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UNT 42, Rice 35

NORTH TO ALANCE-KA -- Rice receiver Lance Wright hauls in scoots into end zone from 14 yards out to extend Rice's lead in first quarter (David Speed Elder photo)

HOUSTON (Sept. 25) -- That giant sucking sound you heard echoing from within the confines of Rice Stadium Saturday evening was the desperate din of a season going down, down, down the drain.

The Rice Owls surged to a 17-0 first-quarter lead against a University of North Texas team that was as green as the numbers on their jerseys, only to fall victim to an oft-repeated routine: no lack of effort throughout; strong start, adjustment failure, eventual breakdown in execution.

The resulting 42-35 double-overtime loss virtually assures the Owls of their second consecutive bowl-game-less losing season, at a time when Rice's gridiron future may well hinge on the maintenance of a modicum of competitiveness among the also-rans of the college football world.

A quick show of many of you would like to be standing in Rice AD Joe Karlgaard's shoes right now?

And to think the game started out as what ought to have been a blowout laugher. Rice engineered sustained drives for three consecutive scores to start out the game, while UNT sputtered out of the box with a three-and-out the first two times it got the ball.

Owl quarterback Tyler Stehling got his sideline passing game cranked up early with a ten yard completion to Zach Wright, first play. One play later, Darik Dillard broke through the line for 21 yards and the Owls were in business.

Stehling connected with Lance Wright for 17 yards for a first and goal at the UNT nine, but from there, things bogged down and Haden Tobola was called on to try a field goal from 40 yards out; it was true and the Flock led 3-0.

On UNT's first possession, Graysen Schantz nailed Jeffrey Wilson for scant yardage on first down, and two Mason Fine incompletions later, the Eagles had to punt.

The Owls picked up where they left off, driving 77 yards in 13 plays, gathering up six first downs in the process. On third and four at the North Texas 14, Stehling connecting with an open Lance Wright who outraced his defenders to the end zone, and the Owls were up, 10-0.

UNT took the ensuing kickoff and was driven backwards, Tabari McGaskey nailing receiver Willy Ivery for a loss of two. Next play, Preston Gordon sacked UNT QB Fine for a loss of ten.

On third and 22, Graysen Schantz stormed in to down Fine agains for a loss of eight – and the football. UNT managed to come up with the pill in the scrum, but that that point the not-so-Mean Green faced fourth and 30.

Rice cranked it right back up and drove for another TD, utilizing both Tyler Stehling and Nate German at the helm in storming 62 yards in ten plays, a key play being a 26-yard completion, Stehling to Zach Wright from the North Texas 47. When Emmanuel Esukpa burled over from the one yard line six plays later, the Owls had themselves a 17-0 lead two minutes deep into the second quarter.

UNT ate into Owl lead, second quarter

At that point, the Owls had rolled to 180 yards total offense to UNT’s minus-17. The home team had picked up 14 first downs to the visitors’ big fat zero. The game was as one-sided as homestanding Owl fans had seen in, frankly, many a year.

But from that point, the Owl offense went into hibernation until late in the fourth quarter, while the UNT offensive attack sputtered to life and began to gather momentum.

What happened to result in such sea change?

"It's really tough when you race out to a 17-0 lead and then sit there and watch it slip away and watch your team make errors on three drives with three turnovers," Rice head coach David Bailiff said afterwards. "We had too many turnovers and too many penalties and gave up some big plays to North Texas defensively. We made too many mistakes, and eight penalties."

On their next possession, the Eagles suddenly seemed to have solved Rice’s defensive set, connecting on four big plays, two passing, two running, cutting the Owl lead to 17-7 when Willie Ivery hauled in Mason Fine’s pass from 16 yards out.

The Owls moved the ball once again until coughing it up at the UNT 41 when Austin Walter was separated from the ball after running for nine.

Rice had a chance to extend the margin when Myles Adams sacked North Texas QB Fine for a loss of ten, and the ball, at the UNT 31, where Emmanuel Ellerbee recovered the fumble.

