Mason Fine calmly turned to his teammates on the sideline at Apogee Stadium at a time when nothing seemed to be going right.
The Mean Green turned the ball over when they had a chance to ice Saturday’s game against Middle Tennessee and watched as the Blue Raiders drove for the game-tying touchdown.
UNT had just 28 seconds left to answer.
“They gave us too much time,” Fine said on the sideline. “I had confidence that we could go down there and score.”
Fine has led a host of game-winning drives in his career and added another in a 33-30 win over the Blue Raiders.
Deion Hair-Griffin returned the kickoff 50 yards after MTSU quarterback Chase Cunningham scored on a 4-yard run to tie the game. Fine did the rest, connecting on his last nine passes to set up Ethan Mooney up at the Blue Raiders’ 7-yard line.
Mooney knocked through the 22-yard field goal, setting off a huge celebration. UNT’s players streamed on to the field and mobbed Mooney.
“The feeling was something special, getting smacked on your head by all your teammates,” Mooney said.
The kick capped a wild ending to a game that included two turnovers, a touchdown and Mooney’s field goal all in the final two minutes.
“Our guys stayed in it and were positive throughout the game,” UNT coach Seth Littrell said. “Guys made mistakes. We picked them up and found a way to win.”
UNT (3-4, 2-1 Conference USA) appeared to have the game wrapped up when safety Taylor Robinson intercepted a Cunningham pass and returned it 39 yards to the Blue Raiders’ 28-yard line with 1:50 left in the game.
MTSU (2-5, 1-2) needed a turnover to have a chance and got it when linebacker DQ Thomas ripped the ball out of running back Loren Easly’s hands. Linebacker Chris Melton recovered the fumble at the MTSU 21.
The Blue Raiders capitalized by driving straight down the field behind Cunningham. MTSU’s backup quarterback came on in the second half and guided the Blue Raiders on a seven-play, 79-yard drive.
UNT was forced to turn to Hair-Griffin, its backup kick returner, after DeAndre Torrey went out with an injury and saw him respond with his game-changing dash.
“That was the biggest play of the game,” Littrell said. “That gave us a chance.”
UNT’s chances were even better with Fine on the field. He has guided UNT on game-winning drive after game-winning drive in the course of his career.
“I’m always confident,” Fine said. “If there’s time on the clock, I feel like we can score.”
Fine quickly guided UNT down the field after the Mean Green took over on the MTSU 44. He hit running back Nic Smith for 11 yards and then threw the ball up to Jaelon Darden with 10 seconds left.
Darden came down with the ball at the Blue Raiders’ 7-yard line on a 28-yard strike.
“When coach gives me the opportunity to make plays, I have to do what I can to help the team win,” Darden said.
All that stood between the Mean Green and another miracle finish was a chip-shot field goal.
Mooney was money and UNT walked off with a win that snapped a two-game losing streak. The win might have saved the Mean Green’s season.
UNT can’t afford to drop many more games if it wants to play in a bowl game for a fourth straight year. Its margin for error if it wants to stay in the race for the C-USA title is even smaller after it dropped a conference game last week at Southern Miss.
“I talked a lot about how wins and losses don’t define you,” Littrell said. “When you are going through a season with great challenges and adversity, it’s not so much about the results, it’s about how you act within those results.”
UNT lost top wide receiver Rico Bussey Jr. in the third week of the season and was without its leading rusher Tre Siggers after he went down with an ankle injury last week.
The Mean Green had to fight and scratch and claw all night to get back on track without those players.
A few big plays made the difference for UNT.
The Mean Green trailed 13-10 when DeShawn Gaddie came free off the edge and blocked a Kyle Ulbrich punt. Dominique Harrison grabbed the ball and scored from 20 yards out to give UNT a 17-13 lead in an offensively challenged first half.
Each team managed just offensive touchdown before picking up the pace in the second half. Fine scored on a 3-yard run to cap the Mean Green’s opening possession. MTSU starting quarterback Asher O’Hara scored on a 12-yard run in the second quarter.
The Mean Green found their groove eventually behind Fine and Darden.
Fine threw for 375 yards, while Darden caught 13 passes for 125 yards.
MTSU gave the pair 28 seconds to work with on Saturday night.
That doesn’t sound like much. Fine felt differently. He told his teammates UNT had plenty of time and came through with another game-winning drive.
“You know how I feel about Mason,” Littrell said. “He’s extremely tough and is going to continue to battle and sacrifice. He gets frustrated at times because he wants to be perfect. There are throws he would like to take back, but he keeps fighting and was clutch at the end.”