via University of North Texas
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.