RUSTON, La. — The streak is over.
North Texas leaned on a rapidly improving defense and rallied from an early 10-point deficit for a 28-13 win over Louisiana Tech on Saturday at Joe Aillet Stadium.
The win came on the heels of a home victory over Middle Tennessee last week, giving the Mean Green back-to-back wins.
For UNT, it was a huge milestone.
UNT was 0-26 in games following a victory and had gone 102 games since the 2004 New Orleans Bowl without winning back-to-back games. The win also snapped a seven-game road losing streak.
“[We] finally got one on the road and stopped the stupid talk about how we can’t win two in a row,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “We are going to enjoy this one.”
That is just what UNT’s players and coaches did, rushing to a corner of the field to celebrate with a few hundred fans tucked into a small section of the stands. From there it was on to a locker room that McCarney and his players described as a wild scene.
“It’s a gorilla off our back,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “Everyone said we couldn’t win on the road. Everyone schedules us for homecoming. We finally spoiled one. It feels good.”
The Mean Green (4-3, 2-1 Conference USA) not only had a lot to feel good about, but a lot to look forward to after beating Tech in its homecoming game. UNT’s first winning streak in eight years put the Mean Green squarely in the race for its first bowl berth since the last of four straight New Orleans Bowl appearances in 2004 with five games left in the regular season.
Three of those games will be at home, where UNT is 10-4 in three seasons under McCarney.
The Mean Green will have that opportunity to make a run at a winning season largely because of a defense that continued to dominate.
UNT forced three turnovers and shut down Tech (2-5, 1-2) behind standout performances from linebacker Zach Orr and cornerback Zac Whitfield.
Orr entered the game with 298 career tackles and cruised past the 300 mark with a game-high 17 stops against Tech. Whitfield, who was pulled from UNT’s starting lineup after struggling in the first two games of the season, intercepted two passes, including one he returned 56 yards for a touchdown.
“We knew that our offense was going to put up points,” Orr said. “We just had to stick to our game plan.”
UNT’s defense was riding a wave of momentum after limiting Middle Tennessee and Tulane to one offensive touchdown apiece in the Mean Green’s last two games.
That confidence became vitally important after Louisiana Tech jumped out to its early lead.
Star defensive end IK Enemkpali intercepted a pass from Thompson on UNT’s first possession. The Bulldogs cashed in a short time later when Ryan Higgins scored on a 2-yard run, and Kyle Fisher added a 40-yard field goal.
UNT dominated from that point on and made two key plays before halftime that turned the tide.
Thompson scrambled toward the line of scrimmage just five plays after Tech had gone up 10-0 and found Brelan Chancellor alone behind the Bulldog secondary for a 61-yard touchdown strike.
Thompson led UNT with 221 passing yards, while Brandin Byrd added 71 rushing yards.
Higgins threw for 343 yards for Tech but was picked off twice by Whitfield.
The sophomore gave UNT the lead for good when he cut in front of a pass Higgins lofted down the sideline for his first interception and returned it 56 yards for a touchdown. His second interception helped ice the game late in the fourth quarter.
“I read the quarterback and made a play,” Whitfield said of his first interception. “That really gave us momentum.”
Tech never recovered.
Thompson scored on a 3-yard run in the third quarter and Byrd essentially put the game away when he scored on a 1-yard run with 40 seconds left in the period.
“We started to get a little momentum after the touchdown,” Thompson said of his strike to Chancellor. “Then Zac got that interception. It was huge. They never recovered.”
UNT was on a roll at that point and quickly ended a host of dubious streaks, including its run of games without consecutive wins that haunted the team for years.
“This is the first time anyone on this team has won two games in a row at North Texas,” Orr said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.