DENTON-- Driphus Jackson and Dennis Parks produced career days and the Rice defense forced three key turnovers that resulted in 17 points as the Owls opened their 2015 Conference USA slate with a 38-24 win over North Texas at Apogee Stadium in Denton Texas on Saturday.
Jackson set career highs from completions (29) and yardage (373) with Parks responsible for eight of the completions for a career-high 163 yards and two touchdowns as the Owls stormed back from an 10-7 deficit in the second quarter to present head coach David Bailiff with his 50th career win at Rice.
The win was the Owls 17th in their last 21 conference games and their eighth in the last 11 C-USA road games. It was just their fourth win in 11 previous C-USA openers and the second in five previous openers on the road.
"We knew this was going to be a tough game," Bailiff said. " Anytime you play a Dan McCarney coached team it is going to be tough. They just keep coming and keep coming. When we were up 28 points we knew it wasn't over. We were down to them last year and of course lost here (in Denton) in 2013 so again anytime you face a Dan McCarney coached team, you can never feel confident until the final whistle."
Making its second appearance at UNT's Apogee Stadium, where the Owls had suffered their only conference loss in 2013, the Owls opened in much the same fashion as they had at Texas, chewing up clock and yardage on a 17-play opening drive. Despite owning the ball for nearly eight minutes to open the game, the Owls came away with no points after freshman Jack Fox missed on a 29-yard field goal.
North Texas unveiled a short passing game on its first possession, driving to a field goal on its first possession and scoring touchdown on the second.
"Their short passing game was clicking in the first half for several reasons, " Bailiff said. "They were taking what we were giving them and then we missed some tackles that hurt us. We made some adjustments at the half and did a much better job in the second half."
After the Mean Green took a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter, Jackson responded to lead the Owls 75 yards in six plays to retake the lead on a 30-yard scoring strike to Zach Wright.
North Texas appeared to be threatening to move back in front later in the quarter as running back Willy Ivery broke loose for a 20 yard gain to the Rice 33, but Destri White knocked the ball free and Emamuel Ellerbee recovered his second of two fumbles on the day to end the threat with 1:37 left in the half.
Ellerbee's two recoveries led to 10 points on the day and raised his season total to three, which is tied for the NCAA lead.
Jackson was unwilling to run out the final moments of the half, hitting Parks for a gain of 43 and Luke Turner for 27 more to set up Jack Fox's first career field goal to push the margin to 17-10 at the half.
The turnover binge continued on North Texas' first possession of the third quarter as Zach Espinosa made a diving grab of an overthrown Andrew McNulty pass at the Rice 44. After a short run on first down by Austin Walter, Jackson hit Parks on a deep pass over the middle for a 54-yard gain to the UNT 8. Two plays later, Samuel Stewart slammed into the end zone to up the Owl lead to 24-10
A second straight three and out and an 18-yard punt gave the Owls the ball back at the Mean Green 43. Stewart converted a fourth down run to keep the drive alive and Jowan Davis followed by gaining 21 yards on the next two carries to move the ball to the UNT 21. Four plays later, Jackson found Parks in the back of the end zone for a nine-yard score to cap a 21-point explosion and seemingly put the game out of reach, but true Bailiff's words, UNT as not ready to concede anything.
McNulty needed just six plays to navigate 67 yards at the end of the third quarter to cut the lead to 38-17. The Owls appeared to be in position to answer that score with one of their own, but Turner was stopped on fourth down at the Mean Green seven and on the first play after the stop, Carlos Harris stunned the Owls and breathed life into the remaining crowd with a 93-yard touchdown reception.
But the Rice defense stiffened in the final 7:42, quelling the Mean Green's last threat when a McNulty pass fell incomplete on fourth down at the Rice 43.
Davis, who was making his first appearance after being injured early in the opener against Wagner, finished with 102 yards on the day, the fifth time in his career he has topped 100 yards in a game. It marked the third time in as many games the Owls have had a 100-yard rusher this season, joining Walter (Wagner) and Stewart (Texas) and the first time since 2004 that three different players have topped 100 yards rushing in consecutive games.
Rice completes its three-game road trip next Saturday when it travels to Waco to face Baylor at 2 p.m. CT. The Owls return home and to C-USA action on October 3 when they host Western Kentucky.