by Chuck Pool (cpool@edu) -
A short-handed Rice Owls defense held Conference USA's top offensive unit in check for most of the afternoon, but any hopes of sending the 2017 senior class out with a win in their final game fell short as North Texas downed Rice 30-14 on Saturday afternoon.The Mean Green (9-3/7-1), who will face FAU in the C-USA Championship game next Saturday, came into Rice Stadium averaging 477 yards and 38 points per game. Despite missing five starters who had combined for 67 career starts, the Owls (1-11/1/7) held them to nearly 100 yards under their offensive average and allowed only 23 points.
"Our defense was outstanding today," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "They only gave up 23 points to a team that had been getting 38 points a game, and they did it (played well) throughout the game. They (UNT) had been averaging 477 yards a game, and today they had 383, so hats off to the defense -- they gave us a lot of opportunity to win that one."
Cornerback Brandon Douglas-Dotson struck an early blow for the defense, picking off a Mason Fine pass and returning it 75 yards for the first score of the game. It was the Owls first interception in the last 142 pass attempts this year and was the first interception return for a score by the Owls since Destri White took one back 23 yards vs. UTEP on last year's senior day.
Fine led the Mean Green to 24 consecutive points, including an 81-yard punt return by Jaelon Darden, to take a 24-7 lead before quarterback Miklo Smalls cut the margin just before halftime with a 52-yard touchdown scamper.
Smalls touchdown came on the first play after running back Sam Stewart was taken from the field after lengthy delay due to an injury. Stewart was taken to Methodist Hospital in the Medical Center for future evaluation. After giving up 269 yards in the first half, the Owls defense stiffened in the final two quarters, limiting the powerful Mean Green attack to just 114 yards and a pair of Trevor Moore field goals. But the UNT defense stymied three the Owls three times on fourth down, the last two inside the North Texas 25 to spoil Rice's hopes of a 10th straight win on Senior Day.
"Offensively, (we were) too inconsistent. We couldn't get anything going in the first quarter," Bailiff said. "We had some movement on some big plays in the second; we got some nice drives in the second half, but we didn't get any points. When you run an offense where you want to eat time, you have to have points at the end of those drives and we didn't do it."
Senior defensive end Brian Womac dropped Fine twice and added at third tackle for loss to set a school season record with 22 TFL, one more than Brandon Green compiled in 2001. His two sacks gave him 10 for the year, which ranks second to Green's total of 12 in 2001.
Rice forced North Texas to punt four times on the day, one shy of their season high of five at Iowa earlier in the season.
Smalls finished with 107 yards passing and added 89 on the ground to lead the Owls. He connected with fellow freshman Aaron Cephus on a 46-yard connection early in the fourth to allow Cephus to break James Casey's freshman mark for receiving yards. He finished the day with a pair of catches for 50 yards and ended his year with 25 catches for 622 yards.
"It's hard. These seasons are tough -- they're tough on your soul," Bailiff stated. "It's consuming, and everything you do is about trying to figure out a way to claw out of where we are and get these young men a win. We came so close. It is absolutely the first thoughts in the morning when you get up and when you go to bed at night is how to get out of it.
"It's emotional. It's always an emotional last game when you realize that these seniors will never wear that blue jersey (again). It's not lip service when I tell you I fall in love with them. There's a responsibility coaches have for kids, and it's hard when you don't end up on top enough."