via University of North Texas
NEW ORLEANS – To get to Saturday’s R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, North Texas rallied for victories six times this year. It dug itself out of double-digit deficits, scored game-winners in the closing seconds and staged dramatic comebacks on the road against bowl-bound teams.
Saturday, however, was a rally too far.
North Texas spent the afternoon digging itself out of one hole after another, but couldn’t find the consistency on offense or defense to make the comebacks stick or to keep Troy from continually adding to the Mean Green’s climb in a 50-30 loss to the Trojans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Mean Green trailed from the opening drive, and though they came back from a pair of 15-point first half deficits and drew within 22-20 at halftime, they were endlessly battling symptoms rather than conquering the cause. Troy simply overpowered North Texas. Its defense shut down the UNT running game to the tune of -9 total yards rushing, forced five turnovers (tying a New Orleans Bowl record) and battered quarterback Mason Fine, while the Trojan offense used a balanced attack and big plays to build and keep the lead.
“It’s tough to swallow,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said of the loss, the Mean Green’s second bowl-game defeat in as many years. “That’s why you have goals. That’s why you have missions. I’ve got to do a much better job of putting ourselves in the necessary positions to be successful. In 101 years, seven teams (at North Texas) have won nine ballgames. That’s a new standard. We didn’t accomplish our final mission of winning a bowl game, but I love this team.”
In a gutty performance in the face of a savage pass rush, Fine passed for 303 yards and three touchdowns but was sacked six times.
“I think everybody who watched the game understands how tough he is,” Littrell said. “That’s who he is. He has a big heart and he’s not going to quit. That’s why he’s so respected in our locker room.”
Wide receivers Rico Bussey, Jr., and Michael Lawrence combined for 10 receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown apiece.
Defensively, North Texas forced two turnovers of its own, got two big stops by defensive end Joshua Wheeler when the game was still in reach, and eight tackles and an interception from senior defensive back Kishawn McClain.
The Mean Green got off to a disastrous start, falling behind 15-0 in the first five minutes, then spent much of the first half just trying to stay in the game.
Troy’s offense opened with the rapid-fire up-tempo attack that Florida Atlantic employed so successfully against North Texas, and with similar results. The Trojans rolled through the Mean Green defense, needing just four minutes for a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive for a 7-0 lead.
The Mean Green’s first possession ended in a sack of Mason Fine and a fumble, recovered by Troy at the UNT 14-yard line, and the Trojans quickly tacked on a second touchdown and a two-point conversion for a 15-0 lead.
“It’s never great to start like that,” Littrell said. “We had a communication error on the one play and that cost us a fumble. I was really proud of the way they came back and got themselves back in the game.”
It was the defense that ignited North Texas. The Mean Green defense got a stop when Wheeler sacked Trojan QB Brandon Silvers to force a punt, and the North Texas offense showed life. The Mean Green overcame three third-and-long situations on a 75-yard drive, including on a 33-yard pass to Rico Bussey, Jr., and on a 12-yard touchdown pass to Bussey to pull UNT within 15-7.
Back came Troy, stunning North Texas with a 55-yard rumble by 250-pound running back Josh Anderson to set up the Trojan’s third score of the game and push the advantage to 22-7, and the Trojans were on the verge of blowing the game open when they stopped the Mean Green on fourth and 2 at the Troy 31 and immediately drove deep into North Texas territory again.
But North Texas got back in the game with three big defensive plays.
The turnaround started with a high snap from center that sailed over Silver’s head, and the Mean Green’s Colton McDonald scooped up the loose ball and returned it 56 yards for a touchdown. Next, North Texas stopped a pair of Troy possessions with an interception by McClain, then another QB stop by Wheeler to force a Troy punt. Those plays combined to flip the field, giving the Mean Green excellent field possession at the Troy 41.
Six plays later, Fine threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Michael Lawrence, bringing North Texas within 22-20. And suddenly the blowout was a game.
That momentum did not survive halftime. As the second half opened, North Texas could not find its running game, its passing game remained inconsistent and its defense could not maintain containment of the Troy offense, and all the work at the end of the first half unraveled in the third period.
North Texas got the ball to start the second half, but a Fine pass intended for Lawrence was punched into the air and intercepted by Troy’s Reese Hunter, and the Trojans scored three plays later. Bussey gave the Mean Green good field position with a 53-yard kickoff return, but the offense went three and out. Five plays later, Troy struck with a 59-yard touchdown pass to push the UNT deficit to 36-20.
The Mean Green’s last hopes were extinguished late in the third quarter when Fine was sacked for the fourth time and lost a fumble that Troy covered at the NT 13, setting up another Trojan touchdown and a 43-23 lead.
From that point, Troy was able to launch wave after wave of attacks on Fine, who was battered and wounded but kept returning to the game, throwing his last TD pass with 27 seconds to play.
“Over this season, (this team) has done a lot of great things, set new standards,” Littrell said. “I’m proud of ’em, I love ’em. Win, lose or draw, that doesn’t change how I feel about them. I’m proud of the way these seniors believed in our program and started to change our culture. Again, they have a lot to be proud of. They’ve done so many great things that I’m proud of.”
North Texas finishes the season 9-5, while Troy is 11-2.