UNT column shot

North Texas safety Makyle Sanders tackles Florida International running back Shaun Peterson Jr. during the Mean Green’s win over the Panthers on Saturday at Riccardo Silva Stadium in Miami.

MIAMI — North Texas inched ever closer Saturday to what would be a dream ending to a season that seemed to be spiraling out of control not all that long ago.

A bowl game? In 2021? The prospect seemed remote at best when the Mean Green were in the midst of a six-game losing streak.

UNT hasn’t lost since that slide ended with a win over Rice back on Oct. 30. The Mean Green extended their winning streak to four games with a commanding 49-7 win over Florida International on a rainy night in Miami.

UNT is suddenly 5-6 and has a chance to become bowl eligible with a win at home this week over UTSA, the Mean Green’s longtime rival.

UNT has experienced some tough times this year, but it all finally seems to be coming together for the Mean Green, who pulled together when they absolutely had to.

“I thought we handled this trip well,” UNT coach Seth Littrell said. “We had a good week of preparation. The confidence and momentum we have had the last couple of weeks helped.

“There wasn’t a ton of adversity tonight, which was awesome.”

There was a sense coming into the season that UNT would need some time to figure it all out. The Mean Green have a new defensive coordinator in Phil Bennett and some young players filling key roles.

The hope was UNT would come together late in the season and make a run at a bowl berth.

That’s exactly what the Mean Green have done as some of their key young players grow into their roles. Freshman running back Ikaika Ragsdale rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown against FIU, while redshirt freshman defensive end Gabriel Murphy posted seven tackles.

“We are going in the right direction every week and are getting better,” quarterback Austin Aune said. “We have momentum and will look to build on it.”

That will be easier said than done against UTSA. For teams at the Conference USA level, it’s all about capitalizing on windows for success.

If you’re UNT, UTSA or any other C-USA team, there are going to be years when everything is in place — an experienced quarterback, key playmakers on either side of the ball and assistant coaches who have had time to implement their systems.

UNT went through a championship window a few years ago with Mason Fine, Jaelon Darden and a host of other program greats.

The Mean Green never quite capitalized with a conference championship or a bowl win.

This year is UTSA’s window. The Roadrunners have an NFL-caliber running back in Sincere McCormick, an experienced quarterback in Frank Harris and veterans up and down their lineup.

The idea of UNT having a chance to knock off UTSA seems a little less outlandish than it did a few weeks ago with the way the Mean Green are playing.

“It’s a really good feeling,” linebacker Kevin Wood said. “We worked hard all year. We didn’t start out well early in the season. To get four in a row means a lot to us. We’re on a roll.”

That roll gives UNT a chance at the storybook ending.

Wins over UTSA are always big for UNT. The most loyal of Mean Green supporters have a hard time admitting the schools have built a rivalry due to the short-term history of UTSA and its athletics program.

That issue only underscores the point that the rivalry is there.

UNT enters that game playing its best football of the season. The Mean Green’s defense gave up just seven points to FIU.

Wood nearly matched that total when he intercepted a Max Bortenschlager pass at the UNT goal line and returned it deep into FIU territory. He had the end zone in his sights before FIU ran him down.

UNT capitalized a short time later with the first of its seven touchdowns on the night.

“I wish I could have taken to the house,” Wood said. “I’m just glad I set the offense up for a big score. To get a turnover when they were in our red zone meant a lot.”

The play was another sign of how UNT is coming together late in the season. The Mean Green are making the big plays now they didn’t early in the year.

UNT needed a while to get there while facing a tough schedule. What matters is that they got there and have set up a showdown with UTSA with a ton on the line.

The Roadrunners are 11-0, ranked No. 15 in the Associated Press Top 25 and have already wrapped up the Conference USA West Division title.

The Mean Green are playing their best football of the season heading into that game and have a chance to cap what would be a remarkable late-season run with a win to get to 6-6.

That scenario seemed like a distant dream a few weeks ago, which shows just how far UNT has come since losing six straight games.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

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