HOUSTON — Jareid Combs crashed into the middle of Rice’s line and met running back Darik Dillard right at the line of scrimmage Saturday night at Rice Stadium.
The Mean Green’s players poured onto the field seconds later to celebrate a dramatic 42-35 double-overtime win and a landmark moment in the first season of coach Seth Littrell’s tenure with the Mean Green.
UNT overcame a 17-point deficit and knocked off the Owls in its Conference USA opener when Combs and linebacker Brandon Garner stuffed Dillard on fourth-and-1 from the Mean Green’s 16-yard line in the second overtime period.
The play set off a huge celebration for the Mean Green.
“It’s awesome,” Littrell said. “But it’s more awesome for these young men because of the way they prepared this week.”
Littrell wasn’t pleased with the way the Mean Green prepared heading into a game they lost 32-0 a week ago at Florida and wasn’t shy about expressing those feelings.
He challenged UNT’s players, saying the Mean Green had better improve quickly if they wanted to reach their goals this season.
The Mean Green (2-2, 1-0 C-USA) responded with a thrilling win over Rice (0-4, 0-2). UNT snapped a 14-game losing streak in road games and posted its biggest come-from-behind win since rallying from an 18-point deficit to beat Ball State during the 2013 season.
UNT had several players who helped lead the charge. Jeffrey Wilson rushed for 157 yards and three touchdowns, while quarterback Mason Fine threw for 224 yards and a touchdown.
Combs and Garner came up with the key play that capped it all by stopping Dillard when Rice needed a yard to keep the game going.
“The stop was crazy. We were all tired out there,” Combs said. “Brandon Garner hit him first, and I came in and helped clean him up. It was a great team hit.”
Rice was on offense first in overtime and scored on a Dillard 3-yard run. UNT answered with a 5-yard run from Wilson to send the game to a second overtime period.
Willy Ivery scored to put UNT up in the second overtime on a 4-yard run.
Rice appeared to have the momentum heading into overtime after mounting a key drive late to keep the game going.
The Mean Green led 28-20 after Ivery scored on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Rice came back to tie the game with an eight-play, 74-yard drive that Dillard capped with a 1-yard run. The Owls still needed a 2-point conversion and tied the game on a pass from quarterback Tyler Stehling to tight end Robby Wells III.
UNT’s defense allowed Rice to score on its first three possessions but made the key plays late.
“We stepped up late after playing poorly early,” Littrell said. “At the end of the day, they found a way to win. They made a play at the end of the game. That is what it comes down to. You are not going to play great in all three phases every week.”
Rice appeared as if it might run away with the game after pulling out to a 17-0 lead.
The Owls ran 36 plays and scored on their first three drives while holding UNT to a three-and-out on each of its first two possessions.
Lance Wright caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Stehling and Emmanuel Esukpa scored from a yard out early for the Owls.
Rice rolled up 157 yards in the first quarter while UNT lost 17.
“It’s really tough when you race out to a 17-0 lead and watch it slip away,” Rice coach David Bailiff said. “We had too many turnovers, too many penalties and gave up some big plays.”
Those plays helped UNT turn the tide.
The first came from UNT wide receiver O’Keeron Rutherford. The sophomore caught a 32-yard pass down the sideline from Fine on third-and-11.
UNT went on to score on a 16-yard pass from Fine to Ivery and a 1-yard Wilson run to cut its deficit to 17-14 at halftime.
Suddenly, a game that appeared as if it might be a landslide win for Rice had become competitive.
The Mean Green kept on coming in the second half.
Wilson broke free for a 75-yard touchdown run that gave the Mean Green their first lead at 21-20.
“My teammates told me to stay humble and my time would come,” Wilson said. “It’s a rhythm thing.”
UNT still had a lot of work to do even after settling in after a slow start to finish out the win.
The finish came with a fourth-down stop and a celebration that lasted late into the night.
“It’s the greatest feeling for a football win that I’ve had, from elementary school, peewee and even high school,” Fine said. “The atmosphere afterward was crazy.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.