July 25, 2018
As fall camp approaches, with players reporting on Thursday, August 2, MeanGreenSports.com takes a look back at some of the biggest moments from the 2017 season. We continue our series with Jaelon Darden's performance in the win at Rice in his hometown of Houston.
As the regular season came to a close, the Mean Green were seeking the program's seventh nine-win year in over 100 years when they headed southeast to Houston. On paper, it appeared North Texas was going to be able to pick up the win rather easily against a struggling Owl team that was 1-10 entering play. The Mean Green were facing some adversity having lost leading rusher Jeffery Wilson the week prior, and needed a spark from its special teams to pull away.
That's where Darden came in.
After a 51-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mason Fine to Rico Bussey, Jr., North Texas was leading a plucky Rice team on senior night 14-7. The Mean Green defense forced a quick three-and-out, leading to a Jack Fox punt.
Darden caught the punt at his own 19, and made a hard cut to his right at the 20, slipping past the first three Owls in pursuit.
The electric freshman broke one tackle and exploded up the middle of the field. He outran Fox, while making his way to the left. He then eluded one more Owl on his way to the home sideline.
Darden avoided one last diving effort as he tiptoed the sideline on his way to the end zone to give North Texas a cushion that it would not relinquish on its way to a comfortable 30-14 victory.
The Houston native made the most of his first game in his home city, making a huge impact play on his way to being named Conference USA Special Teams Player of the Week.
North Texas moved to 9-3 and wrapped the regular season on a high note after the win at Rice, and utilized strong performances from Darden, Nic Smith (who rushed for 164 yards and a touchdown in his first career start), and the defense to pick up the win. Not forgotten in the win was kicker Trevor Moore, who kicked three field goals on the day to help close it out.
What they said:
Wide Receiver/Punt Returner Jaelon Darden - "It was very important for me to show my Mom and family that I'd been working while I'd been away from home. On that return, I caught the ball in a good position, had enough space to make a move and I went straight into the daylight.
"I was thinking about the fans and my teammates as I made it down that sideline. It made me feel like I could contribute to this team. I think being able to get that win made us a better team and a better unit, fighting through a lot of adversity."
Special Teams Coordinator Marty Biagi - "For us we had come off a couple of weeks where we weren't getting opportunities from the punt team with good punts, so we were really feeling like it was just a matter of time before Darden broke one. We had scouted Rice and knew they had a pretty good punter and had it in our gameplan that this is it. He met with us on film and we talked about the expectation with this punter being able to consistently punt the ball well, so we expected some big return opportunities.
"He was ready. He no longer had those freshman eyes you might see at the start of the year. He was 100-percent fired up and said to me, 'Coach, I'm going back to my city. Let's go.' Once he told me that earlier in the week I thought that if he got an opportunity, it could get scary. That's exactly what happened.
"All the guys did a great job forcing the punt and holding up by having that discipline to not negate a big-time play. A lot of it was Darden taking his game to the level that we saw when we were recruiting him where we saw that he is special. I hope he has a whole lot more of those for years to come.
"Our goal is always to have that returner have a chance to make the first guy miss. If you make one miss, you should have created enough space or a pocket to get through. It was off to the races after that. What was really neat was seeing the entire group on the field running right behind him chasing to celebrate. That's always fun, where it was a whole convoy of Mean Green flying to the end zone. There was a lot of tapping the hat going on, which is what we love on the sideline and the field."
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