North Texas thought and talked a lot about all the possibilities that were within its grasp as it prepared for its home finale against Texas-San Antonio on Saturday.
A bowl appearance essentially was already in hand before the Mean Green took on the Roadrunners, thanks to a five-game winning streak that lifted UNT to the realm of bowl-eligible teams for the first time since 2004.
For a team that had spent the last three weeks focusing on what could come next, the possibilities seemed particularly intriguing — from a perfect 6-0 home season to a Conference USA West Division title and a fitting end for a group of seniors who helped make it all possible.
In the end, seeing some of those possibilities slip away at Apogee Stadium was the hardest aspect of a 21-13 loss to the Roadrunners for the Mean Green.
UNT’s chance to win the West was gone, and so was the last opportunity to win at Apogee for a group of veterans who helped make the Mean Green nearly unbeatable at home.
“It’s heartbreaking because of all the work the seniors put in,” junior offensive lineman Mason Y’Barbo said. “They earned the right to have those things. You hate it for them. You wish you could rewind time because they deserve so much more.”
UNT’s loss, combined with Tulane’s win over UTEP, eliminated the Mean Green (7-4, 5-2 C-USA) from contention for the West Division championship.
UNT had a chance to tie its game against UTSA (6-5, 5-2) and keep its title hopes alive after Roadrunner kicker Sean Ianno missed a 46-yard field goal with 1:12 left. The Mean Green had struggled offensively all night but drove straight down the field, going 68 yards in eight plays to reach the UTSA 3, where safety Triston Wade cut down wide receiver Darnell Smith just short of the end zone.
UNT even got a break along the way after officials ruled that there was one precious second left after the clock initially had run out when Smith came up short of the goal line.
UNT quarterback Derek Thompson went back to Smith again, this time in the front corner of the end zone, but cornerback Bennett Okotcha cut in front of the pass and intercepted it on the final play, setting off a huge UTSA celebration.
The loss dropped UNT to 12-5 at Apogee.
“That last play just didn’t happen for us,” Thompson said. “I should have put the ball more outside. Our receivers did a nice job of giving me a chance.”
Thompson threw for 229 yards to lead UNT, which just wasn’t the same offensively after a series of solid performances that helped the Mean Green score at least 21 points in its first 10 games for the first time in school history.
“We just didn’t play Mean Green football and lost to a soft, unphysical, below-average football team,” Y’Barbo said. “I have no doubt in my mind that we are the better team, but we weren’t today. It’s embarrassing what we did out there.”
UNT’s defense had been one of the Mean Green’s strengths all season and played well at times against UTSA, but saw its streak of five straight games allowing 16 or fewer points come to a close.
Eric Soza threw for 274 yards and Evans Okotcha rushed for 104 for UTSA, which converted 14 of 20 third downs. The Roadrunners came up with four of those conversions on a 12-play, 75-yard drive that Soza capped with a 10-yard touchdown run on third-and-7 that put UTSA up 21-6.
“Those conversations were back-breaking,” UNT linebacker Zach Orr said. “We needed to get off the field and give our offense time to work. When a team converts four third downs on a drive, that’s never good.”
UTSA set the tone early, going 70 yards in seven plays on its opening possession, which Cam Jones capped with a 40-yard touchdown run.
UNT played from behind the rest of the way and managed just two Zach Paul field goals before mounting a late charge.
“There was no consistency offensively,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “We made some plays, but it seemed like we were behind the sticks and were in a lot of second-and-longs. Their defensive front did a better job of getting off blocks than we did of sustaining them.”
UNT finally got something going late and scored its only touchdown when Thompson threw a 6-yard pass to tight end Drew Miller with 5:38 left to pull UNT to within 21-13.
UNT had one last shot after Ianno’s miss, but it saw the opportunity and a chance at winning the C-USA title in its first season in the league slip away.
“We are very disappointed,” McCarney said. “We didn’t play consistently enough or make enough plays and do some of the things that we had been doing in recent weeks. San Antonio had a lot to do with that.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.