DALLAS – Playing in its first bowl game in nine years, North Texas could be forgiven for showing a little rustiness in the first half of Wednesday’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.
UNT was a well-oiled machine in the second half. The Mean Green scored four second-half touchdowns, including a Heart of Dallas Bowl record 22 points in the fourth quarter, to crush UNLV, 36-14.
Hundreds of green-clad fans rushed the field afterwards to take part in the on-field trophy presentation and celebrate UNT’s first bowl win since the 2002 New Orleans Bowl.
On a sunny, pleasant New Year’s Day, the crowd of 38,380 packed the lower bowl âand then some – on the North Texas side from end zone to end zone in the historic Cotton Bowl Stadium
"This is not the end," coach Dan McCarney told the crowd. "It’s only a beginning."
The game’s beginning was not the best for the Mean Green.
UNT (9-4) struggled through the first half converting just one of six third downs. A muffed punt by UNLV (7-6) led to the Mean Green’s only score in the half.
Intermission did wonders for UNT’s execution. After a pedestrian 142 yards of offense in the first half, UNT rolled up 255 yards in the second half.
A 7-7 game at halftime turned into a rout for UNT starting with its first possession of the second half. The Mean Green marched 60 yards in 12 plays while converting four out of four third downs.
The drive was capped by a nifty throwback pass on third-and-goal from the seven. Quarterback Derek Thompson rolled out right then threw back to his left to a wide open tight end Drew Miller in the end zone.
Thompson was voted the MVP with a 21-of-30 passing performance for 256 yards and two touchdowns.
"We’re a second half football team," Thompson said. "We’ve been that all year. We knew if we picked up the tempo that we could do some things and move the football. We just made plays."
UNT’s defense gave up a 95-yard scoring drive on UNLV’s first possession, ending in a nine-yard touchdown pass from Caleb Herring to Marcus Sullivan.
When handed a 14-7 lead in the second half, the Mean Green defense began to assert itself and forced a three-and-out.
"It was the first time we had played a football game in over a month, and I felt like that first drive where they drove 95 yards on us, we were kind of playing on our heels," linebacker Zach Orr said. "We were just telling guys, just settle in. It really did come back after that drive and [we] pretty much shut them out the rest of the game."
UNT’s offense followed up with another nifty touchdown when Brelan Chancellor scored untouched on a jet sweep from three yards out. That score on the first play of the fourth quarter gave UNT a 21-7 lead.
North Texas then began harassing UNLV with its pass rush. The Mean Green sacked Rebels quarterback Caleb Herring four times in the second half, five times in all.
The dagger came with 6:59 left when Thompson hit Darnell Smith with a 34-yard strike for a 28-7 lead.
UNLV finally answered with 4:56 remaining when Herring found Jerry Rice Jr. for a 13-yard touchdown, but UNT wasn’t done scoring.
Chancellor broke free for 15 yards on a reverse for UNT’s final touchdown with 2:24 left. Things were going so well for the Mean Green at that point, even a blocked PAT turned into two points when Miller picked up the loose ball and ran it in.
The bowl win put the finishing touch on UNT’s first season in Conference USA.
"We sent a message today," said McCarney, in his third season at UNT. "I think this is a program that’s clearly on the rise. We have some tremendous guys coming back. We’re going to miss these seniors, but the example these seniors have left is here forever."