North Texas didn’t have its usual starting quarterback or its star running back for a vital late-season game against Southern Miss on Saturday.
None of that mattered, thanks largely to a gutty performance by Alec Morris. The senior saw his first significant action since being benched after the Mean Green’s season-opening loss to SMU and guided UNT to a slump-busting 29-23 win at Apogee Stadium.
That victory snapped a three-game losing streak and kept the Mean Green’s bowl hopes alive heading into its regular season finale on Saturday at Texas-El Paso. A win would give UNT (5-6, 3-4 Conference USA) the six wins its needs to be bowl-eligible for just the second time in the past dozen years.
“It’s huge to have something to play for in Week 12,” UNT coach Seth Littrell said. “We have an opportunity to accomplish our mission. When that is the case, it makes life a whole lot easier.”
Getting to that point was particularly rewarding for Morris. The former Allen standout transferred from Alabama and was expected to guide UNT’s offense as a fifth-year senior.
He lasted only one game as a starter before being replaced by freshman Mason Fine.
Morris didn’t throw a pass in seven straight games before coming on last week in a loss to Western Kentucky when Fine went out with a shoulder injury.
Morris responded by throwing for 267 yards and two touchdowns against this week’s opponent Southern Miss (5-6, 3-4).
UNT needed Morris to come through after the Golden Eagles took a 23-20 lead on a Stephen Brauchle 25-yard field goal with 9:39 left in the fourth quarter.
“We knew what was at stake,” Morris said. “At this point in the season, it’s not just about this game and that drive. It’s about everything going forward. We had to have that game and knew the gravity of the situation.”
Morris hit on his first three passes on the drive that Willy Ivery capped with an 11-yard touchdown run that put the Mean Green up 27-23.
The Mean Green’s defense hung on from there on a night UNT looked it would cruise early.
UNT used a pair of trick plays to jump out to a 20-0 lead, despite playing without Fine and running back Jeffery Wilson. The Mean Green’s leading rusher has missed UNT’s past two games with a knee injury. Ivery helped fill the void by rushing for 111 yards.
The Mean Green lined up in the Wildcat formation on its second drive and pitched the ball to Morris, who found wide receiver Kenny Buyers alone behind Southern Miss’ secondary for a 49-yard gain to set up a Trevor Moore 26-yard field goal.
UNT pushed its lead to 20-0 behind a pair of touchdown passes from Morris to wide receiver Turner Smiley. The first came from 17 yards out before the Mean Green went back to their bag of tricks.
UNT executed a perfect flea-flicker and scored when Morris found Smiley for a 55-yard touchdown strike.
UNT’s defense dominated early while the Mean Green jumped out to their early lead.
“We were able to set the tone early and play our game,” UNT cornerback Nate Brooks said.
Southern Miss answered by ripping off 23 straight points, a run Brauchle capped with his field goal.
UNT needed an answer at that point after struggling after its early surge.
The Mean Green had managed just a field goal since scoring 17 points in the first quarter.
Littrell didn’t sense any panic in his players as they prepared to go out for that key series.
“The energy was there on that last drive,” Littrell said. “We talk a lot about adversity and how we overcome it. Once we got back in the flow and relaxed, they were great. It comes down to executing.”
UNT did just that on a six-play, 65-yard drive and picked up a first down on all but one play in the series.
“Alec did a good job of getting the ball to receivers,” Ivery said. “We were able to use our tempo and executed in one-on-one matchups.”
Morris hit on his first three passes on the drive and looked like the veteran UNT thought it was getting when he arrived from Alabama.
Ivery did the rest, breaking free on a 17-yard run before scoring the game-winner and bringing UNT one step closer to a bowl berth.
The drive also allowed Morris and the rest of UNT’s seniors to leave Apogee one last time as winners.
The end was particularly rewarding for Morris, who added the biggest highlight to his season thus far.
There could be more coming.
“Alec [Morris] won us the game tonight,” Littrell said when asked who would start against UTEP next week. “That is how we are moving forward.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.