North Texas uses spotlight to its advantage

DALLAS -- It was clear at the end of Wednesday's Heart of Dallas Bowl that North Texas' fans weren't quite sure what do to after a bowl win. Some of them contemplated rushing the field and in the end, maybe 500 of them decided to join the team in celebration at the 50-yard line, doing so in the most calm and orderly "storming" of a field you'll ever see.

You can't blame them. North Texas hadn't won a bowl game since 2002. But on Wednesday, after struggling to get going in the first half, the Mean Green dominated the second half in a 36-14 win over UNLV.

Wednesday was one of those rare opportunities afforded a school like North Texas. With Dallas-Fort Worth area rivals SMU and TCU sitting at home for the bowl season, the Mean Green went 8-4 (6-2 in Conference USA) and happily accepted an invitation to stay close to home for bowl season and play in the Heart of Dallas Bowl at the Cotton Bowl.

North Texas made sure to take advantage of the spotlight.

"We sent a message today," head coach Dan McCarney said, following his team's ninth win of the season. "I think this is a program that is clearly on the rise. We'll miss the seniors, but the example these seniors set is important for us going forward."

While the Heart of Dallas isn't one of the bigger bowls of the postseason, it's still a New Year's Day game on ESPNU at the Cotton Bowl, a stadium with a rich tradition. And North Texas showcased its program while others around them weren't able to do so.

What fans and prospective recruits saw was a defense that swarmed to the football and an offense that capitalized on big plays in the second half. North Texas showed flash with senior Brelan Chancellor rushing for two touchdowns, but also catching six passes for 74 yards. Senior quarterback Derek Thompson was impressive, throwing for 256 yards on 21-of-30 passing with two TDs.

After the game, coach Dan McCarney made sure his team and fans understood the importance of the victory, saying half a dozen times into a microphone: "Bowl champions."

As the season was ending, McCarney asked his team which of the bowl options interested them the most. He figured they'd want to go to Hawaii. But his players wanted to stay close to home, where their family and friends could see them play in the school's first bowl game since 2004.

UNT came in as the favorite and, after a sputtering effort in the first half, got things together and took control in the final two quarters. The defense didn't allow UNLV to do much and sealed the win with a late interception. And the result was the school's first postseason win since beating Cincinnati in the New Orleans Bowl under coach Darrell Dickey in 2002.

"I'm proud of this group," McCarney said. "Our 22 seniors showed integrity and loyalty and once again today we found a way to win a ballgame."

McCarney hopes it's the beginning of many more bowl appearances.