Goff Rugby Twitter     Goff Rugby Facebook

Bowl Win Means Much for North Texas

irish rugby tours

Bowl Win Means Much for North Texas

Michael Bliss was a little happier this year. Ron Raff Photography.

There was much to prove when North Texas took on Rutgers Saturday in the ACRC Bowl Series.

UNT entered the weekend ranked #50 by Goff Rugby Report among fall DI teams. A loss to unranked Rutgers (a team close to the top 50 for sure) would likely have seen UNT dropped from the rankings.

But more than that, UNT remembered that last year they came into the Bowl Series the SWC conference champion, and got thumped 46-0 by UMass.

“When we lost last time I was the saltiest cracker,” said UNT center Michael Bliss - meaning he was annoyed. “Everyone thought I had a concussion because I didn’t speak for hours. But I was just mad. We hadn’t played well at all, I coming here again, I knew we needed to play better.”

And so they did. In a difficult game against Rutgers, UNT battled through little problems, not least of which was their usually dead-on goalkicker, Jon Hiller - had a poor day kicking for goal, and they missed some key early scoring opportunities as a result.

Hiller continued to contribute in other ways at fullback, but UNT also needed young prop Devin Christor to come in early to replace the injured Jonathon Zaragoza, and he did so with interest. But the big problem was the opening seconds, when Rutgers blocked a kick and scored to take a 7-0 lead.

UNT had those penalty chances after that, but it took a long time for them to get anything going. Meanwhile, Rutgers fullback Keith Wallace was brilliant with his kicking, converting the try and adding two penalty goals. 

Rutgers led 13-0, in large part because North Texas couldn’t stay onside. They were constantly being pinged for encroaching on the defensive line, and it cost them. 

UNT got some big plays from No. 8 Cade Carter, and flanker Adam Pruitt, but in the end it came down to the backline. Pressure from North Texas led to a professional foul by Rutgers and a yellow card. Soon thereafter they sent the ball wide from a scrum to Joey Scopelite, who raced in. That was a big try, because it gave UNT some confidence. 

Late in the first half, UNT kicked to touch after a penalty. They won the lineout and Bliss found a gap and just raced through and under the posts to make it 13-12 at halftime. 

In the second half, UNT fixed their penalty problems.

“It was pretty simple,” said coach Michael Engelbrecht. “Stay onside. And when they stayed onside, they defended really well.”

And that they did. The communication needed to remind each other to stay onside translated into communication in all things defense, and UNT allowed just the one Wallace penalty in the second half.

Rutgers still led, and with the penalty it was 16-12. Still UNT tried to work it through. And eventually, with only minutes remaining, flyhalf Jason Hart ran a backline play that was supposed to use inside center Vic Martinez. But as the play developed, he saw a gap and raced through himself, beating the cover defenders and going in for the go-ahead try. Martinez kicked the conversion, and North Texas led for the first time.

Rutgers came storming back, and thought they had a try when AJ Iadisernia touched down. But the No. 8 had rolled along the ground one too many times and was instead called for holding on in the tackle. It was the final blow for Rutgers, which had pushed some good teams this year.

For North Texas, the 19-16 win was most welcome.

While Hart, Bliss, Carter, and Martinez all had big games, captain and lock Jeremy Johnson was the quiet, steadying force, winning linesouts, keeping the rucks solid, and getting the players to play together.

“Our main focus this weekend was focussing on ourselves, not just the opposition,” said Johnson. “After that soft try at the beginning it seemed like everybody was shooting blame at each other, and I went to the guys who were chirping - we were crumbling a little bit - and we gelled back together that was key.”

Johnson said Engelbrecht has emphasized the bounce on defense and getting ready to launch. They were over-eager in the first half, but got it right.

“It was absolutely worth coming out to the ACRC Bowl,” added Johnson. “It’s great team bonding and a good trip overall.”

“The team is getting better,” said Engelbrecht, who works with Head Coach Mark Allen. “We know that going undefeated in the conference is one thing, but playing games outside the area is important, too. We have got some great support from the university, and winning this bowl game helps us, with that, as well.”

And you can imagine that Bliss might have been a little more chatty on the trip back home.