Taylor McHargue ran to his left and to his right with time winding down in the fourth quarter of North Texas’ game against Rice on Thursday at Apogee Stadium.
Then he ran right into safety Larimie Lee, who leveled the Owls quarterback to punctuate a 28-16 win and another milestone for the rapidly improving Mean Green.
UNT had charged back from a nine-point first-half deficit against Rice, which had a chance to respond after McHargue pulled the ball down and scrambled to the Mean Green’s 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
The Owls ran four plays inside the 6-yard line and then got another crack at it when UNT cornerback Zac Whitfield was called for holding in the end zone on fourth down. The Mean Green held again, stopping the Owls on another four plays with their backs to the wall and picked up a milestone win as a result on a night UNT unveiled specially designed black jerseys for Halloween.
UNT became bowl-eligible for the first time since 2004 just two weeks after stringing together consecutive wins for first time since that same season.
“That shows the grit and heart of this team,” UNT linebacker Zach Orr said. “We talked since two-a-days about finishing. If a team is in our red zone and we have our backs to the wall, we have to keep on fighting. That is what we did. We kept scratching and clawing and were able to get eight straight stops. That is a testament to the heart of this team.”
The Mean Green not only closed in on securing its first bowl berth since the 2004 New Orleans Bowl, it also kept alive its hopes of making a run at the Conference USA West Division title.
UNT (6-3, 4-1 C-USA) entered the night just a game behind Rice (6-3, 4-1) and Tulane in the West Division standings and now has won four straight.
UNT’s defense played a huge role in the Mean Green reaching that role, holding Rice scoreless after the Owls had taken a 16-7 lead on a pair of touchdown passes from McHargue, who led the Owls with 222 passing yards.
“We attacked the interior, we attacked the perimeter, we threw the ball,” Rice head coach David Bailiff said. “North Texas made plays and we didn’t.”
UNT seemingly made all the key plays after getting off to a bad start when deep snapper Tony Johnson sent a ball sailing over the head of punter Blake Macek and out of the back of the end zone for a safety that gave Rice a 2-0 lead.
UNT rallied late in the first half and went up 21-16 after scoring a pair of second-quarter touchdowns. Antoinne Jimmerson scored on a 42-yard touchdown run before Brelan Chancellor scored on a 65-yard return.
Rice appeared as if it might answer late in the half when it drove to the UNT 37-yard line, but Orr cut down Charles Ross for no gain on fourth-and-1.
Orr had scored UNT’s first touchdown on a similar play when safety Marcus Trice forced a Ross fumble that Orr returned 55 yards for a touchdown.
UNT continued its run early in the third quarter when Jimmerson caught a 46-yard touchdown pass from Derek Thompson.
Jimmerson rushed for 62 yards and Brandin Byrd added 61 for UNT, which struggled at times offensively.
That didn’t matter on a night when UNT’s defense excelled, especially when it had its backs to the wall.
UNT might have won even if it had cracked on that goal line stand. The fact that it didn’t made the ending and a special win even better for the Mean Green.
UNT had talked all season about how important it was to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2004.
UNT doesn’t have a player on its roster who has played in a bowl game as a member of the Mean Green. A win over Rice was just another step toward ending that streak.
“The the seniors on this team — they have never been a part of a winning season or a team that’s bowl-eligible, so I’m really happy for them,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “This is a major milestone for them, a major accomplishment. And there’s a lot of hunger in that locker room. The guys want more.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.
North Texas 28, Rice 16
UNT—Z.Orr 55 fumble return (Paul kick), :41.
Rice—Petersen 21 pass from McHargue (Boswell kick), 14:06
Rice—Taylor 32 pass from McHargue (Boswell kick), 9:06
UNT—Jimmerson 42 run (Paul kick), 5:01
UNT—Chancellor 65 punt return (Paul kick), 3:26.
UNT—Jimmerson 46 pass from D.Thompson (Paul kick), 8:58
Time of Possession
RUSHING — Rice, Ross 18-101, McHargue 15-30, Dillard 6-7, Petersen 2-0, Eddington 1-(minus 5). North Texas, Jimmerson 8-62, Byrd 20-61, D.Thompson 6-24, Rollins 4-16, Chancellor 1-6, Abbe 2-6, Team 2-(minus 26).
PASSING — Rice, McHargue 18-28-2-222. North Texas, D.Thompson 7-13-1-104.
RECEIVING — Rice, Moore 6-52, Taylor 5-71, Petersen 4-61, Parks 2-31, Dillard 1-7. North Texas, Harris 3-29, Chancellor 2-23, Jimmerson 1-46, Kidsy 1-6.