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2017 UNT game page

North Texas 30, Rice 14


HOUSTON (Nov. 25) – When Rice cornerback Brandon Douglas-Dotson made an emphatic opening statement for the Owls by stepping into a North Texas curl route, picking off the pass, and returning it 75 yards untouched for the touchdown giving the Feathered Flock an early 7-0 lead here Saturday, the message was clear: The home team defense had shown up ready to play.

Unfortunately, the Rice offensive unit was unable to reciprocate. In fact, the Owls were able to come up with nary a first down until midway into the second quarter, and that’s no way to win a football game.

So the Owls didn’t win one. They could’ve won one – North Texas came in ripe for the plucking. One could argue they even should’ve won this one. When the Rice defensive unit gives up a total of 23 points despite being on the field the better part of the game, in the league they’re playing, this cerebral bunch oughta be able to generate enough offense to come away with a win.

This isn’t the SEC we’re talking about here.

The Mean Green, now 9-3 on the season and who will will face FAU in the C-USA Championship game next Saturday, came into Rice Stadium averaging 477 yards and 38 points per game They lined up against a Rice defensive unit that was missing five starters who had combined for 67 career starts.

Still, the Owls held UNT to right at 100 yards under its offensive average; it likely would have been less than that had the offense been able to stay on the field a bit longer on the day.

Senior defensive end Brian Womac dropped vaunted NT quarterback Mason Fine twice and added a tackle-for-loss to set a school season record with 22 TFLs, one more than Brandon Green compiled in 2001 (can it be that long ago that Brandon Green played?)  Brian’s two sacks gave him 10 for the year, which ranks second to Brandon's total of 12 in 2001.

Rice forced North Texas to punt four times on the day, one shy of their season high of five at Iowa earlier in the season.

Moreover, Owl defenders came up big in the fourth quarter, forcing consecutive three-and-outs sandwiched in between three Rice drives which penetrated the UNT 15, 23 and 37 yard lines but producing zero points.

"Our defense was outstanding today," Rice head coach David Bailiff said afterwards. "They only gave up 23 points to a team that had been getting 38 points a game, and they did it throughout the game. They had been averaging 477 yards a game, and today they had 383, so hats off to the defense -- they gave us a lot of opportunity to win that one."

Unfortunately, Rice’s offense just plain old had an off day, as it had been wont to do whenever the Owl defense came up nails this season. Of course the North Texas defense had something to do with that. Nevertheless, there were frequent signs of discombobulation observed on the offensive side.

On Rice’s first possession, on a makeable third down play, a simple pitch between Miklo and Austin Walter was muffed. The team was guilty of three illegal-procedure penalties in the second half – all as the Owls were driving.

To make allowances, the Rice running back corps was playing well below speed. When an already-banged-up Nahshon Ellerbe had to leave the field in the second quarter, he was immediately spelled by Sam Stewart, who was inked in as the Owls’ premier back this season, but who’s been nagged by injuries.

First time out, Sam got the call; someone missed a block and Sam’s chin strap was met by a UNT helmet at the line of scrimmage (no targeting?!). He crumpled as if having been shot. And 20 minutes later, Sam was still lying supine on the Rice Stadium turf, before he was finally immobilized, carted off the field on a gurney, and taken by ambulance to hospital.

Later testing proved negative, but the moment was a scary one for Coach Bailiff and his charges.

That injury interval proved a spark that lit something of a fire under the Owls, for immediately once having returned to play, Rice quarterback Miklo Smalls reeled off a 52-yard touchdown run down the the visitor’s sideline to bring the Owls within 21-14. After the game, Miklo described the play.

“It was an under-center play,” he explalined, “and all I do is fake it to the running back, and I go through my progressions and I didn’t really see anything – it looked like the left side defensive backs were all flush to the right side of the field, so I decided to pull it down, and I felt Robbie (Wells) in front of me, he set up the outside block, and then I went inside.

Between the Douglas-Dotson pick-six and the Miklo 52-yarder, though, UNT got its game in gear, moving for three touchdowns and picking up a fair amount of yards in the process.

To be clear, however – one of those three TDs was courtesy an 81-yard punt return by UNT’s Jaelon Darden. And one of the pair of other TDs was picked up via a 51-yard touchdown pass from the Eagles’ Mason Fine to Rico Bussey.

Still, it was a ball game at the half, even though UNT had tacked on a 44-yard Trevor Moore field goal to make it 24-14 at that point.

After giving up 269 yards in the first half, the Rice defense rose to the occasion in the second. In the last two quarters, UNT was limited to 114 yards total offense and a pair of Trevor Moore field goals.

In return, though, the UNT defense made plays. One those three Owl incursions deep into Mean Green territory, twice the Flock was stopped on fourth-down attempts, and once by way of an Eric Jenkins interception of a Miklo Smalls deep ball in the end zone.

