(this is an update of an article that originally ran Oct. 13, 2017)
The North Texas Mean Green have what is unofficially called the Safeway Bowl, against SMU. Thanks to Twitter shenanigans, the UTSA Roadrunners now have their Golden Shopping Cart with the Sun Belt’s Texas State.
And somehow, despite UTSA and North Texas being just over 300 miles apart, they don’t even get the love that UConn/UCF used to get.
Aren’t Texas schools supposed to hate each other? Longhorns/Aggies! Longhorns/Cougars! Longhorns/Red Raiders! The list goes on.
This year sees the rubber match, as this best-of-7 series will see one team take the lead for another year, until we preview number eight in 2020. This game may not have the tradition of other C-USA rivalries, but things have changed a lot in just seven years, and taking a look back shows us how we got where we are in 2019: Possibly the best match-up yet.
2013 - UTSA 21, North Texas 13
When the Roadrunners announced their first head coach would be Larry Coker, winner of a national title at Miami, that was what sportswriters describe with the typical understatement as “a splash hire.” People knew the name and it was considered a huge get. Instant success was all but guaranteed, wasn’t it?
North Texas was having an outstanding season that year, an eventual bowl season under former Iowa State coach Dan McCarney. Going into this game, the Mean Green were 7-3 (5-0), for their best season since 2004 (their last bowl appearance). A win against these upstarts, these nobodies, would catapult them into their first conference title game ever, as the Sun Belt didn’t have a title game when UNT was a member. UTSA was perceived in the conference like Charlotte is now— like, hey, we’re glad you’re here, but you don’t really deserve to win any games yet, do you?
Well, North Texas did not win this game, which allowed Rice to slip into the title game that year, which they won. Rice, people. RICE. That’s how you know things are bad.
North Texas would still go to a bowl that year, defeating UNLV in the Heart of Dallas bowl. It would be their only bowl under McCarney, who never had a season this good again.
2014 - UTSA 34, North Texas 27
After the previous year’s fireworks, these two teams were scheduled to meet in the final week of the 2014 season. McCarney was on a downward slide he would never recover from; Coker’s job was just to put a team on the field, no one expected anything yet from a team so fresh.
This game was effectively meaningless, as both teams were already eliminated from bowl contention by that point. With UTSA’s win, both squads finished 4-8. What a difference a year makes— the rivalry was dead before it even started, as both teams returned to their respective offseasons to lick their wounds and ponder what the future might hold.
2015 - North Texas 30, UTSA 23
On Oct. 10 of that year, homecoming, Dan McCarney lost 66-7 to an FCS team and was fired at the end of the game. Offensive coordinator Mike Canales took over as interim coach and lost the next two weeks against WKU and Marshall, neither of which were big surprises.
In his third game at the helm, Canales & Co. welcomed UTSA into Denton. The Mean Green had yet to win a game at that point in the season. UTSA was also flailing at 1-6. While Dalton Sturm threw for over twice as many yards as new UNT QB DaMarcus Smith, it was Smith (also a prolific runner) and some upstart sophomore named Jeffrey Wilson who combined for over 260 rushing yards and two touchdowns (Willy Ivery would provide a third).
You could argue that this was the game that cost Larry Coker his job, as Mike Canales didn’t even end up keeping the head coaching gig. This was UNT’s only win this year, finishing 1-11. UTSA would go on to finish a disappointing 3-9, with wins against Charlotte and Rice.
2016 - UTSA 31, North Texas 17
A new beginning. UTSA had hired Frank Wilson, and North Texas had brought aboard Seth Littrell, both turning around their programs immediately.
Despite this, North Texas struggled with turnovers, as a shaky (and still freshman) Mason Fine threw two interceptions while passing for “only” 257 yards. Dalton Sturm passed for 142 (and two TDs), but that didn’t matter, because Jalen Rhodes ran for 74 yards and two TDs and the Roadrunners decided, hey, maybe let’s not turn the ball over today. Jeffrey Wilson, meanwhile, fumbled twice, losing one.
With Wilson stopped and no standout receiver for North Texas (Thaddeous Thompson led UNT receivers with six catches for a whopping 65 yards), North Texas had their win streak end at one, unable to pull this one out under the Alamodome lights.
Both teams would go on to a bowl game that year, UTSA finishing 6-6 and North Texas finishing 5-7 but getting in anyway thanks to their high graduation rate.
For the past two years, these games had become largely meaningless again, but in 2016, it felt like something was started to grow again.
2017 - North Texas 29, UTSA 26
The Drive. Our original recap of this series ran a few days before this game, talking about the back and forth nature of the series, but nothing could’ve prepared anyone for The Drive.
The game itself was a close contest, with the Mean Green up 16-7 at the end of the first, and UTSA leading 17-16 at halftime. Fine, now a sophomore, threw for 354 yards as the running game faltered, Jeffrey Wilson finishing with only 87 yards.
On the other side of the ball, the Roadrunners had a much more balanced attack, as Sturm threw for 215 yards and combined with the running backs to amass 174 yards rushing. With the only 3rd quarter score a UTSA field goal, the teams traded touchdowns and with just over a minute to play, the visiting team (UTSA) was up 26-22. And then The Drive.
North Texas got the ball back on their own 4-yard-line, and marched the ball 96 yards back down the field to score the go-ahead touchdown with ten seconds left in the game, a 22-yard-pass to Rico Bussey Jr. that left Roadrunner fans stunned, and propelled North Texas to their first C-USA West division title.
2018 - North Texas 24, UTSA 21
The previous years match-up still fresh in everyone’s memory, the game returned to the Alamodome, to give the Roadrunners a shot at redemption.
The home team was breaking in a new quarterback in Bryce Rivers, who would finish with an impressive 269 yards passing, one passing touchdown, one rushing touchdown, and one interception. Brenden Brady contributed another 89 yards rushing and a touchdown.
But even with the game back on familiar turf, Seth Littrell’s Mean Green once again had their number. On the backs of Fine’s 320 yard, two-touchdown (and one INT) performance, and an explosive day from DeAndre Torrey (155 yards rushing), Wilson’s heir apparent straight-up embarrassed the Roadrunners. UNT was up 17-14 at half time, and never relinquished the lead, tying a series the Roadrunners once led 3-1.
With the possible exception of the 2017 contest, none of these games had such high stakes as they did in 2013, when what was basically a meaningless game for a bowl-ineligible UTSA meant everything in the world to North Texas.
In 2019, as in 2017, this game means everything in the world to both teams. This year both squads come into the game at 1-2, opening conference play in very important years for each head coach. For UNT, a win could mean an eventual return to the C-USA title game, and a possible shot at finally getting to ten wins. For UTSA, Frank Wilson is arguably on the hot seat, after having reached only a single bowl game in 2016.
As the series has gone on, it’s only gotten better, and more competitive, and one of these teams will come out of the game 1-3 and with some serious questions about their season.
We’ll see you at Apogee Stadium on Saturday, September 21, at 6:30 p.m. local time.
Larry Coker and Dan McCarney remain disinvited.