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How the West was won: UNT clinches C-USA division title

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

Seth Littrell said that he wanted to compete for championships when he took over as North Texas' coach before the 2016 season.

That goal sounded awfully ambitious considering he took over a program fresh off a 1-11 season.

It doesn't anymore, not after the Mean Green took down UTEP 45-10 on Saturday at Apogee Stadium. The win in front of a homecoming crowd of 26,108 made official what seemed like a foregone conclusion over the last few weeks.

UNT is the Conference USA West Division champion. The Mean Green will play in the C-USA title game Dec. 2 against an East Division champion that has yet to be determined.

"It feels great to have an opportunity to play for a championship," Littrell said. "That is what we talked about and the standard we want to set. That takes a lot of work from a lot of people. The coaches and student-athletes have put a lot of work in that is starting to pay off."

The Mean Green entered the season as a dark horse in the C-USA race despite playing in the Heart of Dallas Bowl last year.

That bowl appearance marked a dramatic step forward for a program that is suddenly on a roll. The Mean Green (7-3, 6-1 C-USA) are bowl-eligible and now have picked up their first title since their run of four straight Sun Belt Conference championships from 2001-04.

Littrell took what he inherited at UNT, added some key pieces and has quickly built one of C-USA's best teams just two years into his tenure.

UNT's top-to-bottom talent was on display in its win over UTEP (0-10, 0-6).

Mason Fine, one of Littrell's first recruits, threw for 213 yards and four touchdowns. Running back Jeffery Wilson, who was at UNT when Littrell arrived, rushed for 144 yards and continued to cement his legacy as one of the best backs in program history by becoming the fifth UNT player to clear the 3,000-yard mark in career rushing yards. 

Wilson has 3,133 yards in his time at UNT. That milestone was a secondary concern for the senior, who was busy celebrating the West title instead of his individual achievements.

"That is something I have always wanted to do since I came here," Wilson said of winning a championship. "To get it done my last year is an amazing feeling. It is something I will always remember. I am glad to share it with these guys and these coaches."

UNT's coaches and players flooded the field after the game and took some time to celebrate, but made it clear that they have bigger goals in mind.

Littrell has talked about his mission since he arrived at UNT. That's to win a bowl game. UNT's win over UTEP was just the next step in the process.

"Winning the West was one of our goals," Fine said. "We are halfway there."

The next step will come in the conference title game. UNT appears destined to meet Florida Atlantic in the title game, but it's not a certainty.

The Owls beat Louisiana Tech 48-23 on Saturday and are a perfect 6-0 in conference play. FAU handed UNT a 69-31 loss — its only setback in league play — but hasn't clinched the East just yet.

UNT, on the other hand, has its ticket punched following a night when the Mean Green overcame a slow start and pulled away for a blowout win.

UNT trailed 7-0 after Wilson fumbled on his second carry. The ball squirted free as Wilson burst through the line. UTEP safety Kahani Smith was there to scoop it up and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown.

UNT entered the day averaging 35.9 points per game but needed awhile to get going. Jaelon Darden caught touchdown passes from Fine that covered 13 and 2 yards in the first half, which ended with UNT up 14-7 thanks largely to its defense.

UTEP had just 80 total yards at halftime and never got anything going against the Mean Green.

"It's a balance," UNT linebacker LaDarius Hamilton said. "If the offense is struggling and we get a stop, it helps get momentum and a swagger."

UNT's offense has shown plenty of swagger throughout the season and quickly got back into form in the second half.

Wilson scored on a 1-yard run to cap UNT's first drive after the break.

Fine hit Rico Bussey Jr. for a 60-yard touchdown a short time later and then connected with Jalen Guyton from 2 yards out.

UNT was on its way to a historic win at that point, one the Mean Green hope is the next step in Littrell's rebuilding project that few thought would go so well so fast.

"Sometimes getting that monkey off your back is huge," Littrell said of winning a title. "The first one is always the hardest one to get no matter what you are talking about."

UNT has that first title now — the C-USA West Division championship.

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

FEATURED PHOTO: North Texas defensive back Taylor Robinson (24) celebrates with teammates after a big play in the Mean Green's win over UTEP on Saturday at Apogee Stadium. (Jeff Woo/DRC)