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Ags start strong, only to fade

Utah State quarterback Travis Cox is stripped of the ball by North Texas defender Shawn Early during the Aggies' 31-23 loss Saturday.
Utah State quarterback Travis Cox is stripped of the ball by North Texas defender Shawn Early during the Aggies' 31-23 loss Saturday.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

LOGAN — It was a start that was just too good to be true for Utah State on Saturday night.

For only the second time all year the Aggies scored on their opening possession thanks to an 80-yard drive. Quarterback Travis Cox completed 7-of-8 passes for 116 yards in the first quarter and the Aggies led by four points.

Then things slowly started to unravel for the Aggies before losing 31-23 to North Texas for the Mean Green's 20th consecutive Sun Belt Conference victory.

"The one team in our league that competes and does a good job of not making mistakes that absolutely kill the, and therefore you can't, is North Texas," Utah State coach Mick Dennehy said. "That's why they win. We've harped on that all week . . . We made too many mistakes."

First, freshman Kevin Robinson returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown, increasing the Aggies' lead to 13-3, but he was ejected for receiving his second celebration penalty in the game.

Next, North Texas freshman Jamario Thomas, who entered Saturday's game as the 10th-best rusher in the nation at 120 yards per game, rushed for 150 of his 159 first-half yards in the second quarter.

Utah State sandwiched a 3-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass from Cox to Blake Garrett in between Thomas' touchdown runs of 48 and 27 yards.

Despite it all, the Aggies held their first halftime lead of the year at 20-17.

The woes continued in the second half. On Utah State's first drive of the half, Cox was intercepted for the third time in the game and two plays later North Texas took the lead for good.

First, Thomas rumbled 42 yards to get the Mean Green to the Utah State 2-yard line and quarterback Scott Hall capped the drive when he hit Andy Blount with a 2-yard touchdown pass to give the Mean Green its first lead at 24-20.

On Utah State's next play, Cox's pass was tipped and intercepted by Tommy Harrison, but it didn't hurt the Aggies as they forced a North Texas fumble on the Mean Green's first play.

Cox patiently drove the Aggies from their 13 and to the North Texas 1-yard line before fumbling into the end zone. North Texas' TJ Covington picked it up and raced 100 yards for the touchdown.

The Aggies can't help to feel snake-bitten when it comes to North Texas. A year ago, the Aggies had two botched punt snaps that led to points and had two additional turnovers in the 10-point loss.

"Sometimes you just kind of wonder what you have to do," Dennehy said. "Again, it all comes down to the little things — things you don't do as well as the other team."

The Aggies turned the ball over six times (four interceptions) and were penalized six times for 75 yards, while North Texas turned the ball over just one time and was penalized seven times for 82 yards.

"Turnovers and penalties have been hurting us all year," Utah State receiver Tony Pennyman said. "We did drills and punishment things to cut down on these things and it continues to happen."

The loss all but ends the Aggies' chances to win the Sun Belt Conference championship. They fall to 1-2 in league play, while North Texas improves to 2-0 in league to keep its hopes alive for its fourth straight SBC championship.

"There are a lot of good teams and battles in the Sun Belt," Pennyman said. "It's going to be hard to win with two (losses). Hopefully other teams knock off the teams in first place and we regroup and win the rest of our Sun Belt games."

After Utah State's Jarrod Jakubiak added a 34-yard field goal to cut the lead to eight, Pennyman dropped what could have been a touchdown on the ensuing drive before Utah State was forced to punt.

The straw that broke the Aggies' back came with just less than nine minutes to go. Pennyman scored on a 9-yard run, but it was called back due to penalty, and three plays later, Trent Nate dropped a potential touchdown pass on a fourth-and-1 from the 2-yard line.

The Aggies got the ball one more time and got as close as the North Texas 33, but eventually lost the ball on downs.

Thomas rushed 38 times for 256 yards and two touchdowns to lead North Texas, while Hall completed just 5 of 12 passes for 84 yards and a touchdown. The Mean Green finished with a total of 343 yards total offense.

Cox completed 22 of 40 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown, but he had four interceptions, bringing his total to 13 for the year.