A double take was in order Saturday and not simply because North Texas sent two players with No. 36 out for the opening kickoff.
No, the delayed surprise reaction was due to how different North Texas looked in every way after that Keystone Cops beginning.
The Mean Green appeared to take a big step forward in taking apart Marshall — annually one of the top teams in Conference USA — with big plays in the second half of a 38-21 victory at Apogee Stadium.
How this season ends is to be determined, but there is little doubt that North Texas (3-3, 2-1 C-USA) is trending in the right direction less than a year after the program waded through the sludge of a 1-11 campaign.
Jeffrey Wilson ran for a career-high 188 yards and two touchdowns, including a 72-yard burst with the score tied at 21-all in the third quarter that put the Mean Green up for good. Freshman quarterback Mason Fine finished 18 of 28 passing for 206 yards and an 11-yard touchdown pass to Arlington Martin graduate Tyler Wilson. Fine also ran for a TD.
North Texas’ defense held the Thundering Herd 139 yards below its average.
“It’s a big win against a quality opponent,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. “I felt like we’ve been getting better every week. We still have stuff to clean up, but … this is the best we’ve played in all three phases all year.”
The Mean Green received a pardon for the penalty of illegal equipment at the start of the game — Marshall (1-4, 0-1) declined the option to sanction North Texas — but that was merely the first on a list of good fortune that followed for North Texas, even as adversity loomed.
Marshall’s Keion Davis opened the second half with a 99-yard kickoff return, but North Texas responded with big play after big play.
On the ensuing drive, punter Eric Keena took a risk on an unplanned fake on fourth-and-9 from the Mean Green 41 that extended a 13-play, 80-yard drive, culminating in Tyler Wilson’s first collegiate TD pass.
Marshall quarterback Chase Litton, one of the C-USA’s top passers, was held to 258 yards and one touchdown.
Up 10, Mean Green corner Eric Jenkins sealed the victory with a 52-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“It was not a designed fake,” said Keena, who admitted that the doghouse likely awaited had it not succeeded. “I rolled out left. There was a huge opening. I had to take it. I think it definitely gave a big spark to not only our offense, but our fans.
“It was a momentum changer in the game,” Littrell said. “It gave us a lot of much-needed energy in the game.”
UNT—J.Wilson 4 run (T.Moore kick), 10:22
MSH—Litton 6 run (Curraj kick), 1:03
UNT—Fine 8 run (T.Moore kick), 10:33
MSH—K.Davis 99 kickoff return (Curraj kick), 14:47
UNT—T.Wilson 11 pass from Fine (T.Moore kick), 6:31
MSH—Yurachek 1 pass from Litton (Curraj kick), 4:00
UNT—J.Wilson 72 run (T.Moore kick), 3:15
UNT—FG T.Moore 31, 4:26
UNT—Jenkins 52 interception return (T.Moore kick), 2:35
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Marshall, K.Davis 14-33, Anderson 6-7, Litton 8-(minus 27). North Texas, J.Wilson 26-180, Ivery 11-42, Keena 1-18, Fine 14-9, (Team) 2-(minus 5).
PASSING—Marshall, Litton 20-42-1-258, (Team) 0-1-0-0. North Texas, Fine 18-28-0-206.
RECEIVING—Marshall, Clark 8-122, McManus 4-53, Hunt 3-45, Yurachek 3-10, Byrd 2-28. North Texas, T.Thompson 5-68, Ivery 3-29, J.Wilson 3-15, Buyers 2-43, Smiley 2-29, T.Wilson 2-17, K.Smith 1-5.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Marshall, Curraj 48, Curraj 42. North Texas, T.Moore 46.