UNT Clinches C-USA West

via University of North Texas

DENTON – North Texas clinched the Conference USA West Division championship and virtually assured itself of a bowl bid with a 45-10 victory over UTEP Saturday night at homecoming in front of Apogee Stadium’s largest crowd of the season.

Freshman wide receiver Jaelon Dardenscored two touchdowns – the first multi-TD game of his career – to spark the Mean Green offense, and running back Jeffery Wilson, quarterback Mason Fine, and the North Texas defense took it from there. Wilson rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown and had a career-high seven receptions for 58 yards, Fine threw for four touchdowns, and a dominating defense allowed season-lows in points and yards of total offense.

Denton, TX - November 11: North Texas Mean Green coaching staff during the game between the North Texas Mean Green and UTEP Miners (Photo by Mark Woods/DFWsportsonline)

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Denton, TX - November 11: North Texas Mean Green coaching staff during the game between the North Texas Mean Green and UTEP Miners (Photo by Mark Woods/DFWsportsonline)

And in just his second year at the Mean Green’s helm, Seth Littrell earned the first title of his head-coaching career – all the more remarkable because he arrived in Denton days after North Texas completed a 1-11 season. The reversal of fortunes that will propel North Texas (7-3 on the year and 6-1 in league play) to the C-USA championship game on Dec. 2 has been startling.

“Having an opportunity to play for a championship, that’s the standard we want to set,” Littrell said. “These coaches and players have put in a lot of work.

“We had an opportunity to win the west, and getting that monkey off our back is huge,” he added. “The hardest one to get is that first one.”

This is North Texas’ first regular-season championship since 2004, when the Mean Green won the last of four-straight Sun Belt titles.

“It’s a huge accomplishment,” Fine said. “Now we’re in the conference championship game. We just have to stay focussed.”

“That’s something that I’ve wanted to do since I came here,” Wilson said of the title. “It’s a feeling I’ve wanted all my life. To have my family here tonight, it’s a blessing.”

The Mean Green struggled in the first half against the winless Miners, who took a 7-0 lead when UTEP’s Kahani Smith returned a North Texas fumble 45 yards for a touchdown on the Mean Green’s first possession of the game.

“I knew it was going to be a dog fight in the first half,” Littrell said. “They’ve been very competitive in the first half this year. We just wore them down in the second half.”

But North Texas slowly began to exert control. The Mean Green defense held UTEP to just 80 yards total offense and 2-of-7 third-down conversions in the first half, while the offense pieced together 64- and 81-yard scoring drives – both capped by Mason Fine to Darden TD passes – to take a 14-7 lead to halftime. North Texas then took the second-half opening kickoff and rolled through the Miners for a Wilson 1-yard touchdown run and a 21-7 advantage.

The Mean Green, however, have tended towards generosity when holding a lead this year, allowing six opponents to rally from deficits.

Not this time.

The North Texas defense smothered the Miners, allowing a season-low 10 points, a season-low 231 yards total offense, and tied a season-low for first downs with 15. It kept up pressure on UTEP quarterback Zack Greenlee and permitted the Miners to convert just 4-of-15 third downs. North Texas’ Nate Brooks had a team-high eight tackles, LaDarius Hamilton had an interception to set up a field goal, and Dee Baulkman had his second punt block of the year.

“Every week, we want to try to come out and be the most ferocious defense on the field,” Hamilton said. “Domination is the word. They (UTEP) like to run the ball, we like to stop that. It’s gang tackles all night, and eventually you’ll break the will of the running backs.”

The Mean Green offense then finished off the game with a 17-0 run. North Texas answered UTEP’s only scoring drive of the game – a 66-yard march for a field goal – with a 60-yard touchdown pass from Fine to Rico Bussey, Jr., then got a 66-yard rush from Wilson to set up a 2-yard TD pass from Fine to Jalen Guyton for an insurmountable 35-10 lead.