"Offensively, we were too inconsistent,” Coach Bailiff noted postgame. “We couldn't get anything going in the first quarter. We had some movement on some big plays in the second; we got some nice drives in the second half, but we didn't get any points. When you run an offense where you want to eat time, you have to have points at the end of those drives and we didn't do it."

Smalls finished with 107 yards passing and added 89 on the ground to lead the Owls. He connected with fellow freshman Aaron Cephus on a 46-yard connection early in the fourth to allow Cephus to break James Casey's freshman mark for receiving yards. Aaron finished the day with a pair of catches for 50 yards and ended his year with 25 catches for 622 yards.

--PTH


HOUSTON (Nov. 23) -- Before the University of North Texas eleven journeys to Boca Raton on Nov. 30 to tangle with FAU in the Conference USA championship game, they'll be making a brief detour by Rice Stadium for a minor skirmish with the homestanding Owls come noon Saturday.

Not a big deal. This UNT contingent clinched the league’s western division race a couple of weeks ago, then outpointed Army at home last week in a 52-49 track meet. The “Mean Green,” as they are called, is 8-3 on the season, have a world-beater quarterback, talented skill players and defenders, and a dynamic young coach who seems soon to be destined for the big time.

So the Owls, casualty-ridden as they are, in going through the motions to finish out a one-win season, ought likely to be a mere minor speed bump on the champ’s yellow brick road, right?

One would expect so, all things considered. But....

UNT just can’t be ‘up’ for this game. The aforementioned Army win was the fourth straight win, seven out of their last eight for the Green Eagles, setting their wings for an approach pattern into Boca. Prognosticators are picking a UNT walkover Saturday.

Owl veterans say they have revenge on their minds after falling to UNT 42-35 in double overtime last season after leading most of the game.

“We’ve got to go get this win; we're still thinking about North Texas from last year,” Rice senior offensive lineman Peter Godber said Tuesday. “They beat us in overtime; we're looking to get revenge on them. We’re looking forward to playing the best in in our division, and shock the world.”

Now, clearly it’s far-fetched, but what if a certain coach makes a certain kind of announcement to his players, pre-game on Saturday? Mind you we’re completely uninformed in such regard, but what would that do as a motivator?

That Army win last Saturday -- in it, UNT gave up 534 yards rushing to enemy infantry. That stat serves to rank the Eagles 109th among FBS teams in rushing yards allowed this season.  In the last four games, all wins, nevertheless UNT has surrendered a total of 120 points.

The leading Mean Green rusher thus far this season is Jeffery Wilson, who’s picked up 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns. Thing is, he’s on the injured list and will not return for the Rice game, head coach Seth Littrell has annouced.

UNT has picked up narrow wins against UTSA (29-26), Old Dominion (45-38) and Louisiana Tech (24-23), all in the second half of the season. Turns out those pore old Owls were competitive against all three of those teams, though losing to each of them.

All of that is not to say that North Texas lacks major weapons, particularly on offense, going into Saturday’s game.

Soph quarterback Mason Fine has been a major impetus for the UNT resurgence this season; just Tuesday he was named the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award National Player of the Week for his performance against Army, wherein he was 24 of 36 passing for 389 yards and four touchdowns. Thus far on the season, the Locust Grove, Oklahoma, signal caller has 3,198 yards with 26 TDs while tossing 10 interceptions.

Fine’s favorite battery mate is redshirt sophomoreWR Jalen Guyton, who caught two passes for 27 yards and a touchdown in the Army game, upping his team-leading season reception totals to 47 for 758 yards, good for 16.1 yards per catch. He has nine touchdown receptions, also tops on the team

Fine completed six passes of 15 yards or more last week in the win over Army. Two were good for touchdown passes of 68 yards (in the fourth quarter) and 45 yards (in the first quarter) to Frisco senior Turner Smiley, who’s been a big-play man for the Mean Green all season.

UNT also features a formidable weapon in place-kicker Trevor Moore, who kicked the winning field goal with 4 seconds left in the Army game. Moore holds the school record for most consecutive made extra points, and recently set the record for most career PATs (148). Moore has never missed an extra point attempt in his career.

On the defensive side, senior safety Kishawn McClain is nails, leading his team with 79 tackles thus far on the season, 52 of them of the solo variety. Of course when your safety leads the team in tackles, Owl fans know what that stat connotes – you’re giving up just a whole heckuva lot of yardage.

McClain is a Rosenberg B. F. Terry product, and he told press earlier this week he anticipates a large contingent of family and friends will be in the Rice Stadium crowd on Saturday.

"It's going to be fun and I'm going to have a lot of people there," McClain said. "I've got a lot of friends, a lot of family, former coaches and I'm going to try to make sure I put on a show for them. I'm looking forward to seeing the smiles on everybody's' faces and their excitement to see me play my last regular season game back home."

Owl fans of a certain vintage know that these Saturday-after-Thanksgiving home games over the years have yielded up ghost-town-like crowds in Historic Rice Stadium. The McClain clan thus will prove to be most welcome, provided they’re paying customers, of course.

Gotta pay for those helmet stickers.

–PTH