SAN ANTONIO - Mean Green senior linebacker E.J. Ejiya's 9-yard sack with five seconds to play shoved UTSA back to the edge of field-goal range, and an ensuing 48-yard attempt on the last play of the game drifted wide left as North Texas earned its first win in the Alamodome, 24-21.
North Texas led by 17 in the first half, then fought off repeated Roadrunner rallies in Saturday's regular-season finale. Mean Green quarterback Mason Fine threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns, running back DeAndre Torrey rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown, wide receiver Jalen Guyton had a team-high five catches for 78 yards, and the North Texas defense made some critical stops, led by Kemon Hall's fifth interception of the year and Ejiya's two sacks, four tackles for loss and team-best 11 tackles.
The Mean Green finish the regular season 9-3, reaching nine victories in back-to-back years for the second time in program history. North Texas is 5-3 in Conference USA play. The Mean Green will learn their bowl destination on Sunday, Dec. 2.
"It was a hard battle," North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. "It was a dogfight, on the road at this place where we'd never won. I give our guys a lot of credit.
"You look across in country in these rivalry games, they're always battles," he added. "We ended up making enough plays to win."
The UTSA (3-9. 2-6), which has averaged just six points per contest over its last five games, built some momentum by converting some third downs on its opening possessions. But the first of those marches ended in the arms of Mean Green defensive back Hall, who intercepted a Roadrunner pass in the end zone for his fifth pick of the season, and another drive was stopped by a pass break-up by Jameel Moore.
North Texas, meanwhile, scored on its first three possessions, and its receivers consistently got open in the UTSA secondary. Fine threw for 201 yards in the first half and connected on 49- and 3-yard touchdown passes to Michael Lawrence and Kelvin Smith, respectively. Cole Hedlund mixed in a 20-yard field goal and the Mean Green built a 17-0 lead.
But North Texas has demonstrated the fleeting nature of its big leads throughout conference play, and Saturday was no different as the Roadrunners stormed back in the final 10 minutes of the second period. They scored their second touchdown in their last 14 quarters to shave the lead to 17-7, stopped a Mean Green drive with an interception in the end zone, then blocked a North Texas punt to set up a 3-yard scoring run by QB Bryce Rivers on the final play of the half to pull within 17-14.
Ejiya revived the Mean Green momentum in the second half with an 11-yard sack of Rivers to give the ball back to the Mean Green offense, and Fine and company responded with a 74-yard drive, on which Torrey topped the century mark for the fourth game in a row and scored his 17th touchdown of the year on a 3-yard run.
"He's running physically and explosively," Littrell said. "I'm proud of him for stepping up and playing at a high level."
Again, however, UTSA fought back. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Roadrunners drove 92 yards for a touchdown, starting with a 42-yard pass to midfield and rolling to the end zone from there.
North Texas got the ball back with 8:01 to play and began a clock-eating drive, converting two third downs, the second when Fine scrambled away from pressure and hit Keegan Brewer for 18 yards. But UTSA stopped the Mean Green on a fourth-and-1 at the Roadrunner 32-yard line with 2:28 to play to set up a final opportunity for the lead or a tie.
UTSA quickly reached the North Texas 35-yard line, when Garner threw Rivers for an 8-yard loss on third down. Facing fourth and 16, Rivers connected for 25 yards to the Mean Green 17-yard line with 30 seconds left. After an incompletion at the goal line, UTSA was penalized for delay of game with 11 seconds left, then Ejiya crashed through to sack Rivers for a 9-yard loss and push the Roadrunners back to the UNT 31 with five seconds remaining.
"Those guys did a great job," Littrell said of his defense. "They knew they had to make plays to push them out of field-goal range, and they came up big for us."
UTSA's field goal attempt from 48 yards on the final play of the game had the distance but was wide left.
Head Coach Seth Littrell's Postgame Press Conference
QB Mason Fine, RB DeAndre Torrey and LB E.J. Ejiya's Postgame Press Conference
- This is the eighth time in program history the Mean Green have won nine or more games in a season, and the second time to do so in back-to-back seasons. North Texas went 10-1 in 1977 and 9-2 in 1978 under coach Hayden Fry.
