Dan McCarney has spoken of the importance of establishing a home-field advantage ever since he arrived at North Texas nearly two years ago.
UNT took another step in that process with a 24-14 win over South Alabama on Saturday at Apogee Stadium.
The Mean Green left its fans with a good taste in their mouths, sent its seniors out on a high note and reached a milestone in the growth of the program in its final home game of the season in front of a crowd of 15,963.
UNT finished 3-2 at home and posted a winning record at Apogee for the second straight year under McCarney, who is 7-4 at home in two seasons.
UNT (4-6, 3-3 Sun Belt) had not posted back-to-back winning home campaigns since the 2003-04 seasons and recorded a baffling 1-16 record at home in the three seasons before McCarney’s arrival.
Apogee isn’t yet a place where highly regarded opponents dread playing, but it is looking a lot less hospitable.
“This is a big step,” McCarney said. “If you are going to turn programs around, you have to take care of business at home first.”
UNT did just that, thanks in part to an improved defensive performance.
The Mean Green went two games without forcing a turnover and lost both before coming up with two turnovers and a series of big plays against USA (2-8, 1-5).
UNT didn’t have its best night offensively and lost running back Antoinne Jimmerson to a shoulder injury. Brandin Byrd and Jeremy Brown, the two other running backs in UNT’s three-back rotation, more than filled the void.
Byrd rushed for 109 yards and Brown added 61 on a night when both broke off long touchdown runs.
“When we are in [the game], we take it upon ourselves to make big plays to get this offense going,” Brown said.
Byrd and Brown posted their long touchdown runs after UNT came up with two key fourth-down plays that helped the Mean Green head into halftime with the score tied at 14.
USA was up 7-0 and had the ball at the UNT 49-yard line, where the Jaguars faced a fourth-and-1 situation.
USA went for the first down and was stopped cold when middle linebacker Zach Orr leveled Jaguars backup quarterback Trey Fetner at the line of scrimmage.
UNT tied the game two plays later on a 51-yard Brown touchdown run.
The Mean Green offense faced a fourth-down situation of its own after Jereme Jones caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from Ross Metheny that gave USA a 14-7 lead with 2:50 left in the first half.
UNT answered with a 12-play, 66-yard drive. The Mean Green converted on third-and-10 and third-and-9 before catching a break when it faced fourth-and-1 at the USA 5-yard line.
UNT lined up to go for it but didn’t have to run a play to pick up the first down as USA was called for a substitution infraction.
Drew Miller caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Derek Thompson three plays later.
“I want my guys to feel like the head coach has confidence in them,” McCarney said. “That was a confident call.”
UNT looked confident the rest of the way. Miller’s touchdown catch started a run of 17 straight points for the Mean Green.
UNT took its first lead in the third quarter when Byrd broke free for an 85-yard touchdown to put the Mean Green up 21-14.
UNT caught another huge break after taking a 24-14 lead. USA defensive back Tyrell Pearson intercepted a Thompson pass intended for Chris Bynes on a play from the UNT 29-yard line. Pearson tried to stretch for the end zone but fumbled.
The ball hit the pylon for a touchback.
UNT’s defense took care of the rest, shutting USA out in the second half.
“This is such a big win,” UNT defensive end K.C. Obi said. “It’s especially big for the seniors with how much we have been through the last couple of years.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.