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Brett Vito: Victory sets up huge showdown with Rice

Ever since he arrived at North Texas a couple of years ago, head coach Dan McCarney has talked about putting the Mean Green in position to play games that matter at the end of the season — games that would secure bowl berths and put his team in conference title chases.

That time will finally arrive Thursday, when Rice visits Apogee Stadium for a rare midweek game and an even rarer national television broadcast.

Simply put, UNT’s game against the Owls is the biggest for the Mean Green since the 2004 New Orleans Bowl.

McCarney has delivered exactly what he aimed for when he was introduced at UNT.

“It’s exciting,” McCarney said. “This is why you come to college to play football and why we coach like we do. Every game has more meaning. We have put ourselves in position to play in a game of great magnitude.”

The latest step in the process was a 55-14 whacking of Southern Miss on Saturday. UNT’s performance against the Golden Eagles was just the latest sign the Mean Green (5-3, 3-1 Conference USA) is ready for the challenge of playing a monster game against Rice will present.

Derek Thompson continued to shine and posted the seventh 300-yard passing game of his career while accounting for three touchdowns, all of which came in an explosive first half that saw UNT jump out to a 41-7 lead.

“In the first half, we had a complete team performance,” Thompson said. “It was a great crowd. I was actually really surprised with what they brought out [Saturday night]. Our job was to take them out of the game early. We did a good job of that.”

UNT’s defense did its part to chase the 23,203 Southern Miss faithful who showed up for homecoming out of the stands while forcing five turnovers.

“Holding a team to 14 points is good, but we can get better — a lot better — with a good Rice team coming in,” senior linebacker Zach Orr said.

That would certainly help in a game that no one will deny is huge for UNT, considering the circumstances.

UNT set a goal of winning at least six games and ending a run of eight straight losing seasons before it kicked off its season opener against Idaho. A win Thursday gets UNT to that point and would also make the Mean Green bowl eligible.

Just being bowl eligible is no guarantee of a postseason bid, but with the way the season is shaping up, it seems likely the Mean Green will play in its first bowl game since the 2004 New Orleans Bowl if it wins a sixth game. Go past that mark, which is a real possibility considering the remainder of UNT’s schedule, and the Mean Green will start to look like a postseason lock.

Getting that sixth win against an in-state rival like Rice would be a monumental moment for UNT, not unlike the Mean Green’s win over New Mexico State at Fouts Field back in 2002. That win gave UNT its second straight New Orleans Bowl and a chance to celebrate with its fans after ending the nation’s longest bowl drought by winning at Idaho a year earlier.

A victory at home over the Owls would also keep UNT squarely in the Conference USA title chase. Both Rice and Tulane are unbeaten in league play at 4-0 and the Green Wave already has a win over the Mean Green.

UNT might need to run the table the rest of the way and hope that Tulane stumbles somewhere along the line to have a shot at winning C-USA’s West Division. But that scenario isn’t completely out of the question.

“It makes for a great game Thursday night in Apogee Stadium,” McCarney said of the setup.

It’s also a chance for UNT to sell its program on national television and pick up a win over a team it competes with in Texas for attention and recruits. Those chances don’t come along every day.

UNT’s players and coaches know just how big that set of circumstances makes its showdown with Rice all the more important.

McCarney talked about that fact after UNT’s win over Southern Miss and asked for a little help as well.

“I hope our fans come out,” McCarney said. “‘Just win, Mac. Just win and we will come to the stadium.’ Well, we have won three in a row and are playing to become bowl qualified on Thursday. I hope they will come out and help us.”

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