North Texas struggled at times on special teams in the first few weeks of the season when a series of muffed punts and other blunders came back to haunt the Mean Green.
Those issues seemed like nothing but a memory Saturday night when coordinator Marty Biagi's units came up with back-to-back huge plays that helped the Mean Green pull out a thrilling 46-43 win over UAB at Apogee Stadium.
UNT was locked in a 43-all deadlock after its defense cracked and gave up a game-tying touchdown with 27 seconds left.
Overtime seemed imminent until freshman running back Evan Johnson came through in the clutch, taking a short kickoff and breaking free for a 48-yard return that left the Mean Green in UAB territory.
A 34-yard run from Jeffery Wilson set kicker Trevor Moore up with a chip shot from 22 yards out.
Moore banged it through with seven seconds left and the Mean Green (2-2, 1-0 Conference USA) escaped on a night UNT posted the 500th win in program history.
"We showed a lot of grit and determination and faced a lot of adversity in the second half," UNT coach Seth Littrell said. "We talked about that earlier today. They fought and overcame it when we had to make a play at the end."
Johnson's return came at the perfect time for UNT after UAB (2-2, 0-1) seemed to grab the momentum with a 13-play, 73-yard drive that Lucious Stanely capped with a 5-yard touchdown catch from A.J. Erdely in a game that turned into a shootout in the second half.
UNT had the last opportunity, and Moore came through.
"It was huge," Moore said of UNT's clutch special teams play. "I told the guys on the sideline that I felt like we were going to have a big return. Evan Johnson got the ball and every guy did their job and got blocks. After that return I knew we were going to win it."
UNT felt that way most of the night, especially after taking a 43-29 lead, but was unable to put UAB away.
The Blazers came charging back and scored a pair of late touchdowns to tie the game.
Sederian Copeland caught a 4-yard pass from Erdely before Stanley tied the game in the final minute.
UNT entered the night leading C-USA with an average of 35.0 points per game, an impressive total considering the Mean Green faced Iowa and SMU in nonconference play.
UNT was even better against UAB.
Fine threw for 261 yards and three touchdowns and Wilson was at his best once again while rushing for 211 yards and a touchdown.
UNT needed every point it could get on a night when UAB matched the Mean Green point-for-point late in the second half despite struggling to run the ball.
UAB entered the night averaging 254.7 rushing yards per game. The Mean Green stifled the Blazers, who managed just 74 rushing yards.
"We played assignment football," UNT linebacker Joshua Wheeler said. "We executed."
UNT wasn't nearly as effective when it came to limiting UAB's passing game. Erdely threw for 321 yards and four touchdowns.
Erdely burned UNT for several deep balls, including a 58-yard strike to Andre Wilson.
"We weren't very disciplined in the second half," Littrell said. "We were just not very smart. We've just got to be more disciplined on defense."
UNT fell behind 7-0 in the early going before its offense got on track.
Moore hit a 29-yard field goal to spark the Mean Green, who pulled out to a 30-14 lead.
Fine threw for 189 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone. The sophomore hit Jalen Guyton for a 47-yard touchdown and then connected with Michael Lawrence for a 40-yard touchdown with 44 seconds left in the half.
UNT needed every point it could get after UAB's late run in the second half. It also needed a few big plays from its special teams.
UNT spent the early weeks of the season searching for a kick and punt returner. UNT muffed two punts in the opening three weeks and had a field goal blocked.
Littrell expressed confidence in UNT's ability to turn the corner after a tough start on special teams earlier in the week.
Wilson was confident Moore would come through after he broke free for a 34-yard run that set UNT's kicker up with a chip shot field goal.
"I know Trevor can kick it from anywhere, but I wanted to leave no doubt and get back to the middle so he would have an easy kick," Wilson said.
That is exactly what Wilson did, then watched as UNT's special teams capped a breakout night with a game-winning field goal.
UNT is hoping the win is the start of something special in conference play.
"Getting that first win in conference under our belts is huge," Littrell said. "It's one week at a time. I'm proud of our men, but we've got a lot to work on."
BRETT VITO can be at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.