EL PASO — North Texas players bounded up the tunnel at the Sun Bowl late Saturday night, all making the same proclamation.
“1-0. We’re 1-0!”
UNT’s 31-13 win over UTEP in its season opener was just one step in what the Mean Green hope is a long run to a bowl win and maybe a shot at the Conference USA title.
Make no mistake, though. Some wins mean more than others.
This was a big one for UNT.
The Mean Green went into a hostile environment and came from behind to pick up a win in C-USA play against a team that played in a bowl last season and is expected to contend for a postseason bid again this year.
It was the type of game teams that contend for conference titles win.
“To get that first win on the road in conference is huge,” tight end Jake Roberts said. “That sets the tone for the rest of the season.”
The way UNT got it done makes it even bigger.
Cue the dramatic ESPN 30 for 30 music …
What if I told you UNT won with not just one, not two, but four of its top wide receivers out of the lineup?
Jyaire Shorter didn’t play. Promising newcomers Latrell Neville and Jordan Smart were also out, along with Dorian Morris, who looked like a potential contributor at times during the offseason.
That’s a lot of firepower to be without heading into the first game of the season.
UNT managed to go into the Sun Bowl — where UTEP was 7-1 in its last eight games dating back to 2020 — and not just win. The Mean Green rolled.
Roberts came up with the best game of his career while catching four passes for 54 yards and a touchdown. Ayo Adeyi rushed for 80 yards and UNT’s defense pitched a shutout in the second half.
When Seth Littrell looked back shortly after the final gun, he pointed UNT’s poise as one of the most encouraging aspects of how the Mean Green played.
UNT trailed early and made a couple of terrible mistakes, none worse than a fumbled exchange between Austin Aune and running back Ikaika Ragsdale inside the Mean Green’s 10-yard line late in the first half.
UNT was up 14-10 at the time and was facing the prospect of trailing at halftime.
The Mean Green’s defense came in and promptly forced a field goal. It was all UNT after that. The Mean Green outscored UTEP 17-0 in the second half.
“Our sideline is much better than it has been in the past,” Littrell said. “We’re a mature team that feeds off each other. We go on to the next play, but still learn from mistakes. The players hold each other accountable. Not allowing emotions to get involved was critical.”
Littrell and his players talked about the importance of cleaning up mistakes and continuing to improve.
UNT is far from where it needs or wants to be. The Mean Green were flagged for three 15-yard penalties in a single UTEP scoring drive.
Aune pointed to the fumble just before halftime as the type of mistake UNT can’t afford as it looks to build on its win over the Miners.
UNT will need to play a much cleaner game this week when it hosts SMU in what looks like a huge opportunity for the Mean Green. UNT is 6-34-1 in its series with the Mustangs but has won four of the six meetings in Denton.
One of those wins came under Littrell, a 46-23 blowout in 2018. Sonny Dykes coached his first regular season game for SMU that day.
There are some parallels heading into this week’s game. Rhett Lashley is headed into his first season as SMU’s coach.
The Mustangs are coming off an 8-4 campaign and are loaded with talent once again. Quarterback Tanner Mordecai is back, along with former UNT running back Tre Siggers.
The Mean Green will have to play better than they did against UTEP to extend their run of success at home against SMU.
No one knows that better than UNT’s players.
“This is how you want to start out the season,” Aune said. “But there are things we can clean up.”
That’s typically the case after the opening game of the season.
What matters is that UNT is tackling that challenge after opening the season with an impressive win. The Mean Green didn’t have all their horses for their game against the Miners and still won convincingly.
“It’s a great feeling to get that first conference win,” linebacker KD Davis said. “It sets the tone for the rest of conference play and the rest of the season.”
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