- North Texas has posted consecutive winning seasons in league play for the first time since joining C-USA, and first back-to-back winning conference record since 2003-04.
- This was the Mean Green's first win at the Alamodome in its third trip to San Antonio.
- Junior quarterback Mason Fine (Peggs, Okla.), who became North Texas' all-time leading passer this season, is ascending the ranks of college football's all-time career passing leaders. Following Saturday's regular-season finale, Fine has 9,358 career passing yards and climbed to No. 161 on list. Among those he passed this week: 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson (Louisville), Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins (Michigan State), 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow (Florida), All-Pro QB Matt Ryan (Boston College), and Super Bowl champion and Hall of Famer John Elway (Stanford).
- Fine owns the top two seasons in school history in terms of touchdown passes. He threw two TDs Saturday, giving him 27 this year and surpassing Mitch Maher (1994) for second place. The only better tally is Fine's 31 TDs last year.
- Fine has thrown a touchdown pass in his last 23 games.
- Kicker Cole Hedlund (Argyle, Texas) is making his lone season with the Mean Green count. The graduate senior, a transfer from Arkansas, has 19 field goals this year, tying Keith Chapman (1989) for the second most in a season at North Texas. Hedlund also has 50 points after touchdown, surpassing Zach Paul's 2013 campaign for the second most in a season and the eighth most in a career at North Texas.
- In his debut season, sophomore running back DeAndre Torrey (Gautier, Miss.) is joining elite company. The transfer from Gulf Coast Junior College didn't become a starter until week 6, but has amassed 17 touchdowns (rushing, receiving and returns), tying Jamario Thomas (2018) for third-best single-season total in school history.
- Torrey has 14 rushing TDs this season, tying Jeffery Wilson (2016) for fifth most in UNT history.
- With 155 yards rushing Saturday, Torrey has four consecutive games rushing for 100 yards or more, the seventh longest such streak in school history.
- Torrey and place kicker Cole Hedlund are climbing the UNT record book in points in a single season. Hedlund has 107, fourth most in season at UNT, and Torrey has 102, tying Jamario Thomas (2004) for fifth most.
- Senior linebacker Brandon Garner (Mansfield, Texas) has 17.0 tackles for loss this year, tying Jeremiah Chapman (2007), Brad Kassell (1999) and Brandon Kennedy (2003) on UNT's all-time single-season list.
- With 27 yards Saturday, junior wide receiver Rico Bussey, Jr., (Lawton, Okla.) has 1,017 receiving yards this year, the seventh 1,000-yard receiving season in school history. His total is the sixth best in school history, moving him ahead of David Brown (1994) with 1,013 yards and John Love (1965) with 994 yards. Bussey left Saturday's game in the first half with a leg injury.
- Redshirt senior linebacker E.J. Ejiya (Blaine, Minn.) registered two sacks, giving him 16.0 sacks for his career, eighth most in program history and moving him past Brandon McCoy (2010-13), Aaron Bellazin (2010-13) and Jeremiah Chapman (2004-07). Ejiya has 9.0 sacks this year, tying Brandon Kennedy (2002) and Brad Spinks (1996) for sixth most in a single season.
- Senior defensive back Kemon Hall (Calhoun City, Miss.) had his fifth interception of the season on UTSA's opening drive of the game. The pick, on a Roadrunners pass into the end zone, was the sixth of Hall's career.
- Junior wide receiver Michael Lawrence (Sweetwater, Texas) hauled in a 49-yard scoring toss on the Mean Green's opening possession, his second TD of the season.
- Redshirt junior tight end Kelvin Smith had his first touchdown reception of the year and third of his career on a 3-yard pass in the second quarter.
- Redshirt senior wide receiver Quinetin Jackson (Granite City, Ill.) had his second reception of the season Saturday. The 14-yard catch is his longest of 2018.
- North Texas has set school records for most points per game (36.4), most yards total offense per game (472.8), and most passing yards per game (316.3).
- The Mean Green's 27 passing touchdowns this season are the second most in school history.