Denton, Texas — Jamario Thomas spoiled Western Kentucky University’s season finale in its first year as an NCAA Division I-A (Football Bowl Subdivision) institution, scoring three second-half touchdowns Saturday to help rally North Texas past the Hilltoppers, 27-26, at Fouts Field.
He would finish with 116 of his game-best 147 yards after the intermission in helping the Mean Green (2-9) snap a four-game losing streak.
The Hilltoppers (7-5) had a chance to win in the final minute, but a 38-yard field goal attempt into the wind came up short.
Trailing 20-7 at the break, Thomas helped give NT the momentum immediately after it recovered a fumble on the kickoff to start the third quarter. His eight-yard score came three plays later to cut the deficit to six. Later in the period, Thomas followed a 31-yard completion from Giovanni Vizza with a 30-yard dash to the end zone to make the score 23-21 with four-and-a-half minutes remaining in the period.
Thomas’ final touchdown came after WKU once again answered with a field goal from Chris James, as the Mean Green covered 76 yards in six plays when he scored from 42 yards out with just under seven minutes to go.
David Wolke and K.J. Black combined to lead the Hilltoppers back down the field, putting together a 13-play drive before the rally fell short. Black kept the possession alive with an eight-yard gain on fourth-and-six from the NT-35.
While Thomas was scoring the most points by an opposing player this season in the final 30 minutes, WKU countered with six points on field goals of 26 and 44 yards from James.
Special teams also came into play to help the Mean Green score their first points. With just over six minutes remaining in the second quarter, Aaron Weathers blocked a punt after a three-and-out that Chris Neal picked up at the five-yard line and ran in to cut the NT deficit in half, 14-7.
WKU built a 20-7 advantage in the first half by taking advantage of key plays. One snap after the Mean Green converted a third-and-19 to keep its opening drive alive, Rashad Etheridge intercepted a pass intended for Casey Fitzgerald and ran it back 52 yards to the NT-36. The Toppers would need only three plays to take a 7-0 lead as Tyrell Hayden reached the end zone from 23 yards out five minutes into the contest.
North Texas threatened again on its next possession when it advanced just outside the red zone, covering 57 yards in eight plays before Dusty Bear sacked Vizza on fourth-and-one from the WKU-21. The Mean Green had yet another opportunity to cut into their deficit late in the opening period after Jeremiah Chapman forced a fumble that Maurice Holman recovered at the WKU-25, but after gaining just one yard Thomas Moreland’s 42-yard field goal attempt in the final minute sailed wide left.
The teams traded possessions before the Hilltoppers were able to double their advantage nine-and-a-half minutes before the break. Keyed by a 31-yard completion from Wolke to Curtis Hamilton, they moved 83 yards in six plays before Wolke capped the drive with a 10-yard touchdown run.
WKU then used a defensive score to build the lead up to 13 points just before the half as — with the Mean Green facing fourth-and-four — Terald Clark intercepted a pass and returned it 44 yards for the first score of his career. But, WKU was assessed a personal foul that was applied to the extra-point attempt which ended up missing.
“Special teams have been great for us all year long, but our play today sure created a lot of problems for us,” said Hilltopper head coach David Elson. “They blocked that punt for a score, we missed two field goals — although one of those was pretty long in these weather conditions — and they got that fumble on the kickoff which led to a quick score. Those are the kinds of plays that can make a big difference in any game.
“We didn’t handle ourselves very well at the end of the first half and it cost a point there, then we came out on the second-half kickoff and fumbled the ball. They got the quick score, and the momentum in the game began to go their way.”
While NT outgained WKU by 48 yards, the Topper defense held the Mean Green 100 yards below their passing average entering the contest. Chris Bullard led the unit with a career-high 10 tackles, Chris Walker added nine — also a career-best figure — and Marcus Minor supplied eight, with both credited with a sack apiece. Travis Watters intercepted a pass and broke up another as the Hilltoppers picked off three passes for the second straight week.
But, the Mean Green limited WKU to 349 total yards, its third-lowest total of the season. Chapman paced all players with 16 tackles — including 2.5 for loss — and Holman posted 14 stops. Chapman also forced a pair of fumbles.
Hayden collected 97 yards on 19 carries, just missing recording his fifth 100-yard outing of the year, and Wolke added 77 yards on 16 attempts. The Hilltoppers gained 226 yards on the ground, the eighth time in the last nine games they have surpassed the 200-yard mark rushing. Wolke finished with 206 yards of total offense after completing 14-of-20 passes for 129 yards, while Hamilton ended his career by making seven catches for 73 yards.
Vizza answered with 232 total offense yards, going 20-of-42 passing for 202 yards while gaining another 30 on 13 rushes. Fitzgerald led all players with eight receptions for 80 yards, with both Sam Dibrell and Brandon Jackson adding four catches each.
It was the first meeting between the two schools, while it was the third time this fall that WKU has played a Sun Belt Conference member. The Hilltoppers will become a full-fledged member of the league beginning with the 2009 season.