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Brett Vito: UNT shows newfound grit in comeback win against Rice

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Brett Vito

There were times not too long ago when North Texas might as well have packed it in and gone home when it found itself in a situation like the one it face Saturday night at Rice.

UNT was down 17 in the second quarter and was being thoroughly outplayed by the Owls.

For years, that has pretty much spelled doom for the Mean Green.

That changed on Saturday, when a little at a time, the tide started to turn.

O’Keeron Rutherford hauled in a 32-yard pass from Mason Fine on third-and-11 to keep a drive alive that resulted in a Willy Ivery touchdown catch that got UNT on the board.

Kishawn McClain came up with a key interception to turn back Rice deep in UNT’s end of the field.

And before long, UNT was on its way to a thrilling 42-35 double overtime win against the Owls at Rice Stadium.

There were all kinds of encouraging signs about what transpired on Saturday. Jeffrey Wilson continued to shine and ran for 157 yards and three touchdowns. UNT’s defense came up with a series of key stops late, including linebacker Brandon Garner and defensive end Jareid Combs stuffing Darik Dillard on fourth-and-1 to win the game in the second overtime.

The best aspect of it all, though, was that UNT didn’t fold like a cheap tent when it had the opportunity to do so early on.

New UNT coach Seth Littrell was sure to point that out after the game.

“We talk about it all the time,” Littrell said. “Don’t blink. Great things are coming. Things are not always going to go your way. Keep grinding and eventually that adversity will flip and you will get momentum.”

UNT showed that kind of intestinal fortitude during the 2013 season, when the Mean Green won another thrilling game against Rice.

Zach Orr, Marcus Trice and several other UNT stars of the recent past came up with an eight-play goal line stand that night and came away with a win that helped spark the Mean Green’s run to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

That kind of determination during tough times has been mostly missing for UNT outside of that magical 2013 campaign in recent seasons.

UNT’s win was only one game, one night in what is expected to be a long rebuilding process.

But it certainly was a good sign.

“It feels really good to come into Rice’s stadium and win as a team,” Combs said. “We talked about it all week. We locked in and got a week better. It’s an exciting feeling.”

UNT desperately needed that feeling this season after a 1-11 campaign a year ago that seemed to sap any confidence the Mean Green possessed.

A win against Bethune-Cookman out of the Football Championship Subdivision helped matters, but pales in comparison to what UNT’s win against Rice could do for this team.

The obvious is UNT is now 2-2 and has exceeded its win total from all of last season. A 1-0 start in Conference USA play is also huge.

UNT last won their conference opener in 2010, when it knocked off Florida Atlantic.

“This will be a confidence booster,” Littrell said. “Our young men are starting to understand that if they play well together, prepare the right way and compete together and take care of each other on the field, we are talented enough to do some really good things.”

UNT has already done some good things under Littrell in a season when the bar was not set particularly high.

There are several reasons that is the case.

UNT’s offense is showing some signs of life in a new spread system. A defense that struggled to stop anyone last year is coming up with key plays at the right time under coordinators Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett.

But perhaps most importantly, the Mean Green are showing some confidence and the ability to hang in and keep fighting when times get tough.

UNT’s bowl teams of the early 2000s and the 2013 Heart of Dallas Bowl team displayed the same traits.

It’s far too early to know whether this edition of the Mean Green will come anywhere close to what those teams accomplished.

The odds are stacked against UNT reaching a bowl game. The Mean Green have tough games coming up with Middle Tennessee and Marshall and a host of other challenging contests ahead.

UNT’s two wins have come against an FCS program and a Rice team that now sits at 0-4.

What Saturday’s win against the Owls showed is that UNT will keep fighting no matter the circumstances.

That’s a great sign for a program still in the early stages of a significant rebuilding process.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.