But a holding and delay-of-game penalty pushed the Owls back to a third-and-20, whereupon Tyler Stehling forced a passed that was picked off by the Eagles’ Keith McClain at the UNT 11.

Neither team could garner any offense from that point until Eagle quarterback Fine, with two minutes showing on the halftime clock, connected with his Kenny Buyers for a 75-yard pass-and-run that set up JeffreyWilson’s one-yard scoring plunge to cut the Rice lead to 17-14 with 45 seconds left in the half. So the Owls had let the Mean Green back into the game, going into the halftime locker room.

"We can't do that," Rice linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee said in his post-game presser. "Just because we punched somebody in the mouth first doesn't mean they're not going to retaliate. Anybody who's a grown man is going to retaliate back at you, so we should have expected that. For us to sit back there and act like that wasn't going to happen, that's something, as defensive players, we need to get together."

Owls extended lead with field goal in third quarter

Midway in the third, Jowan Davis and Lance Wright put the Owls in scoring position with an 18-yard dash and a 24-yard reception, respectively. When the drive stalled at the North Texas 19, Haden Tobola was true once again on his 36-yard field goal attempt.

The Owls were able to hold the resulting 20-14 lead for exactly one play.

Jeffrey Wilson gave the Mean Green a 21-20 lead when on first down after the ensuing kickoff touchback, he took the handofff and cleared for a 75-yard scoring run.

While the Rice offense continued to sputter, North Texas at length was able to extend its lead to 28-20 with an 86-yard drive that covered nine plays, the Rice defense being beset by a plague of arm-tackling along the way.

When it looked as if North Texas would win going away, Tyler Stehling’s 41-yard scramble that carried all the way to the UNT one-yard line engendered hope among the thinned-out Rice crowd.

"We knew we had to score," Tyler Stehling said postgame. "We were running out of time, down by eight. To be honest, it was just a pass play and I saw green grass and I took it."

Darik Dillard scored two plays later from the one, and the Flock knotted the score with a two-pointer throwback toss from Tyler Stehling to Robbie Wells.

The Rice defense subsequently held UNT to a three-and-out, but only 34 seconds remained on the scoreboard clock when the Owls took over at their own 19. So we go to overtime.

Rice lost the coin toss, thus going on offense first. The Owls faced a fourth-and-inches from the UNT 16 three plays later, but Darik Dillard converted on fourth down. Three plays later, the senior running back scored his second TD of the game on a three-yard pop into the end zone. Rice 35, UNT 28.

Things were looking well for Rice when on UNT's first play in response, Emmanuel Ellerbee nailed Jeffrey Wilson for a loss of three on a short pass to the flat. But the next play, the Owl middle defense succumbed to a trap play that burst the same Wilson through for a 23-yard dash to the Rice five. Wilson scored the next play.

It looked as if UNT would have to settle for a field goal on its next possession when QB Fine misconnected on third and six from the Rice nine yard line. But a controversial roughing-the-passer play gave the North Texans new life with a first-and-goal at the four.

The Owl defender clearly appeared to have been blocked into the UNT quarterback, and in fact looked to have held onto Fine to keep him upright. But Mister Magoo saw it differently, and that turned out to be the difference in the ball game, when Willy Avery scored from four yards out on the next play.

On the Owls’ next and final possession, Stehling connected with Zach Wright for eight yards on second and ten. Pretty much everybody on the field and in the stands knew what was coming next.

Sure enough, the handoff went to Darik Dillard who was stopped a yard short of the first down.

Fourth-and-one, same play. After all, it had worked all night. But this time it didn’t, as UNT’s Jareid Combs and the center of the UNT line stacked up to drop the reliable Rice running back for a loss of two – and the game.

"They just made an adjustment," Darik said afterwards. "They were able to just pinch the middle, and they were able stop us on that one play."

And that’s how what should have been a blowout win turned into a miserable loss for the Owls.

"You've got to have the mentality when you get that kind of start that it becomes a frenzy of wanting more and more and not putting sunglasses on and enjoying your work," Coach Bailiff said. "We had a bad mentality and that's something we've got to fix fast. We can't make the mistakes we're making and win football games. And that all starts right here with me."

