Football: The sun sets

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  /AP/Daily News, Joe Imel
North Texas defensive back Lairamie Lee, bottom, tackles Western Kentucky tight end Jack Doyle on Saturday in Bowling Green, Ky. UNT ended its season and its stay in the Sun Belt Conference with a 25-24 loss to the Hilltoppers.

UNT blows late lead, loses conference finale

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — K.C. Obi wanted to make the end of an era in North Texas football and in his life something to remember.

The senior defensive end played his final college game Saturday at Western Kentucky, where the Mean Green wrapped up its 12-year tenure as a member of the Sun Belt Conference.

Lately those seasons have been filled with tough losses.

A stunning 25-24 loss at the hands of the Hilltoppers at L.T. Smith Stadium turned out to be the last — and arguably one of the worst — of those blows.

The Mean Green led by 14 points in the fourth quarter before letting its final game as a member of the Sun Belt slip away.

Antonio Andrews capped a 15-point surge by WKU in the final quarter with a 21-yard touchdown run with 3:30 left to give the Hilltoppers the win.

“This one hurts,” Obi said. “It was important to us to leave a mark on the Sun Belt and finish strong. We didn’t do it.”

UNT (4-8, 3-5 Sun Belt) had ample opportunity to head off to Conference USA on a high note after Darnell Smith caught a 12-yard TD pass from Derek Thompson to give the Mean Green a 24-10 lead with 24 seconds left in the third quarter.

The game quickly got away from UNT a short time later.

WKU safety Jonathan Dowling made the play of the game when he intercepted a pass from Thompson and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown that swung the momentum in the Hilltoppers’ favor.

“This one is hard to swallow right now,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “It was poor execution. The last thing I said to the offensive staff was to take care of the ball. Our defense was playing their tails off. Just take care of the ball. We didn’t do that, and that is very, very disappointing.”

UNT held WKU (7-5, 4-4) in check for most of the day but cracked after Dowling’s interception.

The Hilltoppers scored on their next two possessions. Garrett Schwettman kicked a 27-yard field goal to pull WKU within 24-19 before Andrews score the game winner.

“We fought hard on defense and tried to limit the run,” UNT defensive tackle Tevinn Cantly said. “They just made some big plays. Those were the killers.”

Andrews made several of those plays for WKU. The junior finished with 230 rushing yards and put the Hilltoppers in position to score the game-winning touchdown with a 53-yard run.

Brandin Byrd finished with 102 rushing yards and Thompson threw for 146 for UNT, which took a 17-10 lead into halftime after scoring 17 straight points beginning in the first quarter.

Byrd started the run with the key play of the first half for the Mean Green. UNT faced a third-and-1 situation at its 39-yard line and went to Byrd, who broke through the left side of the line and had no one between him and the end zone the rest of the way on a 61-yard run.

“They had everyone in the box and they all crashed down,” Byrd said. “It was supposed to go inside, but I trusted my instincts and my offensive line blocked it well. I was able to get outside.”

Jeremy Brown posted UNT’s second long scoring run of the half when he scampered in from 20 yards out, and Zach Olen added a 22-yard field goal to give UNT a 17-7 lead.

WKU answered just before halftime with a 39-yard Schwettman field goal that just snuck over the crossbar.

UNT struggled offensively in the second half but still managed to extend its lead on Smith’s touchdown.

The Mean Green couldn’t get anything else going the rest of the way and was outscored 15-0 the fourth quarter. WKU went for two points after each of its touchdowns and failed to convert both times.

When Kawaun Jakes failed to connect on a two-point conversion pass following Andrews’ touchdown run late in the fourth, UNT had a final glimmer of hope.

The Mean Green got the ball back at its 28-yard line with 3:21 left — plenty of time to drive for one final memorable score and comeback win during a Sun Belt tenure that was full of them.

UNT won four straight conference titles from 2001-04 in its first four years in the league and ran off a 26-game winning streak in Sun Belt games. The Mean Green displayed some magic at times during that run, winning games with late scoring drives and defensive stands.

UNT’s last chance in the league came to an end in less than dramatic fashion when Brown was cut down for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-3 from its own 35, the capper to its eighth straight losing season.

“I am extremely disappointed,” McCarney said. “We would have liked to have gone out in our last appearance in the Sun Belt as winners. These kids came here to win a game and came up short.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is bvito@dentonrc.com.

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