Football: Today’s tilt against Rice UNT’s biggest in years

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David Minton/DRC
University of North Texas senior running back Brandin Byrd (24) breaks loose against Middle Tennessee, Saturday, October 12, 2013, at Apogee Stadium in Denton.

Brandin Byrd has played in dozens of games over the course of four seasons at North Texas — games against national powers and in-state rivals, games with some meaning early in the season and games with nothing on the line at the end of disappointing years.

None comes anywhere close to stacking up to the Mean Green’s showdown today with Rice, at least not in terms of their importance — a fact players like Byrd, a senior running back, are well aware of.

UNT is riding a three-game winning streak and can become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2004 by knocking off the Owls.

And that’s just for starters.

The game will be televised nationally on Fox Sports 1, giving the school a chance to showcase its rapidly improving program against a Texas rival.

For a team that has suffered through eight straight losing seasons, today’s game is — simply put — huge.

“This is the first time we have played in a game like this,” Byrd said. “It means a lot because we have never sniffed a bowl game.”

UNT (5-3, 3-1 Conference USA) is on the verge of doing more than just sniffing the postseason; it’s on the verge of securing one of C-USA’s six bowl slots.

That seemed like a distant goal when, after the 2010 season, Dan McCarney took over a program that hadn’t won more than three games in a season in six years.

A little more than two years of rebuilding later, UNT is right where it has dreamed of being ever since a tough era in program history began after its four-year run as Sun Belt Conference champion ended in 2004.

“The neat thing is that we are playing a game with a lot of meaning,” McCarney said. “When people told me not to take the job at North Texas and wait for this job or that one, this is exactly what I dreamed about.”

UNT has heavily promoted today’s game in the hope that a big crowd will show up on Halloween night to lend a hand. The school is selling blackout T-shirts and has posters hung up across campus.

“I feel like there will be a big crowd on Thursday with students and alumni,” UNT linebacker Zach Orr said. “Just being around campus, there is a feeling that I’ve never felt before. The whole university is really excited.”

A win tonight not only would give UNT six wins, it would keep the Mean Green in the hunt for the C-USA West Division title. Rice (6-2, 4-0) and Tulane (6-2, 4-0) are the only unbeaten teams left in the division. UNT’s only conference loss came at Tulane.

The challenge for UNT is to capitalize on what the Mean Green’s players and coaches readily acknowledge is a monumental opportunity. And they are all keenly aware of the fact that reaching that goal will be a challenge.

Rice has dropped just two games all season, falling to Texas A&M, which is 12th in the BCS standings, and Houston, which is 6-1 on the year.

“Rice is a heck of a football team,” McCarney said. “They don’t beat themselves and are smart, tough and physical. They have a good system and a hell of a coach in David Bailiff.”

Rice has been on a tear, just like UNT. The Owls have won five straight since falling to Houston and have beaten New Mexico State and UTEP by a combined score of 90-26 in their last two games.

Rice running back Charles Ross leads C-USA with an average of 116.2 rushing yards per game, while Taylor McHargue is throwing for 169.6 yards an outing.

Quarterback Derek Thompson has powered UNT during its recent run and enters today’s game off his school-record seventh 300-yard game last week in the Mean Green’s win over Southern Mississippi.

Thompson’s performance has overshadowed a solid run by UNT’s defense, which has allowed 34 points in the Mean Green’s last three games combined.

Orr has played a key part in those performances, which have helped make tonight’s game a special one for a variety of reasons for UNT.

“It seems like it was destined to happen,” Orr said. “We felt that way coming into the year — that we had a good squad that was going to play in some meaningful games. We looked at this Rice game as potentially one of the biggest since North Texas last played in a bowl game. This is our biggest game since 2004.”

RICE AT UNT

When: 6:30 p.m.

Where: Apogee Stadium

Records: UNT 5-3, 3-1 Conference USA; Rice 6-2, 4-0 C-USA

Last meeting: Rice 32, UNT 31 (2010 at Fouts Field)

Last week: UNT 55, Southern Mississippi 14; Rice 45, UTEP 7

Series: Rice leads 2-1

TV: Fox Sports 1

Radio: KHYI-FM 95.3, KNTU-FM 88.1


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