The University of North Texas football team had a chance Saturday to set the table for a season that could put the formerly moribund program on the national map for the first time in decades. All the Mean Green had to do, after starting their season 2-0 with wins over SMU and San Antonio's Incarnate Word, was go to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and beat the University of Arkansas, a team UNT had never beaten. Added to that: Arkansas is in the SEC. The last time UNT defeated an SEC team was in 1975.
UNT, a 5.5 point underdog at kickoff, didn't just beat the Razorbacks, they blew them out, scoring a 44-17 knockout victory in a game that was never competitive.
Coming into the game, UNT quarterback Mason Fine led the nation in passing, having thrown for 862 yards over the first two weeks of the season. If the Mean Green were going to pull off the upset, it was hard to imagine them doing so without Fine having another lights-out performance and outscoring the Hogs. As it turned out, Fine was just OK, throwing for 281 yards and a touchdown while running for another score.
It was the Mean Green defense, the team's weak link in 2017, that controlled the contest, intercepting six passes from three different Arkansas quarterbacks. After falling behind 17-0 10 minutes into the game, Arkansas never cut UNT's lead to less than seven, eventually trailing 34-10 at halftime.
"I don't think this was an upset," UNT head coach Seth Littrell said after the game. "We're very confident as a football team ... We felt like it was going to be challenging game. Any time you go on the road in the SEC and play an opponent like Arkansas, it's going to be very challenging, but I truly and we truly did feel like we had the best team."
The confidence Littrell, who took over at UNT after the school went 1-11 in 2015, has in his players was best demonstrated Saturday in what will surely be one of the plays of the year when the 2018 college football season is in the books.
With just over seven minutes left in the first quarter and UNT already up 7-0, Arkansas punted to Mean Green return man Keegan Brewer. Brewer never signaled for a fair catch, but acted as if he'd done so after catching the punt, calmly walking past a couple of Arkansas defenders toward the sideline. Brewer burst into a sprint when he reached the sideline, eventually scoring a 90-yard touchdown on a perfectly executed trick play.
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"We've practiced it a lot ... but this was the first week we actually planned on doing it," Brewer said. "One of [the Arkansas players] actually asked me 'Why didn't they blow the whistle,' and I didn't say anything. I was just like 'I don't know' and as soon as he past I knew it was go time."
With Arkansas in their rear-view mirror, UNT will now likely be the favorites in each of the nine games that remain on their regular season schedule. The toughest games they have left, against Louisiana Tech a week from Saturday and Florida Atlantic the Thursday night before Thanksgiving, will both be played in Denton in front of what are sure to be a couple of rowdy home crowds.
It's a long way off, but UNT has a legitimate shot to run the table. If they make it through the regular season and the Conference USA championship game without a loss, a major bowl berth in a game like the Fiesta Bowl or the Cotton Bowl, the first in the school's history, is a real possibility.