After losing its Sun Belt conference opener to Louisiana-Monroe, 19-17 on Oct. 6, North Texas, which was picked to finish fourth in the league, was 0-5 overall, and Dickey, who's in the fourth year of a five-year contract, was in danger of losing his job. "I went to Darrell and said, 'I believe in you, but I need something I can show the trustees [to get his contract extended],' " says North Texas athletic director Rick Villareal.
The Mean Green gave Villareal what he was looking for: five straight victories, including a 50-27 win at Idaho on Nov. 17 that clinched their first bowl berth in 42 years. North Texas and Middle Tennessee State (8-3) both have 5-1 conference records, but the Mean Green's 24-21 win over Middle Tennessee on Oct. 13 was the tiebreaker.
While a spot in the New Orleans Bowl opposite the third-place team from the Mountain West may not sound like much, few programs could benefit more from the appearance and the $750,000 guaranteed payout than North Texas. Since their heyday in the late 1960s and '70s, when Hay-den Fry was the coach and Mean Joe Greene was the star, the Eagles have endured two decades of university deemphasis of athletics, including dropping the football program to Division I-AA in 1983. Six years ago North Texas returned to Division I-A, and since then the Mean Green has gone 24-53.
"We lost touch with our alumni base, and this program has run on fumes," says Villareal, who was hired seven months ago from Southern Mississippi, where he had been an associate athletic director. "We've done virtually nothing in eight to 10 years to attract fans."
After the Idaho victory Villareal told Dickey and the players that the trustees had approved a three-year extension to Dickey's contract. Afterward a relieved Dickey said, "I'm glad I can call the realtor and say, 'Don't sell the house.' "
Penn State Savior Mills
Freshman Passer Comes Through
Before the season Penn State freshman quarterback Zack Mills set a goal of being prepared in case anything happened to senior starter Matt Senneca. As the Nittany Lions slipped to an 0-4 start, he raised his goal to winning the starting job. Then, when Senneca got hurt in Game 5 against Northwestern, Mills, a heralded recruit from Ijamsville, Md., came in and threw the game-winning touchdown pass in a 38-35 win. The following week against Ohio State, Mills relieved Senneca after one series and threw for 280 yards and ran for 138 more to lift the Lions to a 29-27 upset victory.
Mills started the next two games, beating Southern Miss before spraining his left ankle and leaving with a 14-0 lead against Illinois. Penn State lost that game 33-28. Last Saturday, in his first appearance since the injury, Mills again came off the bench for the third time and led the Lions to victory. "I never thought I'd be having the season I'm having," Mills said on Sunday, a day after the Lions' 42-37 defeat of Michigan State.
The win evened Penn State's record at 5-5, a considerable achievement after that horrendous beginning. Mills has completed 115 of 206 passes for 1,533 yards and eight touchdowns, with nine interceptions. He has rushed for 145 yards and three scores. The numbers, though, don't measure the shot of adrenaline he gives the offense. "The biggest thing is his competitiveness," says quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno of Mills. "Early on he didn't do the things in practice that he has done in games." Against Michigan State, Mills took over for Senneca in the second quarter with the Nittany Lions trailing by 17 points. He completed 13 of 24 passes for 240 yards and a touchdown to engineer the comeback.
Mills will start on Saturday against Virginia in a game that could mean the difference between a losing record and a bowl bid. "We're well beyond where we were [at the start of the season]," Mills says. He's the big reason why.