MOSCOW -- Shooting itself in the foot a number of times this season, the University of Idaho football team decided to try something different Saturday night.
Like shooting itself in the other foot.
After struggling on defense and with breakdowns on special teams this season, the Vandals added a new wrinkle and fumbled their way to a 50-27 loss to North Texas in their home finale before 8,181 fans at the Kibbie Dome.
Idaho's backfield lost four fumbles, two of which came in a span of less than three minutes at the end of the third quarter that led to 16 North Texas points. That enabled the Mean Green to turn a 20-19 advantage into a 36-19 lead to start the fourth quarter.
In all, UNT converted four fumbles into 23 points -- three touchdowns and a safety, while the one of UI's other fumbles was on the North Texas 4, which stopped Idaho from potentially going ahead 17-7 early in the second quarter.
"You don't turn the ball over like that and expect to win the football game," Idaho coach Tom Cable said.
While the fumbles ruined Idaho's day, they put North Texas on Cloud Nine. With the win, North Texas earned a share of the inaugural Sun Belt Conference title with Middle Tennessee. But since North Texas beat Middle Tennessee, it earns the conference's automatic berth into the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 18. It will be the Mean Green's first bowl game since it went to the Sun Bowl in 1959, the longest span between bowl games in Division I-A history.
"I'm just glad to be associated with this football team," said UNT coach Darrell Dickey, still dripping wet from the buckets of ice water poured on him in the final seconds. "Idaho really played hard. This is a great win for us."
North Texas claimed its fifth straight win to even its record at 5-5, which includes a 5-1 mark in Sun Belt play. Idaho's disappointing season became more painful as it finishes dead last in the league at 1-5 and stands 1-9 overall.
The Vandals must defeat Montana in Missoula next Saturday to avoid losing 10 games in a season for the first time.
"This game really hurts," said UI wide receiver Rossi Martin, one of 15 seniors playing in their final home game. "It's really hard for the seniors to lose this one, but we all gave effort. No one quit."
What made this loss particularly hard to swallow is Idaho dominated the first half and moved the ball well on offense. Idaho had a 336-137 advantage in total yards in the first half yet only led 19-14, letting a couple of scoring opportunities get away.
"We fumble on their four and then we miss a field goal right before half and so that's a 10-point swing in the first half," Cable said. "But I was extremely pleased with the effort. It's just surprising to see us fumble like that."
In the second half, Idaho managed to fumble three times on four plays near the end of the third quarter. That helped UNT score 16 points in the final 43 seconds of the quarter.
The final fumble was in UI's end zone, which it managed to recover to give UNT a safety.
Compared to what happened after the two previous fumbles, that was a bonus for Idaho.
Trailing 20-19, the real disaster for Idaho started when North Texas punter Jason Ball hit a 67 yard punt that was downed at the UI 1.
On UI's first play, quarterback John Welsh found running back Zach Gerstner alone over the middle and Gerstner got out to the 25 before he was stripped of the ball -- his second fumble of the game. UNT's Cody Spencer recovered at the Idaho 28.
UNT needed only four plays to punch it in as Patrick Cobbs scored on a 2-yard pitch out to make it 27-19 with 43 seconds left in the third quarter.
After the kickoff put UI at the 20, senior running back Anthony Tenner, who was out about a month with a knee injury, fumbled on a run up the middle, which UNT's Alex Pahulu recovered at the UI 26.
The Mean Green didn't waste any time capitalizing as quarterback Scott Hall hit wide receiver George Marshall in the end zone to make it 34-19 with 19 seconds left.
Finally, Idaho pinned itself deep when it returned a deep kickoff only to the 5. After an incomplete pass, Welsh dropped back again and was hit from behind, forcing another fumble. While both teams had plenty of chances to recover, UI offensive lineman Robert Mitchell finally fell on the ball for a safety.
"Just mental mistakes," Martin said. "Those fumbles are things you can't control. Things like that happen."
"The biggest thing that stuck out were the turnovers," said Welsh, who completed 31 of 51 passes for 409 yards and one touchdown. "And they capitalized on them.
UNT added two long touchdown runs in the final quarter.
Idaho finished with 570 yards of offense, including 472 passing, while UNT had 402 yards. The big difference was the turnovers, although not all were costly.
Idaho took a 7-0 lead early in the first quarter when tight end Michael McCoy was left all alone over the middle. He hauled in a pass from Welsh and rambled toward the goal line until UNT defensive back Jonas Buckles caught him from behind and stripped the ball at the UNT 6. The ball, however, bounced into the end zone where McCoy recovered it for the game's first touchdown. Since he recovered his own fumble, the play was credited as a 51-yard touchdown pass, according to NCAA rules.
Despite his two fumbles, Gerstner had a big game with a team-high 91 yards rushing and he also caught nine passes for another 91 yards. Josh Jelmberg added six catches for 103 yards, while Chris Lacy had five catches for 101 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Brian Lindgren, who played one series in the second quarter.
UNT quarterback Scott Hall, who missed a couple of series after reinjuring his knee, finished 12-of-18 for 145 yards and two touchdown. He also was intercepted once, by Lewiston's Brad Rice. Rice also led UI's defense with 19 tackles.
"We felt pretty good at halftime because we were controlling them for the most part," Rice said. "In the second half, the big plays hurt us. The turnovers hurt a bit, but it's our job on defense to stop them. We didn't do that."
N. Texas 7 7 22 14--50
Idaho 10 9 0 8--27
Idaho--McCoy 51 pass from Welsh (Stamps kick) 11:45.
Texas--Blount 3 pass from Bridges (Ball kick), 4:49.
Idaho--FG Stamps 25, 1:25.
Idaho--FG Stamps 49, 7:20.
Idaho--Lacy 58 pass Lindgren (pass failed), 4:21.
Texas--Galbreath 10 run (Ball kick), 2:36.
Texas--Branch 17 pass from Hall (pass failed), 10:10.
Texas--Cobbs 2 run (Ball kick), 0:43.
Texas--Marshall 26 pass from Hall (Ball kick), 0:19.
Texas--Team safety, 0:00.
Texas--Hickmon 27 run (Ball kick) 6:00.
Idaho--Gerstner 1 run (Belser pass), 3:54.
Texas--Cobbs 50 run (Ball kick), 3:29
First downs 22 27
Rushes-yards 46-254 31-98
Passing 148 472
Comp-Att-Int 13-19-1 33-54-0
Return Yards 143 99
Punts-Avg. 5-41 2-39
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 5-4
Penalties-Yards 5-21 10-89
Time of Possession 32:50 27:10
RUSHING--Texas, Cobbs 20-111, Galbreath 12-60, Hickmon 3-56, Hall 7-22. Idaho, Gerstner 17-91, Tenner 5-18, McCoy 1- minus 4, Welsh 8- minus 7.
PASSING--Texas, Hall 18-12-1-145, Bridges 1-1-0-3. Idaho, Welsh 51-31-0-409, Lindgren 3-2-0-63.
RECEIVING--Texas, Marshall 4-55, Howard 3-31, Branch 2-27, Blount 2-10. Idaho, Gerstner 9-97, Jemblerg 6-103, Lacy 5-101, Belser 5-58.