Southern Miss erased a 20-point first-half deficit to take a three-point second half lead, but couldn't hold on in the fourth quarter as North Texas squeaked out a 29-23 Senior Night win at Apogee Stadium in Denton, Texas.
The loss drops Southern Miss, which has now dropped three in a row and 5 of 6 games, to 5-6 overall and 3-4 in Conference USA competition. North Texas has the same records and snapped a three-game losing streak with the victory. Southern Miss hosts Louisiana Tech on Friday, while North Texas visits UTEP on Saturday.
Without starting quarterback Nick Mullens, Southern Miss' passing game struggled. True freshman Keon Howard showed flashes during the second and third quartesr as the Golden Eagles stormed back with 23 unanswered points, but he threw two critical fourth-quarter interceptions, the second claimed by North Texas cornerback Nate Brooks near midfield with just over a minute left.
Brooks returned the pick inside the Southern Miss red zone, where the Mean Green was able to run out the clock with two kneel-downs after Southern Miss had exhausted its allotment of timeouts to get the ball back earlier in the quarter.
Brooks was arguably the star of the game with six tackles, two interceptions, a forced fumble, and one pass breakup. Howard's other interception went to true freshman Khairi Muhammad, who killed a Southern Miss drive with fewer than six minutes remaining and North Texas leading 27-23.
Southern Miss running back Ito Smith had a big second half to finish with 19 carries for 113 yards and two touchdowns, in addition to three catches for a team-leading 67 yards. Howard completed 10 of 26 passes for 135 yards and the three interceptions. Howard also ran 12 times for 40 yards.
North Texas, playing without starting quarterback Mason Fine or starting running back Jeffrey Wilson, got big games from their fill-ins, senior graduate transfer Alec Morris and tailback Willy Ivery. Morris threw an interception on North Texas' first possession, but recovered strongly to finish 14 of 29 for 267 yards, two touchdowns, and the one pick.
Ivery led North Texas with 18 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown, which proved to be the game-winning score on an 11-yard scamper with 7:34 remaining. Ivery slipped between two Southern Miss defenders at the line of scrimmage to break free for the touchdown.
North Texas receiver Turner Smiley had a huge game with seven catches for a career-high 162 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the first half as North Texas built a commanding 20-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Southern Miss erased the deficit with several consecutive defensive stops, while Smith scored twice on short touchdown runs. George Payne scored on a 16-yard scamper six minutes into the third to tie the game 20-20, and Southern Miss briefly took the lead 5 1/2 minutes into the fourth on kicker Stephen Brauchle's 25-yard field goal.
After six consecutive empty drives and a punt muff that set up Brauchle's go-ahead field goal, North Texas covered 65 yards in six plays and 2:05 off the clock for the go-ahead fourth-quarter drive, which ended in Ivery's 11-yard touchdown run halfway through the fourth.
With just under four minutes left, North Texas punter Eric Keena, who booted three kicks inside the 20, pinned Southern Miss inside its own 5-yard line. The Golden Eagles gained only one yard and three plays before electing to take a safety and free kick the ball to UNT down 29-23 with 3:08 remaining to flip the field with two USM timeouts remaining.
That Mean Green possession resulted in a Keena punt downed at the USM 19, setting the stage two plays later for Brooks' deep-ball interception that sealed the game for North Texas.
Defensive back D'Nerius Antoine led Southern Miss' defense with nine tackles and a forced fumble. Devonta Foster had the first-quarter interception of Morris, which came on the game's opening possession. Paxton Schrimsher had three tackles, a fumble recovery, and a hurry.
Defensive lineman Malik Dilonga had a strong game for North Texas, providing 2 1/2 tackles for loss -- including one of UNT's four sacks of Howard -- and a forced fumble.null