via University of North Texas
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Do not turn your back on Keegan Brewer.
The North Texas redshirt sophomore wide receiver and con man suckered Arkansas on a play North Texas practiced for a short-field punting situation, and Brewer sold and executed the ambush beautifully. Brewer, who at first glance appeared to fair catch a punt at the UNT 10-yard line but never put his arm above his head to actually signal the fair catch, stood still while the Arkansas coverage team ran past him and gave up on the play, then took off for a 90-yard punt return and a touchdown that sparked the Mean Green to a 44-17 drubbing of the Razorbacks Saturday afternoon.
Dominating SMU and Incarnate Word was a strong start to the 2018 season. Dominating a Power 5 opponent from the Southeastern Conference on the road and silencing 62,355 pig-sooie-screaming fans, however, is a bit more impressive.
Whether Saturday’s victory will be regarded as a signature win may depend on the results of the coming weeks, but what’s certain now is that North Texas moved up in weight class in Week 3 and repeated its Week 1 and Week 2 successes. The Mean Green defense turned in another commanding performance that controlled the Hogs’ run game, pressured the quarterback and grabbed six interceptions; special teams kept Arkansas bottled up and remained perfect on field-goal attempts; and the offense continued to make big plays and took advantage of the field position its defense provided.
“I’m so proud of how far we’ve come and the way we continue to build within our culture,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. “They’re playing in all three phases together, and that’s what it takes.
“I felt like our team came in confident, and we felt we were the better football team,” he added. “And we proved today we were.”
This wasn’t a case of a lightly regarded Group of Five squad sneaking up on a complacent Power 5. Arkansas could hardly have overlooked a North Texas team ranked 20th in the nation in total defense and No. 1 in the country in passing offense. The Razorbacks, meanwhile, were coming off a loss a week ago to Colorado State in which they squandered an 18-point, third-quarter lead, and ahead of them lies a four-week meat grinder through the heart of their SEC schedule. Arkansas needed this game.
The Hogs (1-2) may have needed it, but North Texas (3-0) wanted it. The Mean Green were the aggressors throughout, striking first, taking charge and responding to an Arkansas comeback that drew the Razorbacks within a touchdown in the second quarter with a flurry of game-clinching blows for a 34-10 halftime lead.
The win is UNT head coach Seth Littrell’s first over a Power 5 opponent and the program’s first road victory over a Power 5 since 1999 when it knocked off Texas Tech in Lubbock – at a time when the phrase Power 5 was just entering the college-football vernacular.
The Mean Green jumped on top on a sequence that was emblematic of the season: the defense set it up with a big play, and Mason Fine and the offense overcame a third and long to capitalize.
Senior defensive back Nate Brooks came up with the first of two North Texas first-quarter interceptions to put the Mean Green in business at the Arkansas 44. After Loren Easly ran over a Razorback defender for a 24-yard gain, Fine hit Michael Lawrence to convert a third and 10, and Fine finished the drive with a 2-yard run and a 7-0 lead.
But it was the fake fair catch that demoralized the Razorbacks and their fans while turning an early lead into early control of the game for the Mean Green.
“That’s a play we’ve had in our book,” Littrell said. “You have to give Keegan a lot of credit. It takes guts to stand back there and not call a fair catch, not knowing if someone is going to bust you. It’s just awesome to see that unfold. When something like that works, it builds your confidence.”
A second first-period interception, off a pass tipped by North Texas linebacker Jamie King and picked by Khairi Muhammad, set up a 24-yard Cole Hedlund field goal. Sandwiched around Brewer’s punt-return deception, the interception-enabled scores gave the Mean Green a 17-0 lead.
Arkansas regrouped and responded with two scores, including a 54-yard field goal, to draw within 17-10, but North Texas fired back. Fine displayed his passing touch by dropping balls into Jaelon Darden, Rico Bussey, Jr., and Jalen Guyton to fuel three second-quarter scoring drives. The North Texas running game, which has struggled in the first two weeks, also made a contribution behind Easly, who rushed for 47 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
“It’s a great feeling,” Fine said. “Defense was great, special teams were great, it’s a great win for our team.”
“I knew I had a lot of support,” Fine added, referencing the large contingent of fans – including his parents – from Peggs, Oklahoma, that made the trip to Fayetteville. “I had to try not to do too much and just play my game.”
Fine finished 24 of 45 for 281 yards and a touchdown and no interceptions against an Arkansas defense that had forced seven turnovers in its first two games. Darden was the Mean Green’s leading receiver with five catches for 87 yards.
After opening the second-half with a 14-play, 72-yard drive for a third Hedlund field goal, the air came out of the North Texas offense. But the Mean Green defense kept up the pressure. It recorded five second-half sacks from E.J. Ejiya, Brandon Garner, LaDarius Hamilton (with two) and Darrian McMillan, and that pass rush forced an underthrow on a flea-flicker that UNT’s Taylor Robinsonintercepted.
“They were aggressive, and that takes everyone making routine plays and takes everyone doing their job in order to get those turnovers,” Littrell said. “We really dominated up front. It was impressive to watch those guys flying around.”
“It feels great,” Garner said. “From going 1-11 my freshman year to going to SEC country and dominating the whole game. It happened the way we thought it would.”
It was the defense that put the finishing touches on the blow-out. Kemon Hall came up with his second pick 6 of the season, returning his third interception of the season 24 yards for a touchdown, and Muhammad collected his second interception of the day.
The Mean Green’s victory is the biggest by a Conference USA team over an SEC team since 2004 and the second-largest margin against the SEC in C-USA history.