“We are so lucky to be able to watch this kid play football.”
One of the closing comments from your play-by-play team on Stadium Sports, they were referring to North Texas quarterback Mason Fine, who just minutes earlier had completed a near-impossible pass to Jaelon Darden at the six yard line.
At the start of the day, these teams seemed almost evenly matched. Both 1-1 in conference play, both 2-4 overall, with both wins coming against an FCS squad and a conference opponent. Even with UNT favored by 7.5 coming into the game, they looked just bad enough against Southern Miss last week— during which both Fine and Tre Siggers left with injuries— that this game really could have gone either way.
During the game was no different. The teams traded scores all day, with Blue Raider quarterback Asher O’Hara running circles around the UNT defense, putting up big plays but struggling on third down and in the red zone, settling for field goals multiple times. O’Hara was pulled from the game in the 4th quarter, finishing 16/32 passing with 136 yards, but adding another 82 yards on the ground, and a rushing TD.
The switch at quarterback was a measured risk for the Blue Raiders, as Chase Cunningham seemed to be a more accurate passer (9 for 16, 121 yards, one touchdown, one interception), and also ran in a touchdown late in the game to tie it.
But errors on offense (missing eight consecutive third down conversions, at one point), and on special teams (a late kickoff return for North Texas put them at the edge of field goal range) sunk this Middle Tennessee team, despite some really bright spots elsewhere. Their two interceptions kept them close, O’Hara was a threat to run on every play, and kicker Crews Holt was perfect, finishing three for three on field goals.
Ultimately, however, this was the North Texas team we’ve been waiting to see all season, a far cry from the team we saw a week ago against Southern Miss. Battling a shoulder injury, Mason Fine took every snap anyway, finishing 33/45 passing, with 375 yards, with one touchdown pass, and two interceptions. Leading receiver Jaelon Darden finished with 13 receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown, including a spectacular catch at the end for a 28-yard reception, when UNT only needed maybe ten to put them in field goal range.
Tre Siggers, out last week with an ankle injury, was in uniform on the sideline but did not play. Loren Easly was tops in the rushing department for the Mean Green this week, finishing with 19 carries for 99 yards.
With 1:42 left in the game, and the score 30-23, this match-up was effectively over, when Loren Easly broke out for a big run inside the 25, unfortunately fumbling and giving the Blue Raiders one more shot. Under Cunningham, they capitalized, getting those important third down conversions and punching it into the end zone, on a six yard QB run.
But North Texas remembered its roots under Seth Littrell, starting with a 59-yard kickoff return, followed by a run that went nowhere, then the miraculous reception to Darden. UNT kicker Ethan Mooney was also perfect, going four for four on field goals, including the 37-yard game winner.
Final attendance numbers were not available at press time, but the sparse crowd at Apogee was on hand to witness one of the very best Conference USA match-ups of the year.
Middle Tennessee, 2-5 (1-2) will have their work cut out for them for the rest of the season to reach a bowl game. MTSU will face FIU next week, followed by Charlotte, a bye week, and then Rice and Old Dominion. A bowl game is still possible, but they’ll have to win every game leading up to the regular-season finale against WKU.
North Texas, 3-4 (2-2), will travel to Charlotte for the first time next week, as the race for C-USA West, and in fact C-USA East, are both far from over.