Nic Smith, Defense Lead North Texas To 30-14 Win
Freshman Running Back Goes For 178 Yards In Regular-Season Finale
HOUSTON - North Texas wrapped up the best offensive regular season in program history Saturday afternoon, setting school records for most points and total yards in a campaign, and turned in one of its best defensive efforts of the year for a 30-14 win over Rice.
The Mean Green, missing some of its top threats on offense, got a huge performance from freshman running back Nic Smith. With leading rusher Jeffery Wilson out with a foot injury sustained against Army, Smith took most of the carries. He showed patience in waiting for holes to develop, then flashed sharp, explosive cuts to exploit the openings for a career-best 178 yards and a touchdown.
"I was really proud of Nic," North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. "He needed to step up. Losing Jefferey has been tough, but Nic did a great job. We've seen the things he can do. We put the load on his back and he responded well."
With top receiver Jalon Guyton sidelined by an injury suffered last week, senior wide receiver Turner Smiley had a team-high six receptions for 59 yards.
On defense, the Mean Green were led by their top tackler, linebacker E.J. Ejiya, who had a game-high 12 tackles and a sack, and defensive tackle Roderick Young, who stonewalled Rice on fourth and 1 from the UNT 11-yard line to snuff out a late Owls' threat.
"The defense stepped up," Littrell said. "They did a great job today of being physical and disciplined, and really stepped up big. They're the reason for the success we had today."
The victory finishes the regular season for North Texas at 9-3 overall and 7-1 in Conference USA, and sends the Mean Green into next week's C-USA championship game with a five-game win streak. North Texas scored a single-season best 450 points this year and amassed a single-season best 5,634 yards total offense.
Smith rushed for 64 yards in the first quarter to power the offense while the Mean Green defense didn't allow Rice a first down in the first quarter. A pass break-up by Kishawn McClain, a sack by Tillman Johnson and strong work by North Texas against the run throttled the Owls, allowing them just 6 yards total offense in the opening period.
Yet the game was 7-7 after one quarter. North Texas was stung by a miscommunication that resulted in a Rice interception returned 75 yards for a touchdown and by a personal foul penalty that wiped out a 78-yard touchdown reception by Smiley.
But there was to be no let down for North Texas, no falling victim to a trap game against a one-win opponent a week before the C-USA championship for the West-Division winner.
The Mean Green seized command early in the second quarter. North Texas softened up the Rice defense with the combined ground game of Smith and fellow freshman Evan Johnson, then struck for big plays on a Mason Fine to Rico Bussey, Jr., 51-yard touchdown pass and a scintilating 81-yard punt return by Jaelon Darden - featuring several ankle-snapping cuts through the Owl cover team - for a 21-7 lead.
Rice mounted a comeback behind quarterback Miklo Smalls, who scrambled 52 yards for a touchdown to draw within 21-14, and the Owls marched deep into North Texas territory three times in the second half. Each time, however, North Texas turned Rice back on fourth down. On the first drive, Ejiya and Joshua Wheeler converged on Smalls to sack him for a 6-yard loss; on the second march, Young stuffed Rice on fourth and 1; and the third threat died on an incomplete pass.
North Texas gave itself some breathing room with three field goals from Trevor Moore, and UNT defensive back Eric Jenkins finished off the Owls with his second interception of the year and fifth of his career, picking off Smalls in the end zone late in the fourth quarter.
What They Said
"We're going to have to continue to get a week better. It will take all three phases to compete for a championship and win that game."
--North Texas coach Seth Littrell on next week's C-USA championship game against FAU
- Seth Littrell has overseen dramatic increases in offensive production in his career, first as an offensive coordinator and now at North Texas as head coach. Saturday, the Mean Green set program single-season records for most points, total yards and first downs. North Texas has scored 450 points this year, surpassing the previous best of 434 in 1951 (which was also a 12-game season); have accumulated 5,634 yards of offense, topping the 2013's total of 5,336; and have 297 first downs, bettering 2013's mark of 279.
- North Texas also set a school record for most passing touchdowns in a season with 28, topping the previous mark of 27 in 1964. Interestingly, the Mean Green are well short of the school record for most passing attempts. UNT's 396 attempts in 2017 don't even crack the top five.
- The Mean Green have rushed for 27 touchdowns this year, tied for fourth most in school history. North Texas also had 27 rushing TDs in 2009.
- Sophomore quarterback Mason Fine threw for a touchdown Saturday to set the single-season school record. Fine has 27 TD passes this year, moving ahead of Mitch Maher's 1994 total of 26.
- Fine moved into third place in single-season pass attempts with 413 and into second in completions with 266.
- Jaelon Darden's punt return for a touchdown was the Mean Green's first since 2015.
- Mr. Automatic, kicker Trevor Moore, set the school career record for field goals made with 51, passing Keith Chapman (1986-89) wi th 49.
- The win marks the Mean Green's seventh nine-win season in program history and first nine-win regular season since 2003.
- Junior linebacker E.J. Ejiya matched his career-high for tackles with 12.
North Texas will face Florida Atlantic in the Conference USA championship game next Saturday, Dec. 2, in Boca Raton, Florida. Game time is noon eastern, 11 a.m. central, and the game will be televised on ESPN 2. For more information and to buy tickets to the game, visit MeanGreenPostseason.com.
The Mean Green will also play in a bowl game yet to be determined. The location, date and opponent will be revealed on Sunday, Dec. 3, and will be announced on MeanGreenPostseason.com.