North Texas has yet to play a perfect game this season, but this team has not needed perfect games to pile up wins.
Rice was picked by seemingly every national personality to pull the upset because North Texas ‘had nothing to play for.’
After Mason Fine threw a pick six early, it sure looked like maybe North Texas was gong to be second-best on a bright Saturday in sunny Houston.
The Mean Green showed glimpses of the explosive offense that has been the talk of Denton this season when Mason Fine hit Rico Bussey for six early. Nic Smith filled in for Jeff Wilson and bullied his way through, around, and by Rice for 178 yards on 26 carries. He handled drives nearly by himself.
NT did not always turn their good drives into touchdowns, but senior kicker Trevor Moore is always reliable and he added three field goals to keep the scoreboard moving.
Helping the cause was Jaelon Darden, who took a punt back for six — 81 yards in his Houston homecoming in front of his family.
It was not always pretty — at one point the offensive line coach Chuck Langston was livid with his group for allowing back-to-back sacks in the second quarter — but it was effective.
North Texas has ended the regular season 9-3, 7-1 in the league and having won four straight. Next up is a rematch with Florida Atlantic — who struggled so much according to Lane Kiffin, that he did not allow them to sing the school song in the locker room after — and a chance at the program’s first conference crown since 2004.
Mason Fine just missed his 9th-consecutive 200 yard game which snaps his 8-game streak and puts him 2nd behind Mitch Maher’s record 10. Fine is now all alone as the single-season pass TD leader with 27.
Fine did throw a bad interception that looked like it was a bad route by Quinetin Jackson, who ran a go route and looked to have been expected to run a hitch. As it was, it was a pick-six for Rice and half the points on the day.
Nic Smith had 178 on 26 and a score in his first game replacing Jeff Wilson. With Wilson out with injury and about to graduate out of the program, Smith is the favorite to take the mantle of lead back and he showed why.
Bussey caught another big TD early to put NT ahead 14-7. Things looked like they were going to get ugly for Rice after Darden worked everyone over on the 81-yard TD, but the offense could not manage another TD.
One reason scoring was an issue was the mistakes. There were the aforementioned sacks an also a penalty on Mike Lawrence that brought back a ridiculous Turner Smiley catch-and-run. As it was, NT did enough to get the win and never realy were threatened.
NT finished with 25 first downs on 382 yards of offense, the lowest yard output since 305 at Iowa in September, but still managed 5.55 yards per play on 69 plays.
The defense looked to have no trouble with the Rice attack until the second half. There was a big 52-yard run immediately following the delay for the Rice RB Sam Stewart injury. He lay motionless on the field for a good while before he was stretchered off.
Rice Athletics said he was
“alert and responsive to questions from the medical staff while being treated on the field. He was transported to Methodist Hospital for further evaluation.”
The delay seemed to spark the Owls and temper the NT defense. Still, it was the only offensive TD allowed by the defense.
For Rice, their 282 yards allowed was the lowest since Pittsburgh, and their 4.82 yards per play was the lowest since FIU, both in September.
The Owls managed most of their offense via Miklo Smalls scrambles. He finished with 89 yards on 17 carries including the big 52-yard score. Standout FR WR Aaron Cephus only managed 2 grabs for 50 yards and got 46 yards on one of those.
The NT defense held Rice to 4/13 on third down and 0-4 on fourth. EJ Ejiya had 12 tackles incuding 10 solo to got with one sack. Kishawn McClain had 5 tackles. Ashton Preston had a big pass-breakup that Eric Jenkins intercepted. That’s Jenkin’s second on the year and fifth of his career.
The objective in this road trip was to get a win while staying healthy and not having to excert a ton of energy in the process. This was accomplished. The offense did not nearly reach the production levels of last week vs Army but it sill managed to put enough on the board to win the game.
Seth Littrell has now finished the season with a 3-3 record on the road. He has won his first two games against Rice — both on the road and both after overcoming a deficit.
More importantly, Littrell is now 4-1 on the road in CUSA this season. The most important road game of the year is next week and there is much to work on.
FAU did not perform well as they beat up on a bad Charlotte team. This week was always going to be tough for both NT and FAU considering the stakes were very low and the championship game was set.
Now both teams get to concentrate on the enourmous task at hand. Seth Littrell has a team a little banged up but still capabale of explosive offense, combined with a defense that has allowed huge chunks of yardage to both this team and Army.
Lane Kiffin will have to battle through the coaching rumors as they heat up, and keep his team sharp enough to repeat the vivisection of the NT defense they did last month.