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David Minton

Football: Defense again key

Profile image for By Ben Baby
By Ben Baby

DALLAS — In a stadium full of green shirts, there was nothing but a sea of black jerseys swarming UNLV’s offense early in the fourth quarter of the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

The first time UNLV senior quarterback Caleb Herring touched the ball in the final quarter, he was chased and dragged down behind the line of scrimmage. A few plays later, Herring was flat on his back after an incomplete pass, and it took him a few seconds before he finally made it to his feet.

North Texas’ defense stifled the Rebels in the second half and enabled the Mean Green to come up with a 36-14 win in Wednesday’s bowl game. By the time UNLV scored in the second half, UNT’s defense enabled the Mean Green to jump out and pick up the win.

“Like I’ve said, we’re one of the best second-half teams in the country, one of the best fourth-quarter teams in the country,” UNT senior defensive back Marcus Trice said. “We showed it today.”

UNT’s defense was a huge reason the Mean Green reached its first bowl game since 2004 and won its first bowl since 2002.

Coming into the contest, the team allowed an average of 6.5 points in the second half and held five opponents scoreless in the final two quarters. The defense came up with more quarterback sacks since the 2002 team and ranked fourth in the nation in forced turnovers.

It didn’t start that way as UNLV took its opening possession and drove 95 yards to score the game’s first touchdown.

“I was telling the guys to settle in,” UNT senior linebacker Zach Orr said. “It was the first time we had played a football game in over a month, and I felt like that first drive where they drove 95 yards on us, we were kind of playing on our heels and not playing great defense.”

UNLV didn’t score again until 4:56 remained in the game and the outcome had already been decided.

On third down of the Rebels’ first drive of the fourth quarter, Herring was sacked by UNT senior defensive end Aaron Bellazin. Bellazin got up and thrusted toward the green side of the Cotton Bowl bleachers.

UNT sacked Herring five times and held the Rebels to 262 yards of total offense.

“I don’t think that we handled their line extremely well when they were gaming us, either in our draw or in our run game, in that situation or in pass protection,” UNLV head coach Bobby Hauck said.”

Orr credited UNT defensive coordinator John Skladany for the team’s second-half dominance throughout the season.

“It’s execution,” Orr said. “Every time in practice he’s talking about whatever coach has out there for you to do, make sure you go out there and do that, and we had to do that in the second half, not only in this game but the rest of the season.”

When sophomore defensive back Kenny Buyers intercepted Herring with 4:03 left in the game, the defense came off the field as the team’s fans roared. Their team was a bowl champion for only the third time.

“We sent a message today,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “I think this is a program that’s on the rise.”