The North Texas Mean Green made history in Houston on Saturday, Nov. 25, defeating Rice 30-14 in the final game of the regular season.
The win is the fifth in a row for North Texas (9-3, 7-1 C-USA). This marks the first time the Mean Green have won nine games in a season since 2003.
It was the defense that carried North Texas to victory. The unit entered the game allowing 35 points per contest, but was able to hold Rice (1-11, 1-7 C-USA) scoreless in the second half and contained them throughout the game. The lone big play for the Owls came on a 52-yard scramble and score by quarterback Miklo Smalls midway through the second quarter.
While the Mean Green offense struggled, Rice had three big chances to get back into it in the second half. However, the North Texas defense stepped up and forced Rice to punt twice and stopped them on fourth-and-1 at the 11-yard line to hold the lead. Late in the fourth, Eric Jenkins snagged his second interception of the game for the Mean Green, putting away the Owls for good.
“[The defense] did a great job today of being physical and disciplined, and really stepped up big,” North Texas head coach Seth Littrell said, via the team website. “They’re the reason for the success we had today.”
North Texas wasn’t extremely dynamic on offense but still managed to get the job done. Freshman running back Nic Smith took 26 carries for 178 yards and a touchdown, including a 13-yard score in the first quarter. He got the start in place of Jeffrey Wilson, who suffered an injury in last week’s win over Army.
“Losing [Wilson] has been tough, but [Smith] did a great job,” Littrell said. “We put the load on his back and he responded well.”
Quarterback Mason Fine did not have a huge day but kept his mistakes to a minimum after the Mean Green’s first possession. Fine threw an interception that was returned 75 yards for a touchdown seven minutes into the game. He made up for it later 51-yard touchdown pass to Rico Bussey early in the second quarter.
Overall, Fine completed 18 of 25 passes for 195 yards. It’s only the second time the sophomore has been held to fewer than 200 passing yards this season.
North Texas fortunately used a big play on special teams to put points on the board. Jaelon Darden took a punt return 81 yards to the house to make the score 14-7 in the second quarter. The Mean Green did not surrender its lead from that point forward.
Next up for the Mean Green is its first ever appearance in the Conference-USA Championship game at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 2 in Boca Raton against Florida Atlantic (9-3, 8-0 C-USA).
“We’re going to have to continue to get a week better,” Littrell said. “It will take all three phases to compete for a championship and win that game.”
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