NEW ORLEANS — The table seemed set for North Texas to make a triumphant return to the site of some of the great moments in recent program history Saturday when Darnell Smith broke free down the sideline.
UNT had been down 14 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where it played in four straight New Orleans Bowls beginning in 2001, and came all the way back to tie the game late in the fourth quarter after Smith scored on a 62-yard strike from Derek Thompson.
That play appeared as if it could be a part of a milestone win, but ended up as merely a footnote in the story of the perseverance of Tulane kicker Cairo Santos, who nailed a 27-yard field goal at the gun to give the Green Wave a 24-21 win.
Tulane responded to Smith’s touchdown catch with a methodical 11-play, 66-yard drive in the final 3:45 to set up the game winner for Santos, whose father died in a plane crash two weeks ago.
“It’s frustrating and upsetting,” Thompson said. “We worked so hard and had two weeks to prepare for this team.”
UNT’s players felt like they were preparing for more than just a game. The Mean Green’s showdown with Tulane (4-2, 2-0 Conference USA) presented an opportunity for a statement win. The game was UNT’s first in league play as a member of C-USA and came after a momentum-building showing in nonconference play.
The Mean Green (2-3, 0-1) went 2-1 to start the year for the first time since 1994 and felt good about its performance in a loss to Georgia two weeks ago. A win would have given UNT a 3-2 record for the first time since 1994 and snapped a six-game road losing streak.
Instead, Tulane ended up improving to 2-0 in conference play for the first time since 1998 after Santos’ clutch kick.
“I don’t know how this kid can make any field goals with what he’s going through right now,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “I told him at halftime that he was going to win this game for us, so get up, and he did.”
Santos’ kick was one of several big plays Tulane made late in the fourth quarter, when UNT couldn’t come up with the key plays it needed after scoring a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to tie the game at 21.
Tulane quarterback Nick Montana went 4-for-4 for 23 yards and also picked up 13 yards on a quarterback scramble on the Green Wave’s final drive. All four of his completions went to Ryan Grant and helped set up Santos’ game-winning field goal, which went straight down the middle.
“We didn’t do what we needed to do at the end of the game to get our offense back on the field,” UNT linebacker Derek Akunne said. “We thought we had the game going our way and would be able to make a stop.”
UNT had made plenty of stops throughout the day while limiting Tulane’s offense to one touchdown. The Mean Green just gave up too many big plays in other situations, two of which turned the game in Tulane’s favor.
UNT lined up to attempt a 38-yard field goal in the third quarter, only to see safety Darion Monroe come free through the middle of the line and block the attempt from Zach Paul. Cornerback Derrick Strozier scooped the ball up and went 62 yards for a touchdown.
Four plays later, Tulane cornerback Lorenzo Doss intercepted a pass that was tipped at the line by defensive tackle Chris Davenport and returned it 59 yards for another touchdown.
Thompson threw for 326 yards and two touchdowns and outplayed Montana, who tallied just 132 yards. Smith finished with 130 receiving yards, while Brelan Chancellor added 103 for UNT.
The Mean Green finished with a 360-227 edge in total yards but couldn’t overcome the big plays Tulane made.
“There were a lot of big plays today,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “They made more than we did.”
UNT’s opportunity to make its latest trip to New Orleans as memorable as those of a few years ago slipped away as a result.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.