Derek Thompson came up holding his right hand after a push from a Ball State player sent him sailing over the North Texas bench and out of the game Saturday at Apogee Stadium.
Fortunately for the Mean Green, the senior quarterback was able to get up off the deck and help UNT do the same in a 34-27 come-from-behind win over the Cardinals.
The Mean Green had a grand opportunity in its second home game of the season to reach a host of milestones and take a big step toward the six-win mark that is its stated baseline goal for this season.
That opportunity appeared to be slipping away after UNT got off to a horrible start and trailed 27-9 in the second quarter.
There were several players who helped the Mean Green recover, from hard-hitting safety Marcus Trice to Zach Orr, the anchor of UNT’s defense.
Just don’t forget Thompson, who scored the game-winning touchdown to cap a run of 25 UNT points to close the game after his ill-fated flop over the bench.
The resolve Thompson and the Mean Green showed while recovering from some down times gave UNT a 2-1 start — its best since it resumed playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1995.
“This is a great win for our program,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “We showed great resolve, heart and courage. When you dig a hole like we did for ourselves, it’s hard. But we were able to make enough big plays.”
Thompson made several while throwing for 274 yards against the Cardinals (2-1). The former Glen Rose standout isn’t known for his speed but scored the winning touchdown on a 26-yard run.
Thompson made that play after safety Martez Hester shoved him out of bounds on the UNT sideline, sending him over the Mean Green’s bench.
“My thumb locked up on me and started cramping,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t sure what was wrong. I couldn’t move my thumb, which scared me a little.”
Thompson quickly recovered and returned to finish a solid performance, one UNT needed after falling behind.
The Mean Green gave up a touchdown on the opening possession of the game for the third straight week when Willie Snead caught a 2-yard pass from Keith Wenning, and UNT was down 20-3 after the first quarter.
UNT struggled early on to contain Ball State’s quarterback, who finished with 333 yards and two touchdowns.
“We said to each other and the coaches told us that we had to keep on fighting and clawing,” Orr said. “We made a lot of mistakes, but we kept clawing, got back into the game and got a victory.”
The Mean Green forced five turnovers and started to work its way back into the game when Brelan Chancellor caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Thompson late in the second quarter.
Reggie Pegram added a 32-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, when Zach Paul capped another drive with a field goal that tied the game at 27.
UNT’s defense also played a key role, holding Ball State scoreless in the second half. The Cardinals torched the Mean Green for 366 yards in the first half but managed just 130 the rest of the way.
“We made some adjustments,” McCarney said of UNT’s defense. “We were in position to make plays in the first half and didn’t. We did in the second half.”
Thompson took care of the rest, leading UNT on one last scoring drive, one he capped with his touchdown run a short time after being knocked out of the game.
“We knew he was a good quarterback, but he made some plays today with his feet that we didn’t necessarily see on film,” Ball State defensive back Jeffrey Garrett said. “We were in position on that TD run and just didn’t make the play.”
That play was one that even Thompson and his teammates wondered if he would have been able to make last year, before he dropped weight in an effort to become quicker and a little more dangerous in the run game.
Thompson picked up 19 yards on the play when he went over UNT’s bench, drawing the ire of McCarney, who said his defensive players inexplicably got out of the way instead of holding up their quarterback.
Thompson came back and continued to make the key plays for UNT, including scoring the game-winning touchdown on a scramble that surprised his head coach.
“I think that’s the fastest I’ve ever seen him run on that touchdown in games, practice or in my dreams,” McCarney said. “That was a great play on his part.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.