ATHENS, Ga. — Zac Whitfield ran out out the Georgia end zone and thrust the ball in the air as his teammates celebrated on the North Texas sideline at Sanford Stadium.
UNT wasn’t expected to even be competitive with ninth-ranked Georgia on Saturday.
And yet UNT was right there, tied with the Bulldogs in the second half after Whitfield recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown.
“We had all the momentum,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “The air went out of the stadium.”
That momentum and the opportunity for a milestone win slowly slipped from UNT’s grasp the rest of the way as Georgia pulled away for 45-21 win.
The Bulldogs (2-1) broke open a game that was tied at 21 with 24 unanswered points and left the Mean Green lamenting missing out on an opportunity to post what arguably would have been the biggest win in school history.
UNT has upset a ranked team just once, back in 1974 when the Mean Green beat No. 20 San Diego State. UNT fell to 1-44 against ranked opponents after losing to the Bulldogs, who paid the Mean Green a $975,000 appearance fee.
UNT (2-2) already was off to its best start since returning to the Football Bowl Subdivision level in 1995 and could have gone to 3-1 for the first time since 1989.
“It’s hard to swallow,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “We put a lot into it. I never sensed one moment of David vs. Goliath today with this matchup. It was North Texas vs. Georgia.”
The matchup looked particularly even after UNT made two huge special teams plays to turn momentum in its favor.
UNT trailed 21-7 in the second quarter after Georgia tight end Aaron Lynch caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Murray.
The complexion of the game changed on the ensuing kickoff, which Brelan Chancellor fielded at his goal line and raced 99 yards for a touchdown.
“We wanted a big play and got one,” Chancellor said. “We had a different kind of attitude after that.”
That attitude carried over to the second half when UNT safety Marcus Trice got free and blocked the Collin Barber punt that Whitfield recovered in the end zone.
UNT’s players thought they had a shot to win at that point. So did Georgia coach Mark Richt.
“I wasn’t kidding when I tried to explain to everyone that this is a good football team,” Richt said. “The only thing I saw different was an inch or two in height.”
In the end, that physical discrepancy may have made a difference for Georgia, which wore down UNT in the second half.
The Bulldogs regained the lead on an eight-play, 53-yard drive that Murray capped with a 1-yard touchdown run.
UNT tried to respond, but Georgia safety Tray Matthews intercepted a Thompson pass after the Mean Green reached the Bulldogs’ 27-yard line. UNT was trying to get wide receiver Darnell Smith in a man-to-man matchup on a fade route with Matthews.
“We missed a signal on that play,” McCarney said. “Derek put the ball exactly where it was supposed to be.”
Thompson finished with 202 passing yards for UNT, while Murray threw for 408 and became just the second player in Southeastern Conference history with 100 touchdown passes while directing Georgia’s second-half onslaught.
Murray’s 4-yard strike to wide receiver Chris Conley following the interception was the 102nd of his career. The touchdown put Georgia up 35-21 and essentially finished off UNT, which saw its offense fail to score in the second half.
“We did some good things on offense, but when you’re not putting points on the board, it’s hard to justify that,” Thompson said.
UNT’s defense stood tall for a while and held Georgia without points on five possessions spanning halftime, but eventually cracked.
The Bulldogs scored on four of their last six possessions.
“We needed to get them off the field and get the ball back to our offense,” UNT linebacker Derek Akunne said. “We didn’t do what we needed to late in the game.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.