"The guys are hurt right now," the Rice mentor added glumly. "There will be a lot of soul-searching. And I have to, too. Everything in this program begins with me. I've got to look at what we're doing. Players win games, coaches lose them, and this is one we darn sure should've won."


HOUSTON (Sept. 22) -- One thing's perfectly clear about Saturday's 5 p.m. tilt at Rice Stadium between the homestanding Owls and the visitors from North Texas. They don't do ties in college football anymore; there's going to be a winner, and there's going to be a loser.

While the Owls are winless in three tries -- as all of us who keep track of the grid Bottom 10 and Bottom 25 columns know -- the Mean Green are 1-2, but with their lone win coming against FCS entrant Bethune-Cookman.

Each side will be pretty much desperate for a victory -- the players, their fans, and, lord knows, certainly the respective coaches of each team.
North Texas is a cipher. Last week against monster opponent Florida, UNT lost "only" 32-0, but in so doing they gained a grand total of 53 yards total offense. Turns out that's the stingiest defensive effort ever put up by Gator gridders in their over-century-long history.

UNT's true freshman quarterback, Mason Fine, was sacked seven times by the Florida defense, but arose to fight again each time -- no mean feat, given that he checks in at only 5-11, 170 pounds soaking wet, and just a season ago was bowing under as QB for the Pirates of Locust Grove High School in rural Oklahoma.

As a schoolboy, Fine put up some beyond-impressive numbers, accumulating 13,081 yards passing, which ranks number eight, all-time, in national high school ranks. He also ran or passed for 166 touchdowns, fifth all-time in high school football history.

Shades of Kenneth Hall. (Is anyone out there old enough to remember who Kenneth Hall was? Sugar Land residents?)

Actually, “shades of Kyle Herm” would be a more accurate analogy, and a much more recent reference.

The greenhorn was sent onto the field for the first time in the fourth quarter of UNT's opening-game loss to SMU, immediately leading his team on a face-saving TD drive. Once he got the job, he's kept it.

He did show some reflections of his prolific high school career in the Eagles' 41-20 win over outmanned and overmatched Bethune-Cookman, not exactly one of your small-college football powers.

But last week, hard times came at Gainesville. Suffice it to say that his ability and performance level stands to land somewhere between the varying results he displayed in the Bethune-Cookman and the Florida games.

Ah, but where?

Rookie head coach Seth Littrell has gone about installing a new spread offensive scheme in Denton this season. The Owls have been notoriously susceptible to even fairly feeble spread attacks when they're run by a mobile quarterback with speedy wideouts who can push the attack downfield.

Yet the South Main boys, after whiffing against both Western Kentucky's passing game and Army's running game, showed signs of life defensively against Baylor last week, especially early in the contest.

Ironically, then, it may be the defenses of the two teams upon which the game's outcome ultimately turns.

Mean Green defenders put up a third-quarter goose egg against the Gators, and displayed a capable goal line defense, twice stopping the Floridians on fourth down inside the ten.

Defensive back Nate Brooks was key in the effort, intercepting a pass, breaking up a couple other passing attempts, and putting up eight tackles on the night.

Elsewhere on defense, the Meanies are paced by junior safety Kishawn McClain (out of Rosenberg), a preseason All-Conference USA selection, who led the team in tackles in 2015, recording 110 as a sophomore, which ranked within the top 10 nationally.

There’s also Junior linebacker Joshua Wheeler ( from Grand Prairie), a transfer from Tyler JC, where he excelled as a juco All-American pass rusher.

With those guys roaming the turf, in their 41-20 win against Bethune-Cookman, the UNT defense gave up only a single score.

Bethune-Cookman took an early lead via an 88-yard punt return, and later registered a pick-six for their second score of the game. Were it not for an 83-yard touchdown run by backup quarterback Akevious Williams with 2:42 remaining in the fourth, North Texas' defense would have pitched a shutout.

But that was against Bethune-Cookman.