23.5 points in its last two games.
UNT was the team that appeared to be headed in the right direction after posting a 24-14 win over South Alabama last week but couldn’t make the key plays to build on that performance.
McCarney was particularly upset with UNT’s performance in the red zone.
UNT’s last chance to rally ended when Byrd came up short from the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter with ULM up 28-10.
“I was very disappointed,” McCarney said. “We have a very good Sun Belt offensive line. You have to find a way down there. The offensive line, the backs, someone has to find a way to put that thing in the end zone.”
Browning did just that, early and often. The junior threw his third touchdown pass four plays after Byrd came up short, a 61-yard strike to Je’Ron Hamm that put ULM up 35-10.
The Warhawks were well on their way to their first winning season in 19 years on the Football Bowl Subdivision level after that, largely because of another big day from Browning.
“Well, I knew he was going to play well,” ULM head coach Todd Berry said. “He was very focused on doing the things he could do, and he did a nice job of playing within himself. Is there some pain? Sure, but winning helps that.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com.