Football: Bowl day arrives

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David Minton/DRC
North Texas coach Dan McCarney encourages his players during a game against UTEP on Nov. 9 at Apogee Stadium. Today, UNT will take on UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Mean Green returns to postseason vs. UNLV

No matter what happens in the Heart of Dallas Bowl today, North Texas will have enjoyed a season like few others in program history.

That’s a concern for UNT coach Dan McCarney.

Over the course of his career, McCarney has seen team after team break through for landmark performances through the end of the regular season before flaming out in dramatic fashion in bowl games.

UNT is doing everything it can to avoid that fate and take advantage of an opportunity to become an even more memorable team in school history. The Mean Green will play in its eighth bowl game in the program’s 100-year anniversary season today when it takes on UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl at 11 a.m. at the Cotton Bowl.

“There are plenty of examples of teams that didn’t look the same after the layoff in bowl games,” McCarney said. “I don’t want to be one of those teams. We finished strong and so did UNLV. We had a great win in the last game of the regular-season game and want to pick up where we left off.”

UNT hammered Tulsa 42-10 in its regular-season finale and has won six of its last seven games.

That run vaulted UNT back into the postseason for the first time since the 2004 New Orleans Bowl, and it will face another team breaking a long bowl drought in UNLV, which hadn’t been to a bowl since 2000.

Reaching the postseason was particularly gratifying for UNT, which was riding a streak of eight straight losing seasons coming into the year.

There isn’t a player on UNT’s roster who started his career at the school who has been a part of a .500 season or better, let alone a bowl game.

UNT doesn’t want that terrific regular-season performance to be the highlight of its fairy tale campaign.

The Mean Green has won just two bowl games — the 1946 Optimist Bowl and the 2002 New Orleans Bowl. A win today would further cement the 2013 Mean Green as one of the landmark teams in UNT history.

“We have talked a lot about how few bowl wins there have been,” UNT senior tight end Daniel Prior said. “It’s been a great motivator, looking back on it. We are writing our own page in history. It’s exciting for us as players and coaches and for the school.”

UNT officials have been thrilled with the enthusiasm that has built around the program during the Mean Green’s run to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

UNT lost a heartbreaking game to Tulane on a last-second field goal, dropping the Mean Green to 2-3 in early October. UNT responded with a five-game winning streak — a run few outside the program saw coming.

The Mean Green was picked to finish fifth in Conference USA’s West Division and has soared past expectations. The enthusiasm surrounding the program has grown with it.

“The response has been really good,” McCarney said. “It feels and sounds different. Before I get done shaking someone’s hand, they said congratulations. It’s positive and good for North Texas.”

McCarney isn’t the only UNT official who has felt the impact of the Mean Green’s breakout season. UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal said he has been stopped on the street consistently over the last several weeks by people who want to congratulate him.

UNT’s focus now is finishing the season off as a bowl champion and building on the momentum it has built.

“This will be the third time a team from North Texas wins a bowl game since 1946,” UNT linebacker Will Wright said. “That would be a big accomplishment. We can go out with a bang.”

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

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