Jace Ruder came to North Texas in the offseason looking for a fresh start.
The Kansas native enjoyed some good times in three seasons at North Carolina. Those moments just didn’t come as often as he would have liked, sending the quarterback to the transfer market in search of a new home.
Ruder took a big step toward capitalizing his second chance at UNT on Saturday while helping lead the Mean Green to a 44-14 win over Northwestern State in its season opener at Apogee Stadium.
UNT waited to officially name Ruder its starter until game time. He responded with a performance that was far from perfect but showed he has the potential to be the long-term solution at quarterback UNT has lacked since Mason Fine completed a career that established him as an all-time Mean Green great in 2019.
Ruder threw for 131 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions. That was really all UNT needed on a night when DeAndre Torrey rushed for 244 yards and its defense showed signs of improvement.
“I’m proud of our guys,” UNT coach Seth Littrell said. “We have a lot to clean up. We are not where we want to be right now. We don’t have to be.
“We don’t take any win for granted.”
That’s especially true considering the Mean Green elected to give Ruder his first collegiate start against NSU.
The sophomore’s performance was impressive considering he played sparingly at UNC and didn’t arrive at UNT until after spring practice. He had a lot of ground to make up in fall practice while battling Austin Aune for the starting job.
Littrell vowed to play both Ruder and Aune against NSU to get a better feel for what each had to offer before a showdown with SMU next week.
Ruder played nearly the whole way and showed the dynamic athletic ability that made him a top prospect coming out of high school. He fired a 23-yard strike to Roderic Burns for his first touchdown pass since 2018 in the second half and also rushed for 23 yards.
That was exactly what Ruder envisioned when he went to North Carolina, where he suffered a broken collarbone and a broken leg.
“It’s a feeling I can’t explain,” Ruder said. “It’s been a long journey for me. I had a couple of injuries early on and was in a situation I was very happy with that I was able to learn from and grow from.
“I’m very excited for the opportunity coach Littrell has given me.”
Aune came on with 10:28 left in the fourth quarter and threw a 45-yard strike to Burns.
UNT was cruising at that point behind Torrey. The Mississippi native elected to return for a fifth year in college during the offseason and took pressure off Ruder in his first UNT start.
The 244 yards Torrey rushed for ranked 10th for a game in program history. He scored three rushing touchdowns.
The Mean Green’s defense took care of the rest in its first game under new coordinator Phil Bennett. UNT gave up two first half touchdowns before settling into Bennett’s 4-2-5 defense and helping the Mean Green pull away after Scooter Adams scored on a 36-yard run late in the first half to pull the Demons within 17-14.
UNT answered with a Torrey’s third touchdown of the first half. Ruder got into the act a short time later with his strike to Burns that put the Mean Green up 31-14 in the third quarter.
UNT shut the Demons out in the second half and quickly pulled away.
“Our confidence level is pretty good,” safety Makyle Sanders said. “We have a staff that knows what it’s talking about, and we trust the system. That’s really big and gives us confidence.”
The game provided the Mean Green a perfect tuneup for what will be a tough slate of games the next few weeks, beginning with a showdown with longtime rival SMU next week in Dallas.
UNT’s next six games are against teams that either played in a bowl game or qualified for one that was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Mean Green will head into that series with added confidence after a solid all-around performance while winning their fifth straight home opener in a time of change for the program.
UNT lost one of its all-time great players in wide receiver Jaelon Darden, who caught 19 touchdowns in nine games in 2020 before he declared for the NFL draft.
Darden’s departure and the arrival of a new defensive staff and a new starting quarterback left UNT with questions to answer heading into its opener.
Ruder helped answer those questions for at least a night.
“Overall, it was a pretty good night,” Ruder said. “There are a couple of plays I would like to have back.
“We’re going to celebrate this win tonight and get into the film room tomorrow and fix some things. I’m excited to get in there and dive into that.”