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UNT looking to capitalize on buzz surrounding showdown with UTSA

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

Wren Baker has only been the athletic director at North Texas for a little more than a year, but he's been around college athletics long enough to identify the feeling heading into the Mean Green's game against Texas-San Antonio on Saturday.

"If you do this long enough, you get the vibe when a game is different," Baker said. "This game has a different feel."

That's because it's one of the biggest regular-season games UNT has played in years. The Mean Green (3-2) are 2-0 in Conference USA play and alone in first place in the league's West Division heading into a showdown with the Roadrunners, one of their biggest rivals. UTSA (3-1, 0-1 C-USA) also is expected to compete for the West title.

The opportunity to close in on a championship on its home field is one that hasn't come along often UNT, which is doing everything it can to promote the game in hopes of capitalizing.

The school is giving $5,000 to student organizations that can show that 40 percent of their membership is present at the end of the third quarter, and it is in the midst of a social media blitz promoting the game to students. 

A total of 6,500 students had claimed tickets through UNT's online system by Monday night. That figure is an early sign that the turnout for the game could well exceed UNT's average of 19,867 through two home games.

UNT's hope is to pack Apogee Stadium. The school has never sold out the venue, which opened in 2011 and seats 30,850.

A sellout might not be realistic, but UNT coaches, officials and players are going all-in on trying to pack the stands and create the kind of atmosphere that could help the Mean Green pull out a critical win.

"It's an opportunity for us to showcase that football matters at North Texas and that we are behind the program," Baker said. "I don't want to put pressure on our coaches and players, but this is a game against a school that has become a rival and draws interest. It's important to maximize the opportunity."

The setup seems just about perfect for UNT.

The Mean Green have momentum after appearing in just their second bowl game since 2004 last season and have won their last two games.

The fact that UTSA is coming to town only adds to the excitement. The Roadrunners have quickly become a team UNT fans loathe because they have dominated a short series that has featured significant and memorable games.

"There is a history there," UNT coach Seth Littrell said. "Our players understand that. It will be a great challenge. With a rivalry game, you compete and throw the past out the door. It's about who is going to step up."

Something to sell

The rivalry between UNT and UTSA began to build in 2013. UNT was in the midst of one of the best seasons in program history and had won five straight when it welcomed UTSA to Apogee.

The Roadrunners were playing just their third season since the program was founded, but still edged the Mean Green 21-13.

That loss knocked UNT out of the race for the West title and a spot in the conference title game. UNT's supporters have never forgotten what happened that night.

Two years later, UNT beat UTSA 30-23 thanks largely to a blocked extra point that cornerback Chad Davis returned for two points in the fourth quarter.

Drama always seems to be involved when the Mean Green and Roadrunners play, which makes the game an easy sell for UNT's athletic department.

"It's a rivalry game," UNT quarterback Mason Fine said. "If you know anything about UNT fans, they look at it as a rivalry. We look at it as a rivalry game as players. Last year, I felt like there was a lot more energy and a lot more at stake with pride and bragging rights."

The fact that UNT has rarely had anything to brag about after its game with UTSA only adds to the importance of this year's showdown for the Mean Green.

UNT's dramatic win sparked by Davis' return in 2015 remains its only win in a series the Roadrunners lead 3-1.

Littrell is well versed in the history of the series and has talked with his players about it this week.

Senior safety Kishawn McClain will play in his fourth game against UTSA on Saturday and says there is something special about the series.

"We play each other hard," McClain said. "Everyone has friends on the other team. It's an exciting game."

The circumstances this year will only add to the drama.

Improving to 3-0 in conference play wouldn't guarantee UNT the West title but would move the Mean Green a lot closer to that goal. The game might mean even more to UTSA, which would be in a world of hurt in terms of conference title hopes if it fell to 0-2.

UTSA suffered its first loss of the season last week when Southern Mississippi beat the Roadrunners 31-29.

"This game is huge," Fine said. "Our future is in our hands."

Looking for an edge

There is no one who is more excited about the efforts Baker and UNT's administration are putting into packing the stands than Littrell and his players.

"I absolutely appreciate the effort we are putting into promoting this game," Littrell said. "Opportunities like this are critical for us to pack Apogee so that we can feed off the energy and excitement of our fans. There is a reason it's a challenge to play on the road. It's not just the matchup. The home crowd can put you over the top."

Baker is quick to point out that the athletic department has plans in place to promote every home game this season. UNT honored its 2013 Heart of Dallas Bowl championship team earlier this season and has other promotions on the way for the remainder of its games.

There is just something that feels different about Saturday's showdown with UTSA. Littrell and his players said they can sense a buzz on campus unlike what they encounter on a typical week.

UNT appears to be headed in the right direction after playing in the Heart of Dallas Bowl last season, when the Mean Green fell to Army in overtime. Wins over UAB and Southern Miss in UNT's last two games have only added to the excitement around the program heading into a game against one of the Mean Green's biggest rivals.

"We wanted to capitalize on it," Baker said. "It's special to play in front of a packed venue. Our kids deserve it. We want to do everything we can to get as many people into the stands as we can."

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

FEATURED PHOTO: North Texas senior running back Jeffery Wilson scores in front of packed stands at Apogee Stadium during the Mean Green's win over the Blazers on Sept. 23. (Jeff Woo/DRC)