"I've said it before, I'm just proud of this football team, the way they fought and played for four quarters," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "The passion they brought even when things weren't going good. All you heard guys talking about was what they were going to do the next time they were out there. What they're going to do on the next play. What they're going to do for the team."
Rice outscored UNT 27-0 in the second half to move to 4-3 on the season and 2-1 in Conference USA while North Texas (2-6/0-4) dropped its fourth straight. The win was Rice's 10th in its last 11 home games and completed its first unbeaten October since 1960 when they were 5-0.
After the teams traded scores and ended the first quarter tied 14-14, North Texas took a 21-14 lead midway through the second on a 1-yard run by Carlos Harris and as the second half drew to a close, the Mean Green appeared headed for a two-score advantage.
Quarterback Andrew McNulty hit a pair of passes for 34 yards to reach the Rice 33 with a first down and just over 1 minute remaining, but Christian Covington and Zach Patt stormed in to sandwich McNulty for a loss of 11. On second down, Graysen Schantz forced a hurried thrown by McNulty which was incomplete and on third down, Dylan Klare came free on a stunt to drop him for a loss of 10 and end the threat.
Having lost all three times this season when trailing at the half, the Owls might have been preparing for a stirring inspirational message that the intermission. But Bailiff said he kept it simple.
"I'll be real honest, we said 'guys, we're down 21-14 this is how I want this third quarter to start this half: we got to get a turnover, we've got to score quick.' It's one of those, where we say, 'wow, they just did everything we asked.' I think I should ask that more often," he remarked.
Five plays later, Pollard jumped a McNulty throw at the Rice 40, darted up the sideline before cutting back to spring free and complete the Owls' first interception return for a touchdown since Michael Kutzler returned one for a score against Kansas in 2013.
"Any time I get the ball (on a pick), I tell myself in my head that I'm taking it all the way back," Pollard said. "I knew in the back of my head that I was going to take it all the way back and give us a spark and get us going."
Pollard's touchdown was the highlight of a resounding second half performance by the Owls, who held UNT to 34 yards in the third quarter and just 11 in the fourth after surrendering 171 in the opening two quarters.
The Owls held onto their three-point margin until late in the third when Driphus Jackson and the offense found their momentum and fashioned an 11-play, 79-yard scoring march to go up by 10 early in the fourth.
Jackson, who threw for 233 yards, 88 of them on the game's first play to Jordan Taylor to match the longest scoring play in school history, was 5-5 on the drive for 64 yards to set up a one-yard plunge by Darik Dillard.
The Owls added 10 more points in the quarter to reach their final margin of victory. Jackson and Taylor electrified the crowd of 18,430 before most had settled in their seats, connecting on the game's first play. It was Jackson's third career scoring toss of better than 80 yards and his second the season.
Taylor topped 100 yards receiving for the second straight home game, finishing the day with 137 yards on four catches. His long-distance opening catch and run allowed him to become the fourth Owl to top 2,000 yards in career receiving.
But those offensive accolades paled in comparison to the effort of the Owls' defense, as Jackson was quick to note.
"Coach Bailiff says that we're going to need each other, and it resonated in this game," Jackson said. "We were stagnant after the first play of the game, and we weren't able to get anything going until the second half. For the defense to come out (after the half) at that time, it was very crucial."
The Owls defense held North Texas to 216 yards on the day, their best effort of the season and 133 yards below the Mean Green's season average.
Covington led a four-sack attack, picking up a solo effort in addition to sharing the key first-half sack with Patt, who returned to action for the first time since the Texas A&M game. As a team, the Owls were credited with nine tackles for loss, raising their total in the last three games to 34.
"We knew, especially the defensive line, that we had to be difference-makers in this game," Covington said. "We knew that North Texas was going to give us everything they had. We knew it was going to be a battle in the trenches."
"It's one thing I pride myself on, and it's one thing I pride this football on, we don't look ahead," Bailiff noted. "We've had the highs, the lows; we know working hard works. And we know that when things aren't going well, we just have to keep working hard. And we know when things are going great, you just have to keep working hard."