RUSTON, La – To borrow an old sports adage, if you want to be the champ, you have to beat the champ.
North Texas is one win from capturing Conference USA’s West Division title after rallying for a 24-23 victory over defending West champion Louisiana Tech Saturday afternoon at Joe Aillet Stadium.
Senior running back Jeffery Wilson, battling through ailments that limited his carries, scored two touchdowns, including the game-winner with 6:04 to play, then bludgeoned the final 2:39 off the clock on his way to a 167-yard rushing performance.
“Give the ball to your playmakers,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. “He’s battled a lot of things, coming off some injuries. We’re not playing him as much as we’d like to. But we’re working to get him healthy.”
The victory gives North Texas complete control of the battle for the West. The Mean Green have swept all of division’s contenders, are a game up on their closest pursuers and own a head-to-head tiebreaker on all of the West challengers. North Texas needs one win in its last two conference games to clinch the title, so a victory in next Saturday’s homecoming game against UTEP will earn the Mean Green their first division crown and send them to the C-USA championship game on Dec. 2.
The win also makes North Texas (6-3 overall, 5-1 in conference) bowl eligible, but the Mean Green have much bigger goals than getting to six wins. They’ve got a division title to wrap up, and conference title to chase, then a bowl game.
“It’s half of one of our goals, to win a bowl game” Littrell said. “We’ve got to finish strong and win a bowl game.”
Saturday’s outcome officially dethrones Tech (4-5, 2-3), which won the division in two of the last three years but is eliminated from the 2017 race.
North Texas battled through its own inconsistent play to this win. Wilson started fast but was limited by nagging injuries, while the North Texas passing game struggled. The Mean Green defense contained the Louisiana Tech offense but gave up key third- and fourth-down conversions. North Texas threw an interception in the end zone, had a short punt to give the Bulldogs a short field, dropped passes and had a late hit out of bounds.
Yet the Mean Green found a way to win.
“They really fight hard,” Littrell said of his squad. “They come ready to battle every week. We’re trying to fix our deficiencies. It was a great opportunity to get a great win on the road and become bowl eligible.”
Wilson rushed five times for 40 yards in the first quarter to get the North Texas offense going, which escaped bad field position early and then drove 63 yards for a 7-0 lead on a Wilson 8-yard touchdown run.
But the Mean Green had to go away from the banged-up Wilson, who was limited to eight carries in the first half, and Louisiana Tech took advantage of the respite to take control, scoring 17 unanswered points for a 17-7 lead. The Bulldogs converted just three of eight third downs, but kept drives alive with two fourth-down conversions.
North Texas drew within one score at 17-10 at halftime when it mounted a 44-yard scoring drive in the final 39 seconds of the second quarter to set up a 48-yard field goal by Trevor Moore, and the Mean Green drew even at 17-17 on a 22-yard touchdown pass from Mason Fine to Rico Bussey, Jr., in the third quarter.
Louisiana Tech, however, retook the momentum and mounted two scoring drives. However, the North Texas defense made stops to force field goals, holding the margin to 23-17.
North Texas then put together the game-winning drive. Starting at their own 23-yard line with 9:27 to play, the Mean Green picked up a first down on fourth and one, hit a 25-yard pass to Michael Lawrence and got a 20-yard run from Wilson. Nic Smith carried to the 14 and Wilson ripped through the defense to the endzone on the next play. Moore’s extra point, the 135th consecutive of his career, put the Mean Green up, 24-23.
Louisiana Tech was not finished. It drove from its own 27, converted a third-and-11 and moved inside the North Texas 40. But Mean Green defensive end Andy Flusche made a big tackle for loss, and the defense forced an incompletion to leave the Bulldogs facing fourth and 12. Tech field-goal kicker Jonathan Barnes, who made field goals of 47, 37 and 35 yards, tried a 53-yarder for the lead but the kick drifted wide left.
Wilson then made sure the Bulldogs didn’t get the ball back. He carried for 9, 4, 2 yards before banging his way through the Louisiana Tech defense for 19 yards to finish the victory.