Derek Thompson and Zach Orr trudged in to a meeting room and plopped down behind a microphone for the final time at Apogee Stadium on Saturday with looks of disappointment etched on their faces.
This was supposed to be their last hurrah, a time when Thompson, Orr and the rest of North Texas’ seniors could talk about one more good time in careers that are ending in a way they always hoped.
UNT is all but assured of heading to a bowl for the first time since 2004, despite a 21-13 loss to Texas-San Antonio, largely because of those seniors.
Those players clung to the reality that there is still something out there for them in the postseason after falling short of their goal of going 6-0 at home for only the second time in school history and seeing their shot of winning the Conference USA West Division title go up in smoke.
“We wanted to be a part of history and finish 6-0 at home and came up short,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “My respect for the seniors does not change. They have done some things amazingly well and helped turn this program around. They leave a great legacy.”
UNT’s seniors arrived during arguably the darkest era in the history of the program, when two- and three-win seasons were the norm and the Mean Green was the laughing stock of Texas college football.
Those times are over now.
UNT is 7-4 on the year and is in the midst of its best season since 2004, when the Mean Green played in the New Orleans Bowl. An eight-year bowl drought that ranks among the nation’s longest is coming to an end at some point after this Saturday’s season finale at Tulsa.
There is little doubt that UNT’s seniors played a huge role in making that happen.
Orr has 348 career tackles and is one of the best linebackers UNT has had in the last 20 years, while Brelan Chancellor is among the best utility players the Mean Green has ever deployed, thanks to his abilities as a receiver and return man that have allowed him to roll up 5,212 total yards.
Thompson has taken his lumps along the way, but stabilized the quarterback position and will go down statistically as one of the most productive players in UNT history. He pushed his career passing total to 7,018 yards in UNT’s loss to UTSA.
Considering the parade of players UNT has run out there at quarterback over the last few years — from the ridiculously over-hyped high school stars to a few productive contributors — what Thompson has accomplished in three years as a starter is notable.
In the end, that was why falling to the Roadrunners was so hard for UNT’s players.
It didn’t matter to them that UTSA is just starting to compete in the Football Bowl Subdivision level or that the Roadrunners are a team UNT will compete against for recruits.
UNT wanted to send arguably its most significant senior class in nearly a decade out on a high note and make history in the process.
“It was a tough day for us,” Orr said. “We wanted to finish 6-0 and be a part of history, but we just got beaten. We didn’t play well today. It’s very disappointing.”
That might have been the most baffling part of it all for UNT.
The Mean Green had played some of its most inspired football during a five-game winning streak. UNT made a now-legendary, eight-play goal-line stand in a win over Rice, didn’t allow more than 16 points in five straight games and stretched its run of scoring at least 21 points to a school record 10 straight games to start the season.
UNT didn’t look like the same team in its loss to UTSA. The Mean Green managed just three points on a Zach Paul field goal in the first three quarters and struggled to contain UTSA quarterback Eric Soza.
McCarney said he was so impressed with the UTSA senior that he hunted him down after the game to compliment him on a great performance that included 310 total yards. Soza threw for 274 yards, and perhaps more importantly, rushed for 36 yards and two touchdowns on runs of 2 and 10 yards.
UNT came into the day ranked third in the nation in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score on just 58.6 percent of its trips inside the 20-yard line.
UTSA went a perfect 2-for-2, thanks to Soza.
The Mean Green didn’t play at the same level it did during its five-game winning streak. That was the bottom line.
“These seniors deserved to go out on top,” UNT junior offensive lineman Mason Y’Barbo said. “We let them down.”
Those key players didn’t end their home careers the way they wanted to on a day nothing seemed to go right for UNT, but that loss to UTSA doesn’t diminish what they accomplished this season.
They are a big reason — maybe the key reason — UNT still has a future in the bowl season.
There is just no underestimating how big an accomplishment that is.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.