DALLAS — Dan McCarney stood on a makeshift stage at the center of the Cotton Bowl, his green shirt soaked with the water dumped on him by his players, and a smile spread across his face as he addressed a sea of North Texas fans.
“These 22 seniors will be remembered forever,” McCarney said. “Bowl champions, bowl champions, bowl champions.”
The Mean Green joined that select company on New Year’s Day with a 36-14 win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
UNT (9-4) broke open a close game in the second half, scoring three consecutive touchdowns while overwhelming UNLV (7-6) and grabbing its place in program history.
The Mean Green had won just two of its seven previous bowl games — the 1946 Optimist Bowl and the 2002 New Orleans Bowl.
UNT began the season picked to finish fifth in Conference USA’s West Division before embarking on a dream season. The Mean Green won seven of its last eight games in its first season in C-USA, which also was the 100th year in program history.
Support built for the program along the way and culminated in a bowl game played in front of a highly partial crowd of 38,380.
“It’s such a special experience to be able to come down here and play close to home in front of our fans,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “It was so exciting running on the field and seeing a sea of green.”
Thompson brought those fans to their feet, throwing for 256 yards and two touchdowns while completing 21 of his 30 pass attempts. The former Glen Rose standout was named the MVP of the game, edging teammate Brelan Chancellor by one vote.
Chancellor finished with 181 all-purpose yards and combined with Thompson to help spark a second-half outburst that saw UNT take control of a game that was tied at 7 at halftime.
The Mean Green took a 14-7 lead when tight end Drew Miller hauled in a 7-yard pass from Thompson to cap a 12-play, 60-yard drive.
UNT got the ball right back after UNLV went three-and-out and capitalized with a 12-play, 74-yard drive that Chancellor capped with a 3-yard touchdown run. Thompson then hit Darnell Smith for a 34-yard touchdown to cap a 10-play drive.
UNT chewed 15:26 off the clock on those three drives and wore UNLV’s defense out.
“We had a couple of drives where we were on the field a whole bunch,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. “We probably had too many plays in the second half.”
UNT’s defense finished off UNLV, holding the Rebels scoreless on eight straight possessions.
UNLV scored on its opening drive when Marcus Sullivan caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Caleb Herring, who led the Rebels with 196 passing yards.
“I was telling our guys to settle in,” UNT linebacker Zach Orr said. “We were kind of playing on our heels.”
UNLV didn’t score again until Jerry Rice Jr. caught a 13-yard pass from Herring with 4:56 left in the game.
Once UNT found its rhythm defensively, it was quickly on its way to a milestone win to cap a breakthrough season that saw the Mean Green snap a run of eight straight losing campaigns.
“To get to the top of the mountain and be a bowl champion, like these guys are, I can’t put into words how happy I am for them,” McCarney said. “We’ll cherish this season forever.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.