Brett Vito: UNT makes statement on goal line

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University of North Texas senior defensive back Marcus Trice (8) causes a fumble by Rice senior running back Charles Ross (12), Thursday, October 31, 2013, at Apogee Stadium in Denton.
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Kenny Buyers looked down the line of scrimmage near the end of North Texas’ win over Rice on Thursday night and saw the look of intensity etched on teammate Will Wright’s face.

UNT had its backs to the goal line while protecting a late lead against the Owls.

Buyers thought right then and there that he didn’t want to be the one who cracked when the Mean Green had a chance to close out a milestone win in UNT history.

He didn’t.

Neither did anyone else who lined up for UNT during what will go down as one of the most memorable series in recent program history.

Rice had eight cracks at UNT from inside the 6-yard line — all but one of them from inside the 3 — and never made it into the end zone.

“It was so fun,” said Buyers, a sophomore cornerback. “We were playing on fire down there. We were smacking people.”

UNT was all but assured of knocking off Rice by the time it made that stand, but that series of eight plays was about something more. It was about establishing the culture of a program. It was about recovering from a dark point in UNT athletics history. It was about convincing people that UNT can make head coach Dan McCarney’s vision of the Mean Green being a yearly bowl team, one that is relevant and respected across the state, a reality.

That epic goal line stand was a big step in the process.

“It punctuated the win,” McCarney said. “It’s who we are, what we stand for and what we built. Count on one another and be a giver and not a taker. That wasn’t an accident out there. It’s preparation, it’s belief, it’s confidence, it’s trust and respect. And then we get to go prove it on a national stage.”

UNT has been in the midst of that process for the last few months.

Beating Ball State, which is 8-1 and just outside the Top 25, earlier in the season was a key step. So was winning consecutive games for the first time since 2004 two weeks ago when UNT beat Louisiana Tech a week after toppling Middle Tennessee.

Sometimes it takes a signature moment to bring home the reality of what a team is accomplishing to a wider audience.

UNT’s moment might have come on that defensive stand.

A national television audience was looking on, as was one of the bigger crowds of students in recent memory.

Senior linebacker Zach Orr was around for the tough times in recent program history and could sense just how big the win was, not only because of what the victory meant for UNT’s prospects this season but also because of how the Mean Green finished it off.

“It’s the best feeling I’ve had since I’ve been at this university,” Orr said. “We have worked so hard. The last couple of seasons we have caught some unfortunate breaks. This team has worked so hard this winter, spring and in two-a-days. We knew it was bound to happen because we all believe that hard work pays off.”

The focus for UNT’s players and coaches all along has been for that payoff to come in the form of a bowl game, and for good reason. None of the players on UNT’s roster who began their careers at the school has been to a bowl game and experienced all that goes with it, from the parties to the recognition.

There is more to what UNT is trying to accomplish, though. It’s about boosting the reputation of the program in the eyes of recruits, students and fans.

No one knows that better than McCarney, who has spent a whole lot of time and effort promoting UNT’s program at every possible opportunity.

“We got to bowl eligibility,” McCarney said. “Now let’s take it from here. Let’s keep our focus, let’s keep our pride, let’s keep our hunger, let’s keep the edge and stay coachable. There is so much out there to play for. I want people around the country to recognize that we have a great group of young men here who are full of character. That was a great example of character tonight with this football team.”

The best example came when UNT’s defense banded together and made its goal line stand at the end of the game with a lot of people watching, both in the stadium and on TV.

Rice ran eight plays and lost 15 yards inside UNT’s 6-yard line, thanks to a holding call in the end zone that kept the drive alive. A host of UNT players made key plays on that drive, when Buyers could sense no one was going to crack. Orr and Marcus Trice both made tackles on plays Rice ran from the goal line. Wright, James Jones and Brandon McCoy also made key stops as the fans rose to their feet.

“It punctuated the win,” McCarney said. “It’s who we are, what we stand for and what we built. Count on one another and be a giver and not a taker. That wasn’t an accident out there. It’s preparation, it’s belief, it’s confidence, it’s trust and respect. And then we get to go prove it on a national stage.”

There is no understating just how big capitalizing on that opportunity in such dramatic fashion was for UNT.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.


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