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North Texas rolls past Rice, turns focus to C-USA title game

North Texas rolls past Rice, turns focus to C-USA title game

November 25
16:14 2017

In the 102 year history of North Texas football, only six teams had won nine games in a season.

It’s only appropriate, in a season where the record books have been rewritten seemingly on a weekly basis, that the 2017 Mean Green team became the seventh team on that very short list.

North Texas finished its regular season with a 9-3 record and a 7-1 mark in Conference USA play by knocking off Rice University 30-14 Saturday afternoon on the road.

“I knew they were going to give us everything we can handle,” head coach Seth Littrell said. “In the first half [Rice] played outstanding, but overall I thought [our] defense bounced back and played really well this week.”

Sophomore quarterback Mason Fine added to his record-breaking season in the win over the Owls (1-11, 1-7). Early in the second quarter, Fine threw a bomb to sophomore receiver Rico Bussey Jr. for a 51-yard touchdown.

The score gave Fine 27 passing touchdowns on the season, breaking the program record for the most touchdowns through the air in a single-season.

Fine overcame an early interception, which was returned for the first Rice touchdown of the game, to finish 18-of-25 with 195 yards and one touchdown.

“Offensively, we weren’t very clean at all,” Littrell said. “Third downs we were very poor, but they kept on fighting through. Losing Jeffery [Wilson] has been tough but Nic [Smith] did a great job.”

With Wilson sidelined for the foreseeable future, Smith, a redshirt freshman started for the first time in his career. Smith was thrown into the fire with 26 carries, which he turned into 178 yards and one touchdown. 

Senior Turner Smiley also stepped up again to fill in nicely for the injured Jalen Guyton, who was available to play put was held out after going through concussion protocol during the week. Smiley caught a team-high six passes for 59 yards and showed the depth of a talented receiving corps.

“We’ve seen the things [Nic] can do in practice and in games,” Littrell said. “He played terrific. We put the load on his back and he responded well.”

Defensively, North Texas rebounded from a rough outing last week against Army to only allow Rice to score one offensive touchdown.

Rice did not have a first down until almost halfway through the second quarter. The Owls finished with 107 passing yards and 175 rushing yards while only getting 13 first downs in their final game of the 2017 season.

The Mean Green defense was led by junior linebacker E.J. Ejiya, who had a team-high 12 tackles, 10 of which were solo. 

“I was really proud of how our defense stepped up,” Littrell said. “They did a great job of being physical and being disciplined with all the different looks. They’re the reason we had the success we had.”

Senior kicker Trevor Moore went 3-for-3 on extra points and 3-for-3 on field goals of 44, 19 and 43 yards.

The other special teams’ score came on an explosive 81-yard punt return touchdown with 9:35 left in the second quarter by freshman Jaelon Darden, who was playing in his hometown of Houston.

North Texas finished out its regular season with a window-dressing win and now turns its focus to next week’s rematch against Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida for the Conference USA Championship.

“It’s going to take all three phases to compete for that championship,” Littrell said. “We know coach Kiffin and FAU – they’re a really good football team. We’re looking forward to going out there and competing with them.”

Next up: The Mean Green meet FAU in Boca Raton for the C-USA Championship next Saturday at 10:00 a.m. CT.

Featured Image: North Texas freshman Nic Smith (21) and junior Caleb Chumley celebrate in a game against Army West Point on November 18 at Apogee Stadium. North Texas defeated Army 52-49. Sara Carpenter

About Author

Matthew Brune

Matthew Brune

Matthew Brune is the Senior Sports Writer for the North Texas Daily, covering football and men's basketball.

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