North Texas vs Rice Box Score | Photo Gallery
DENTON, TX - North Texas found out Thursday night just how difficult and demanding is the path to bowl eligibility. But the Mean Green repeatedly proved themselves up to the task with a gritty, extremely-hard earned 28-16 victory over Rice at Apogee Stadium to achieve bowl eligibility for the first time since 2004.
The Mean Green, struggling to find its game on Halloween night, out-gained two to one and trailing 16-7, got a 42-yard touchdown run from Antoinne Jimmerson and a 65-yard punt return for a TD from Brelan Chancellor in a dramatic 1:35 span late in the second quarter to take the lead. But it was the defense that made it hold up with one of the most stirring goal-line stands in program history.
After a tipped-pass interception, Rice drove to a first and goal at the NT one-yard line. The Mean Green stopped the Owls four times, only to see Rice get an extra set of downs, by way of penalty, at the two. But North Texas stone-walled the Owls four more times, smashing the Owls for an 11-yard loss on the final fourth-down play. The stand turned back eight plays inside the North Texas six-yard line, seven of them snapped inside the Mean Green three.
"I was just blown away by that goal-line stand," said North Texas coach Dan McCarney, whose team is now 6-3 overall and 4-1 in Conference USA play after knocking off the C-USA West Division co-leaders. "It was really representative of this team's toughness, it's never-say-die attitude."
"Everyone was just doing their job," said defensive back Kenny Buyers, who had a team-high 10 tackles. "It's just the best feeling."
Rice's last hope was extinguished by an interception by Marcus Trice, his second of the game, late in the fourth quarter.
"We're not in a bowl yet, we're just bowl eligible," McCarney added. "We've got a lot of work to do. But this is a major milestone.
"That was a great example of character out there."
North Texas opened the game on offense for the first time this year, but the experience didn't sit well. The Mean Green was unable to establish its run game, and the Rice secondary blanketed Chancellor while getting pressure on quarterback Derek Thompson, holding North Texas to just 130 yards total offense in the first half. The only North Texas score came on a fumble forced by Trice and returned 55 yards for a touchdown by Zach Orr. The Owls, however, started gaining chunks of yards in 75- and 88-yard scoring drives, both culminating in touchdowns for a 16-7 lead.
That's when the game turned. North Texas got its first scoring drive of the night, kept alive by a third-down run by defensive tackle-turned-fullback Richard Abbe and capped by Jimmerson breaking through the right side of the line and hauling two tacklers the final five yards to the end zone. North Texas then forced a three-and-out from Rice, and Chancellor made the Owls pay for punting to him with the fourth kick-return touchdown of his career and second of the season.
The Mean Green defense threw another second-half shutout, its third of the year, holding Rice (6-3, 4-1) to just 101 yards total offense in the second half. In addition to Buyers's 10 tackles, Orr, Trice and Will Wright had nine tackles each, and Aaron Bellazin, Brandon McCoy and Alexander Lincoln led a second-half pass rush that sacked Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue four times.
What They Said
"They were coming at me a lot. I was getting kind of annoyed, and taking it personally. But the coaches believed in me."
-- defensive back Kenny Buyers on his 10-tackle night
"We saw the jerseys and we were pumped up. We love them."
-- linebacker Zach Orr on the black jerseys the team wore Thursday
"It was just a fabulous effort by the whole team. It was a complete came, a complete victory."
-- coach Dan McCarney
"This is not the ceiling for this team. We've got three games left and a lot to play for. There's a lot of hunger down in that lockerroom. Now let's take it from here, keep the edge, keep the hunger."
-- McCarney on the rest of the season
"It's a great turnaround for this program. We've been disrepected by a lot of teams."
-- Kenny Buyers on the win
North Texas worn special uniforms for this game, consisting of black jerseys and pants with the traditional green helmet but with a black eagle logo.
The Mean Green surrendered its first safety of the year, the first since 2009, when a snap to punter Blake Macek sailed over his head and out of the end zone.
North Texas responded, however, when Zach Orr recovered his fourth fumble of the year, returning it 55 yards for his first touchdown of the year.
The fumble was jarred loose by Marcus Trice, his second forced fumble this season.
Quarterback Derek Thompson only threw 13 passes Thursday, but that moved him into third place on the Mean Green all-time list for most attempts, slipping past Scott Davis. Thompson has now thrown 929 passes in his career.
Senior defensive tackle Richard Abbe, who had lined up earlier this year at fullback, got the first carry of his career in the second quarter, running for five yards on third down and picking up a key first down. Five plays later, Antoinne Jimmerson went 42 yards for a touchdown.
Brelan Chancellor's 65-yard punt return in the second quarter was the fourth touchdown return of his career, but first on a punt. He has three kickoff returns for scores, including one this year against Georgia. It was the first punt return for a touchdown for North Texas since 2004.
This was the first game this season that North Texas did not win the opening coin flip. Rice won the toss and deferred to the second half, and the Mean Green started the game on offense for the first time this year.
Trice got his third interception of the season, but it was assisted. The pass was broken up by Zach Orr and tipped by James Jones before Trice pulled it in. The pick, his second in as many games, tied Trice for the team lead in intercepionts with Lairamie Lee.
Jimmerson had his first two-touchdown game of the season, following up his 42-yard run with a 46-yard reception in the third quarter, the game's final points.
Defensive back Kenny Buyers continued his open-field tackling prowess against Rice. He had 10 tackles on the night, matching his career high.
North Texas held Rice scoreless in the third quarter, the sixth time the Mean Green has pitched a shutout in the third period.
North Texas is now 6-0 this year when scoring more than 21 points.
This was the first game this season the Mean Green scored on offense, defense and special teams.
North Texas celebrates homecoming on Nov. 9 against Texas-El Paso at Apogee Stadium. Kickoff is slated for 2:30 p.m.