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FAU posts repeat rout of UNT in C-USA title game

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- There was something awfully familiar about the way North Texas' game against Florida Atlantic unfolded Saturday.

The Owls moved the ball at will early against UNT and made quarterback Mason Fine look like a piƱata in the pocket on their way to a commanding 41-17 win over the Mean Green at FAU Stadium in the Conference USA championship game.

The script looked just like UNT's long -- and highly unpleasant -- trip to Boca Raton for a 69-31 loss in October.

UNT hoped to avenge that loss in the teams' second meeting this year and win its first conference title since 2004.

The Mean Green were left staring at a harsh reality instead, even after playing better than they did in the first meeting.

"They are the best team in this league," UNT coach Seth Littrell said of FAU. "We have a measuring stick of where we need to get to in the future. Hopefully we can get the opportunity and be much better next year."

Littrell was quick to emphasize that the Mean Green (9-4) have a lot to be proud of and a lot to play for once they find out where they are headed in the bowl season. UNT is expected to receive a bowl bid Sunday.

A UNT source said that the Mean Green are holding out hope for a slot to open up that would offer a chance to play a team from a Power Five conference. If that opportunity does not arise, UNT's first choice would be to play in the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 16 against a team from the Sun Belt Conference.

UNT will have to recover from a tough outing before then after seeing its five-game winning streak come to an end largely because its offense fell flat in what was expected to be a shootout.

FAU (10-3) entered the day leading C-USA with an average of 39.8 points per game, just ahead of UNT at 37.5.

The Owls did what was expected while rolling up 633 yards. UNT didn't. The 17 points the Mean Green scored were their lowest total since a 31-14 loss at Iowa in the second week of the season.

UNT scored all of its points in the second half. By then it too late.

"FAU is great on defense and we came out a little hesitant, particularly me," Fine said. "I didn't play loose."

Fine threw for just 104 yards in the first half before bouncing back to finish with 356. UNT was in catch-up mode after falling behind 27-0 at halftime and was forced to put the ball in the air to try to close the gap.

UNT saw FAU pull away instead.

The Owls scored on five of their first six possessions. The only time they failed to score in that span came when Greg Joseph missed a 30-yard field goal after FAU had a touchdown run called back for holding.

"They came out in different formations and the wildcat," UNT linebacker E.J. Ejiya said. "We didn't have our eyes in the right places and were hesitant."

FAU took advantage and rolled up 633 yards after hanging 804 yards on the Mean Green in the regular season.

FAU hired coach Lane Kiffin heading into the 2017 season largely because of his reputation as an offensive guru. He showed his prowess in both of UNT's games against FAU and helped several of his players have a big day.

FAU wide receiver Kalib Woods caught six passes for 208 yards and was named the game's MVP. Devin Singletary rushed for 164 yards and three touchdowns.

Kiffin was pleased with the way his offense played but said the story of the game was the Owls' defense. FAU sacked Fine nine times and limited the Mean Green to 81 rushing yards.

"I attribute that to our staff and our players playing well," Kiffin said. "It's tough to play defense when you are up like we were."

Any chance UNT had of keeping up with the Owls disappeared when FAU ran out to an early lead and turned the Mean Green back on two early scoring chances.

UNT ran a fake field goal after reaching the FAU 35 in the first quarter but saw holder Quinn Shanbour's pass sail over the head of tight end Caleb Chumley. Fine threw an interception in the end zone after UNT reached FAU's 20 in the second quarter.

"It was a great look on the fake field goal," Littrell said. "We were on the part of the field where you think about going for it. It was a great opportunity. The look was there. We didn't execute."

FAU kept piling on from there, ending the Mean Green's hopes of avenging their loss to the Owls.

UNT now will turn its attention to playing in its second bowl game in Littrell's first two seasons with the Mean Green.

UNT fell to Army in last year's Heart of Dallas Bowl after posting a 1-11 record in 2015. The Mean Green have continued their rise this season.

"I am proud of our guys," Littrell said. "They have accomplished a lot, winning the Conference USA West Division title and going unbeaten at home. We have two goals left that we can achieve -- winning our bowl game and winning a 10th game."

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