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Football: UNT leads Iowa in third before running out gas in 31-14 loss

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Brandon Garner could feel the momentum building on the North Texas sideline in the second half of a game few expected the Mean Green to win Saturday.

The Mean Green's junior linebacker wasn't the only one.

Safety Khairi Muhammad felt it. So did coach Seth Littrell.

UNT believed it was capable of pulling off what would have been a monumental upset against Iowa. The Mean Green nearly reached that goal before the Hawkeyes' size and strength took over in the late stages and helped them pull away for a 31-14 win at Kinnick Stadium.

"We believed from the get-go that we were going to win," Garner said. "We had faith in our team and our game plan. There was a lot of excitement going into the third quarter."

The Mean Green (1-2) had a 14-10 lead at that point and a load of confidence while facing a team that had hammered them 62-16 just two years ago.

UNT needed to make a few key plays late to complete what would have been a dramatic turnaround and came up short.

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley delivered the key blow for the Hawkeyes (3-0) midway through the third.

Iowa pushed the ball to the UNT 23-yard line, where it faced a fourth-and-5 situation. Iowa went for the first down and came up with that and then some when Stanley found tight end Noah Fant over the middle for the go-ahead touchdown.

The play was a devastating blow for UNT and just what Iowa needed.

The Hawkeyes went on to add two late touchdowns and shut the Mean Green out the rest of the way.

"The fourth-down touchdown was a big momentum swing, but we have been through worse," Muhammad said. "We felt like we could come back from that."

UNT didn't have enough to rally and dropped its second straight game in its final nonconference contest before the beginning of Conference USA play. The Mean Green open their league slate with a home game against UAB on Saturday.

"We are going to learn and grow from this," Littrell said. "I'm excited about this group. They have great mentality and chemistry."

The chemistry was particularly evident on the defense, where UNT limited Iowa to 17 points heading into the fourth quarter.

UNT just didn't do enough offensively after getting off to a good start. Jeffery Wilson rushed for 95 yards and Mason Fine threw for 167.

Stanley threw for 197 yards and two touchdowns for Iowa.

"We didn't put enough points on the board," Wilson said. "Maybe if we got our defense off the field a little more, it would have helped them out and the outcome would have been different."

Iowa held the ball for a whopping 40 minutes, 45 seconds, leaving UNT just over 19 minutes to work with.

"We couldn't get off the field," Littrell said. "That will wear you down both physically and mentally."

Iowa piled up 238 rushing yards and gradually took over after UNT seized momentum with a wild sequence at the end of the first half.

Iowa was up 10-7 and appeared as if it might extend its lead after driving into Mean Green territory.

UNT linebacker E.J. Ejiya turned momentum back the Mean Green's way when he leveled Stanley and forced a fumble. Ulaiasi Tauaalo was in the right place at the right time and picked the ball up.

UNT's 290-pound nose tackle lumbered toward the end zone but was caught from behind by Iowa running back James Butler, who knocked the ball free and recovered it. Iowa took over at its 16 but had to punt just three plays later.

UNT took over at its 34 with 46 seconds left and needed just 35 of those seconds to drive for the go-ahead touchdown. Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa hit UNT quarterback Mason Fine low as he delivered a pass to Jalen Guyton that fell incomplete and was flagged for a late hit.

Fine left the game with a sprained knee and was replaced by Quinn Shanbour, who led UNT on a 66-yard touchdown drive. Shanbour capped the drive with a 13-yard strike to Guyton that gave UNT a 14-10 lead at halftime.

The Mean Green felt like they had all the momentum at that point. Iowa stole it back with Stanley's touchdown strike to Fant.

"At that point we just felt like we needed to do something," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It was a great call and great execution."

Littrell pointed to that play as a turning point as well. Fine came back into the game a short time later, but UNT never recovered.

"You compete hard to get into those situations," Littrell said. "You have to finish it off and make competitive plays."

Iowa made that one play. The Hawkeyes stole UNT's momentum and its chance at the upset.

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