North Texas struggled through eight years of mishaps, losses and lost seasons when nothing seemed to go its way.
Following a 41-7 win over UTEP at Apogee Stadium on Saturday, that clearly isn’t a problem for the Mean Green any longer.
UNT continued its late-season surge with a dominating performance that extended its winning streak to five games in front of a homecoming crowd of 26,119, the second-largest in Apogee’s history.
That was only part of the good news for UNT, which suddenly finds itself all alone atop the Conference USA West Division.
The Mean Green (7-3, 5-1 C-USA) entered the day tied with Rice and Tulane atop the division at 4-1. Rice had a bye, and Texas-San Antonio knocked off the Green Wave.
UNT started the season with a goal of winning six games and becoming bowl-eligible but has much more within reach after beating the Miners (1-8, 0-5).
“Hitting six was our goal. Then it was seven. Now it will be eight,” UNT running back Brandin Byrd said. “If we continue to do what we need to do, who knows what can happen.”
UNT will have some time to ponder that question during a week off following what head coach Dan McCarney and his players described as a complete performance. The Mean Green posted eight sacks, blocked two kicks and rolled up 471 yards of offense.
Byrd rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns to lead UNT, while defensive end Aaron Bellazin posted 2 1/2 sacks.
McCarney credited UNT’s run largely to his seniors, a group that includes Byrd and Bellazin.
“These players have risen to the challenge,” McCarney said. “They want to be remembered and be a part of something special.”
UNT has closed on that goal during its winning streak. The Mean Green has scored at least 28 points in each game during the run while holding all five opponents to 16 points or fewer.
UNT’s defense came up with arguably its best performance during the winning streak against UTEP. The Mean Green was in the face of freshman quarterback Mack Leftwich all day and limited him to 128 passing yards in his first start.
The Miners entered the night averaging 200.5 rushing yards per game, but they managed just 56 against UNT.
“Our defensive line wants to get after the quarterback every week,” Bellazin said. “Every week we want sacks and tackles for loss. We look to get to the quarterback.”
UNT did just that after its special teams helped set the tone early as the Mean Green jumped out to a 21-0 lead at halftime.
UTEP drove to the Mean Green’s 29-yard line on its opening possession before defensive lineman Austin Orr blocked Jay Mattox’s 46-yard field-goal attempt. Safety Marcus Trice picked the ball up and returned it 30 yards, setting up a quick five-play scoring drive Byrd capped with a 2-yard touchdown run.
The Mean Green blocked a second kick when Rex Rollins got free and deflected a Mike Ruggles punt that skipped into the end zone, where UNT’s Darvin Kidsy recovered it for a touchdown.
UNT extended its lead to 21-0 a short time later when Antoinne Jimmerson capped a six-play, 70-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run.
“It was good to see,” McCarney said of the blocked kicks. “It’s effort, it’s relentlessness, it’s confidence, it’s making a play, it’s believing you can go block a kick and then do it. Our special teams did a great job today.”
UNT essentially coasted in the second half to extend a winning streak that ranks as its longest since a seven-game run in 2004, the last time the Mean Green played in a bowl game.
More and more, it looks like UNT is headed back to the postseason, which is all that matters to the Mean Green’s players.
“It doesn’t matter where we go,” Byrd said. “No one on the team has ever sniffed a bowl other than the coaches and some of the guys who transferred in. We just want to go.”