UNT-LT revisited

Louisiana Tech Bulldog cornerback Amik Robertson (21) dives to block a field goal attempt from North Texas kicker Cole Hedlund last season at Apogee Stadium. The loss ended a four-game winning streak for UNT.

North Texas quarterback Mason Fine has never forgotten the last time the Mean Green faced Louisiana Tech.

UNT was riding high that night a little more than a year ago with a 4-0 record and a stunning win over Arkansas under its belt.

The question then was if the Mean Green could win their first Conference USA title and make a run at an unbeaten regular season.

Those dreams vanished with a thud when Louisiana Tech’s star cornerback Amik Robertson came flying off the edge and blocked Cole Hedlund’s 46-yard field goal attempt with 33 seconds remaining to preserve a 29-27 Louisiana Tech win at Apogee Stadium.

The game was a critical juncture for both teams, which are preparing to meet again on Saturday in Ruston in what shapes up to be another consequential game in a budding rivalry.

“I don’t know if that was a turning point, but I remember that game vividly,” Fine said. “It was a heartbreaking loss. I have a bitter taste in my mouth.

“Hopefully the team remembers that bad taste from last year and uses it as fuel.”

UNT will need every edge it can muster heading into a game where the roles have reversed.

This time, it’s Louisiana Tech that is riding high.

The Bulldogs have won seven straight games since opening the season with a loss at Texas and are receiving votes in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. At 4-0 in conference play, Louisiana Tech has a clear path to the C-USA West Division title and a berth in the league’s title game.

UNT (4-5, 3-2) hasn’t been eliminated in the C-USA title chase but has bigger concerns, none bigger than figuring out a way to win two of its last three games to qualify for a bowl for the fourth straight season.

“There is a lot to play for,” UNT coach Seth Littrell said. “If you can’t get locked in and motivated for this game, you probably shouldn’t be playing.”

The history between the teams pretty much guarantees the players on both sides will be ready to go.

Last season’s game was the second in back-to-back thrillers. UNT slipped past Louisiana Tech in Ruston in 24-23 in 2017 when Jonathan Barnes missed a 53-yard field goal with 2:39 left.

“This is one of those weeks that you would consider a rivalry week,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said. “Everyone has a bit more pep in their step.”

That’s no surprise considering the way the season set up.

UNT was a near-unanimous pick to win the C-USA West Division title in the league’s preseason media poll, while Louisiana Tech was picked to finish third.

The teams have combined to win the division in three of the last five years.

What neither has done is win the division and go on to win the conference title. UNT fell to Florida Atlantic in C-USA title game 2017, while Louisiana Tech fell to Western Kentucky in 2016 and Marshall in 2014.

The Mean Green appeared to have their best team in Littrell’s four seasons last year after starting with four straight wins but went just 5-4 the rest of the way and fell to Utah State in the New Mexico Bowl.

Since then, UNT hasn’t been on a run quite like its four-game streak to open the 2018 season. The Mean Green haven’t won more than two games in a row and are 9-9 since the Bulldogs stunned UNT in Denton.

Louisiana Tech went 5-4 after stunning UNT last season and beat Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl, the Bulldogs’ fifth bowl win in the last five seasons.

“It was a tough loss, losing on a field goal block,” UNT wide receiver Deion Hair-Griffin said. “We put it in the rearview mirror and pushed on.”

Now it’s the Mean Green who are looking to spoil Louisiana Tech’s dream season.

The Bulldogs squeaked out a 20-14 win over Grambling in their second game of the season and needed overtime to get past Rice 23-20 on Sept. 28.

Louisiana Tech has been on a roll since. The Bulldogs have won their last three games by at least 15 points.

Louisiana Tech is the lone team left in C-USA without a loss in league play and controls its destiny in the West Division, where Southern Miss and UAB are also in the hunt at 3-1.

The Bulldogs are essentially in the same position the Mean Green were last season heading into what has been one of the more hotly contested games in C-USA the last two years.

Louisiana Tech helped spoil the Mean Green’s dreams of breaking through for their first C-USA championship in 2018.

UNT is hoping to return the favor this week.

“These are two of the top powers in the West,” Fine said. “You also have UAB and Southern Miss. A lot can happen. Every game is important.”

That’s nearly always the case when UNT and Louisiana Tech face off.

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

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