Jaelon Darden has maintained throughout his senior season that he isn’t sure if this will be his final campaign at North Texas.
Darden certainly took full advantage of his opportunity to make a few final memories — if this season is indeed his collegiate swan song — in UNT’s regular season finale at Apogee Stadium on Friday.
The Houston native came into the night as UNT’s all-time leader in touchdown catches. He made it a trifecta in a 45-43 win over UTEP, adding program records for receptions and receiving yards while breathing a little life into UNT’s fading bowl hopes.
UNT (4-5, 3-4 Conference USA) came into the night out of the conference title chase but still holding out hope of sneaking into a bowl game.
Darden has been spectacular all year and was at his best again against the Miners while keeping UNT’s hopes alive, catching eight passes for 173 yards and four touchdowns.
“It’s a real eye-opener because of all the work I put in going back to those days of blood, sweat and tears,” Darden said. “I can’t do anything but thank God and coach Littrell for the opportunity he gave me.”
Darden’s status as an all-time UNT great is secure no matter what happens at this point.
He’s surpassed a host of Mean Green legends throughout the season, including Hall of Famer Ron Shanklin, who held UNT’s career touchdowns record of 31 before Darden passed him last week when he upped his total to 34. Darden has 38 now after his big night against UTEP.
Darden eclipsed two more greats on Saturday while pushing receiving yardage total to 2,782 yards. Johnny Quinn, a UNT Hall of Famer who went on to become an Olympic bobsledder, held the previous mark of 2,718. Darden later surpassed Hall of Famer Casey Fitzgerald for UNT’s receptions record by catching a swing pass in late in the fourth quarter to push his career total to 230, one more than Fitzgerald amassed.
“He’s a stud,” UNT coach Seth Littrell said. “I’m proud of him. He deserves it because of the amount of work he puts in off the field when no one else is around. He has all the tools.”
UNT needed Darden to show all those tools on a night it had to fight to snap a two-game losing streak.
UTEP (3-5, 0-4) was without starting quarterback Gavin Hardison, who didn’t make the trip to Denton for undisclosed reasons.
The Miners turned to their running game, rolled up 301 rushing yards and hung with the Mean Green. UNT didn’t close out UTEP until it recovered an onside kick in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter.
Backup quarterback Calvin Brownholtz filed in for Hardison and rushed for 114 yards, while running back Deion Hankins added 99. Both scored two rushing touchdowns.
UNT went to backup quarterback Austin Aune just three plays into the game after starter Jason Bean fumbled on the Mean Green’s opening possession.
Aune went on to throw for 302 yards and five touchdowns in his best performances of the season.
“I had to stay ready,” Aune said. “You never know when your number is going to be called. It was pretty fun.”
The game turned into a shootout in the second half, one Darden helped put away late in the second half after UTEP pulled within 31-28.
UNT went to Darden over and over in the closing moments of the fourth quarter. Darden caught a 2-yard touchdown pass and added a 50-yard grab in what became a historic night. He arrived at UNT’s press conference with a bag filled with four footballs to commemorate each of his four touchdown catches.
Darden stuck by his stance that he hasn’t made a decision on if he will return to UNT.
“I am still going to think about it,” Darden said “It will come down to what is best for me.”
Both Darden and Littrell said they are holding out hope the season isn’t over.
Littrell said UNT will find out in the next few days if it will add another game to the schedule.
“I think there is a chance that we play more this season,” Littrell said. “We should have a pretty good idea by Monday of what we are going to do.”
Darden has capitalized on all of his opportunities this season. He might have at least one more coming.
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