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'16 UNC-Charlotte game page

Rice 22, UNC Charlotte 21

Down 21-0, Owls morph into leatherheads throwback, storm back to overwhelm Charlotte, likely kill bowl hopes for locals, league loss skein is thereby broken

Temi Alaka hauls in pass from Tyler Stehling for Owls' first TD against Charlotte (David Speed Elder photo)

Tyler Stehling outraces left side of UNCC defense to score from 17 yards out to bring Owls to within 21-16, third quarter (David Speed Elder photo)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Nov. 12) --When UNC-Charlotte defensive back Terrance Winchester picked off an overthrown Rice sideline pass and scooted untouched 41 yards into the end zone to put the homestanding 49ersup, 21-0, midway in the second quarter of Saturday's game, the contest had all the makings of yet another sixty-something-to-something-teen blowout, the likes of which Owl players, coaches and fans have become so achingly familiar in recent campaigns.

But then it happened a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," to ascribe the event in Churchillian terms.

Was it a time warp? A worm hole? Perhaps the metamorphosis was accomplished by means of Rice-developed nano-tubes. But whatever it was, the Institute Boys took the field for the ensuing kickoff a group of men transformed.

It was as if they were wearing those old-fashioned leather, faceguardless helmets with the ear flaps, high rise hip pads, pleated pants and high-top cleats. Because that's the way they played for the rest of the game. It was smash-mouth football, pure and simple. Teeth missing, noses broken, perhaps, but vanquished enemy strewn all over the field in the throes of defeat.

The coup de grace was a 1-yard touchdown plunge by an exhausted quarterback Tyler Stehling, capping off a 71-yard, 13-play drive that was accomplished by sheer force of will.

The key play on the drive was a 19-yard Stehling-to-Zach Wright pass reception that brought the Owls to the lip of the Charlotte red zone.

From there, it was all quarterback. Except for one play where Jackson Tyner subbed in for the fifth-year Rice senior signal caller, Tyler Stehling toted the mail each time, for six plays. TS got a horrible spot from the striped shirts after bulling to the lip of the goal line on second and eight from the nine yard line.

The ball was spotted at the three, instead of the 4-foot-line, where it should’ve been. Jackson Tyner then came in and got a yard. TS came back onto the field and plunged for one more. That gave the Owls a first-and-goal at the UNCC 1 yard line, with three minutes left in the game.

Next play, Stehling, with a mighty heave from the center of the Rice formation, broke the plane of the goal line to put the Owls up for the first time in the game, as 22-21.

After the passing try for two fluttered helplessly away from an Owl reciever, it was only going to take a field goal for UNCC to pull out the win, and they had just short of three minutes to maneuver into field goal range.

But again out came the leather helmets. Alex Lyons and Tabari McGaskey first combined to stop UNCC’s Kalif Phillips for short yardage. On second down Tabari once again penetrated to nail Phillips in the backfield for a loss of three.

Then, after Hasaan Klugh’s third down pass was batted away, Alex Lyons came back to nail his UNCC receiver five yards short of the first down on fourth and nine.

The ball turned over, the clock ticked down, and the Owls had their win.

It had hardly looked possible a couple of hours before, as Charlotte drove for two early touchdowns on consecutive possessions, traveling 71 yards in eight plays, and then 75 yards in 13 plays, as the scoreboard clock ticked on into early second quarter territory.

Tyler Stehling proceeded to pitch an interception on the Owls’ next possession, returned 48 yards to the Rice 34. But the Rice defense stiffened at that point, pushing the 49er offense backwards for two yards on three rushing attempts.

When the Owls got the ball back the after a touchback punt into the end zone, youngster QB J T Granato came in for a turn at the helm. But after picking up a first down via a 13-yard completion to Zach Wright, the redshirt frosh signal caller followed with a badly overthrown ball toward his receiver at the sideline. The toss was picked up by UNCC’s star cornerback, Terrance Winchester, who had free rein down the visitor’s sideline, 41 yards for a pick-six.

That was bottom point from which the Owls slowly but inextricably began to dig themselves out.

From that point on, the UNCC offense picked up only 110 more yards total offense, being limited to only four more first downs. It was as complete a defensive shut-down the Rice defense has been seen in many a game, and it came against a team that does know how to move the football, have racked up 38 points in a big win at Southern Miss the Saturday before.

Meanwhile, the Rice offense got untracked.

First, starting from his 28, Tyler Stehling found his passing touch, pinpointing five straight completions to Zach Wright (twice), Kylen Granson, Connor Cella, and Temi Alaka.

When the drive finally bogged down at the Charlotte six yard line, Haden Tobola came in to convert a short field goal to put the Owls on the board, but still down, 21-3.

The Owls gained good field position, starting at the Charlotte 46 on their next possession, whereupon it took twelve plays to hit paydirt, but eventually TS hit Temi Alaka for the final three yards to make the score 21-10. And that’s how the half ended.

Rice’s first possession of the third quarter started at its own one yard line, but from there the Owl offense kept possession for 14 plays in grinding the ball out as far as midfield.

Then came the defensive play of the game, perhaps the season, as, on the ensuing Jack Fox punt, the Owls’ Brandon Douglas simply destroyed UNCC deep back Nate Mullen on the return attempt, jarring the ball loose whereupon it was recoved by Blaine Padgett at the UNCC 17.

The very next play, Tyler Stehling saw open field from his drop-back position, and took advantage of it, outracing the left side of the Charlotte defense to the pylon.

An ensuing two-point passing attempt failed to develop, but still, the Owls were right back in the game, now down by only five at 21-16.

Thanks to the Rice defense, there ensued five changes of possession, with three Rice defensive stops including a pair of three-and-outs as the defense was spearheaded by Brian Womac and Emmanuel Ellerbee.

Nahshon’s fair catch of a UNCC punt set up the Owls at their 29 with 7:31 to play in the game, and from there commenced Rice’s stirring, game-winning touchdown drive.

Pass-catcher extraordinaire Zach Wright summed up his feelings for us after the game. “I’ve been a part of championships, big wins, overtime wins with this team, and I can’t explain this feeling I have," he said.

"These guys...any other team in the country, you’re 1-and-8, you’re down 21-nothing in the first half. That crushes teams. Normal teams just quit. But these guys wanted it, and I’ve never been more proud to be a part of my team in my entire life.”