Photos by Dominic Ceraldi
Saturday’s game at Apogee Stadium bordered on an elimination game for the Mean Green in Conference USA’s West Division. Lose and they’d be two games back of multiple teams, including the day’s opponent, Southern Miss.
In a meeting of two of the top-scoring offenses in C-USA, it was the North Texas defense that vaulted the Mean Green back into the thick of the division battle, highlighted by defensive back Khairi Muhammad ripping the ball from the grasp of a Golden Eagles receiver at the North Texas 11-yard line when Southern Miss was driving for the lead in the second half.
The Mean Green defense forced turnovers in their own red zone, forced a turnover on downs with stops on third and fourth and 1 of USM’s brace of bruising 240-plus-pound running backs, got two sacks each from E.J. Ejiya and LaDarius Hamilton, two pass breakups apiece from Jameel Moore and Cam Johnson, and held Southern Miss 25 points below their season-scoring average to lead the Mean Green to a 30-7 victory.
“They have a tough, physical defense,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said of the Golden Eagles. “It was our mentality all week to challenge our defense. They heard a lot about their (Southern Miss’) defense, and we have a great pride in what we do. When we play with all 11 focused, we’ve got a very special defense as well.
“It starts up front,” he added. “We did a great job of dominating the line of scrimmage, and that makes it hard to run the football. That makes it challenging when an offense gets behind the chains. We had some huge turnovers, some huge stops. It allowed our offense to regroup, and they were able to wear them down.”
The North Texas offense struggled for consistency but came up with big plays of its own to hand Southern Miss its first C-USA loss. Quarterback Mason Fine threw for 292 yards, running back DeAndre Torrey rushed for 95 yards and three touchdowns, and Jalen Guyton, who torched the Golden Eagles a year ago for 14 catches and 211 yards, again tormented USM with seven receptions for 124 yards and the Mean Green’s first touchdown of the game.
North Texas amassed 457 yards, the most Southern Miss (2-3, 1-1) has allowed all year.
“We haven’t reached our potential yet,” Fine said. “Our defense has had our back. It’s time for the offense to step up.”
The win lifts North Texas to 6-1, but more importantly it makes the Mean Green 2-1 in C-USA play, with the division’s remaining undefeated leaders still ahead on the schedule.
After a scoreless opening quarter, both teams struck on big plays. North Texas went up 7-0 when Fine rolled to his right and found Guyton behind the USM defense. Guyton stretched out for the pass and snared a 53-yard touchdown, the longest UNT completion of the season.
But Southern Miss struck back on its next possession. Golden Eagle wide receiver Quez Watkins took a pass over the middle and wove his way back and forth through the UNT secondary, shedding would-be tacklers for a 44-yard score and a 7-7 game.
From there, each team made penetrations across midfield, but North Texas made two big plays to take a 10-7 lead to halftime. Guyton hauled in a pass from Fine and escaped a tackler up the sidelines for 32 yards on second and 18, which led to a 41-yard field goal from Cole Hedlund, his 13th of the season.
Southern Miss responded with a drive to the edge of scoring territory, where it faced third and one from the North Texas 44. Ejiya and Tyreke Davis stopped a third-down run for no gain, then Ejiya stuffed a fourth-down plunge for a one-yard loss to turn the ball over on downs.
The Mean Green defense kept swarming the Golden Eagles coming out of halftime, holding them to 125 yards in the second half. But despite its offensive struggles, Southern Miss had a chance to take the lead in the third quarter when it drove deep into North Texas territory. Trailing 10-7, USM was about the go in for a touchdown when it hit a pass at the North Texas 11-yard line. But Muhammad, not satisfied with making the tackle, ripped the ball from the receiver’s hands.
“When he caught it, it was on his shoulder,” Muhammad said. “I thought I could get my hand on the ball, and I just stripped it out. It was just trying to make a play.”
“That was a huge momentum play,” Littrell said.
The takeaway snuffed out the last Southern Miss’ last scoring threat, while North Texas got its offense moving the rest of the half. Michael Lawrence pulled in a 33-yard pass to ignite a drive late in the third quarter, and Torrey capped the march with 6-yard run, squeezing through the middle of the Golden Eagle defense for a 16-7 lead.
North Texas finished off the win with a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives, finished off by Torrey TDs.
“He ran the ball very hard today,” Littrell said. “They load the box, so running backs have to run through tackles.”
The win makes North Texas bowl eligible with six wins, not that the Mean Green – having been to a bowl two-straight years and with significantly elevated goals this year – were particularly interested in that little nugget.
“I told them congratulations on being bowl eligible,” Littrell said. “Not one of them cheered or anything. It’s all about being focused and going 1-0 next week.”
Courtesy: UNT Football