The final blow to North Texas’ bowl hopes came Saturday night in a manner that reflected the baffling nature of a lost season for the Mean Green.
UNT rallied from a 20-point deficit and had the ball deep in Rice territory after the Owls fumbled a kickoff.
The Mean Green had momentum, the ball and one of the best quarterbacks in program history in Mason Fine ready to add to his legacy.
And it all went nowhere.
UNT was called for holding twice, couldn’t move the ball and ended up falling 20-14 after a pair of passes from Fine into the end zone fell incomplete.
The Mean Green needed a win to stay alive for a bowl and couldn’t get it done.
“We made some mistakes here and there and it snowballed,” UNT coach Seth Littrell said. “I have to do a better job of getting them into a rhythm. At the same time, they have to come out with a better mentality and make plays.”
It’s the basic formula for any successful team, one UNT has inexplicably failed to master while stumbling to a 4-7 mark heading into their season finale against UAB on Saturday.
The Mean Green entered the season seeming to have everything it needed to build on back-to-back nine-win seasons, from talented players like Fine to one of the most successful head coaches in recent program history in Littrell.
There was more than enough talent on the rest of the roster for UNT to win six games and earn a bowl bid.
In football, it takes more than that. Teams need chemistry, leadership, moxie and the ability to come through in the clutch, factors that combine to form that important and elusive quality of having “it” one hears about in sports.
Bottom line, UNT has had a stunning lack of that quality and has seen its season spiral downhill as a result.
The first half of the Mean Green’s loss to Rice was a perfect example.
UNT came into the day knowing it had to win its last two games to become bowl eligible with six wins and came out flatter than Kansas. The Mean Green didn’t pick up their initial first down until late in the second quarter.
UNT made a few plays defensively but not enough to avoid trailing 20-0 at halftime.
“Yeah, I am surprised,” Littrell said of seeing his team struggle out of the gate with so much on the line. “Things don’t go your way, you have to overcome adversity and get into the groove of the game.”
UNT did get into a groove late, and rallied, but couldn’t come through in the clutch when it had the ball in the shadow of Rice’s goal line.
Remember, this was a team that drove 98 yards in the final 1:07 to knock off UTSA just a couple of years ago. Several of the players who were on the field for what is known as “The Drive” at UNT were on the field again Saturday.
That’s what makes UNT’s struggles this season all the tougher to explain.
The Mean Green have players with terrific character up and down their roster. Fine will go down as one of the best players in program history. His character is unquestioned.
The same can be said of wide receiver Michael Lawrence, defensive end LaDarius Hamilton and several of the other UNT players.
A rash of injuries have hampered UNT this season. Fine missed most of the Mean Green’s loss to Louisiana Tech two weeks ago with a concussion.
Those injuries just aren’t enough to explain away all that has ailed UNT this season.
“Coach Littrell talked about taking ownership and said it was on him,” Fine said. “Maybe it was the preparation in the offseason. I was there with him. Is there any way I could have been better?”
There’s no way to pin a lost season on Fine. He’s been great and done more for UNT football than any player in recent memory.
UNT will have to look elsewhere to find the answers as to what went wrong.
Losing offensive coordinator Graham Harrell to Southern Cal was a blow. The departure of a few key defensive players who were also tone-setters, including E.J. Ejiya, hurt as well.
UNT should have had enough talent to overcome those issues. That’s the reason the Mean Green were picked to win Conference USA’s West Division in the league’s preseason poll.
UNT fell well short of that goal while floundering through a season in which it lost all six of its road games and never put together back-to-back wins.
There are plenty of reasons that is the case.
The most baffling is the lack of chemistry a team loaded with veterans showed.
“It’s disappointing,” Littrell said. “There is no doubt in my mind that we felt like we would have a lot more success this season.”