Entering the Heart of Dallas Bowl Wednesday, the defense of the North Texas Mean Green was the single best unit between the Mean Green and the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV. That fact shined through as North Texas routed UNLV 36-14 to win the game and finish the season with a 9-4 record (6-2 in Conference USA). UNLV ended its season at 7-6 (5-3 MWC).
The biggest testimony to North Texas’ defensive effort came when looking at the UNLV ground game. The Runnin’ Rebels entered Wednesday’s game 52nd in the nation in rushing offense, averaging more than 181 yards per game. For UNLV to win it was going to need an effort matching that average.
North Texas, however, gave the Runnin’ Rebels no shot at amassing such a total. UNLV did produce 31 yards rushing in the first quarter, including 21 on three carries during a touchdown drive that gave the Runnin’ Rebels a 7-0 lead. But the tide changed as soon as the second quarter started with UNLV continuing a drive and losing seven yards on two carries.
In the final three quarters, UNLV ran for just 35 yards on 21 rushing attempts. Down 7-0 midway through the first quarter, North Texas outscored UNLV 36-7 the rest of the way for a dominating bowl win. For the game, UNLV averaged just 2.4 yards per carry.
Not much had been made about the season North Texas was having given their residence in Conference USA — a league that saw its champion, Rice, get blown out in the Liberty Bowl by Mississippi State (44-7). Tulane and Middle Tennessee were also defeated in their bowl games (despite Tulane playing at home). North Texas’ win was a big one for the conference as it evened the C-USA’s bowl record at 3-3 which is more than respectable for a non-BCS conference.
Another illustration of how good the North Texas defense was on Wednesday is shown in the UNLV drive chart. After the opening-drive touchdown, the Runnin’ Rebels’ next seven drives ended in six punts and an interception. By the time UNLV found the end zone again on a 13-yard pass from Caleb Herring to Jerry Rice Jr., North Texas had built a 28-7 lead and there was less than five minutes left in the game.
UNLV’s inability to run the ball meant they couldn’t control the tempo and also meant the defense was on the field much longer than necessary. The lack of a UNLV running game caused the Runnin’ Rebels to have just 24:44 in time of possession. By contrast, North Texas ran the ball 45 times, and even though they weren’t very successful either (3.0 yards per carry), the defense’s ability to get UNLV off the field (UNLV was 6-for-15 on third down) was a major key to the victory.