North Texas took a bite of the tastiest treat Thursday, and the Mean Green shared it with the student body and alumni bodies starved for football relevance.
North Texas is bowl-eligible for the first time in nine seasons.
The Mean Green wrapped up a sixth victory in front of a national television audience by scoring on offense, special teams and with a physical defense that is now a regular presence. The defense was led on Halloween by Marcus Trice, who had two interceptions and a forced fumble in a 28-16 victory against Rice at Apogee Stadium.
Antoinne Jimmerson had a touchdown rushing and receiving, Brelan Chancellor had a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown, and linebacker Zach Orr collected a fumble and returned it 55 yards for another score in sending the Owls to their first loss in Conference USA.
“It’s a major accomplishment, a major milestone from where we started,” said North Texas coach Dan McCarney, who took over a program that was 5-19 in the two seasons before he arrived in 2011.
“I can tell you this much, there is a lot of hunger down in that locker room of guys who want more.”
There is more to play for, including a berth in the C-USA championship game in December. The Mean Green (6-3, 4-1 C-USA) and Rice (6-3, 4-1) are tied for second in the West Division, a half-game behind 4-0 Tulane.
The Mean Green is also merely eligible for a bowl game. They are not guaranteed a game just yet, though officials of the Heart of Dallas Bowl were on hand Thursday for a look-see.
A seventh or eighth victory will likely be needed to secure a place in the college football postseason.
Confidence in that happening, though, grows by the week because of a team that has played well at home (North Texas is 4-0 this season with two more games at Apogee) and a defense that makes plays and forces turnovers.
North Texas is among the best in the nation in creating turnovers, with 29 this season.
The unit buckled but found its feet after giving up touchdown passes by Rice QB Taylor McHargue on consecutive drives in the second quarter.
After giving up a 253 yards in the first half, the Mean Green hunkered down, holding Rice to 101 in the second half, and beating back what will surely be the most bizarre goal-line stand this season.
Rice appeared ready to cut its deficit to five in the third quarter by driving to the Mean Green 3-yard line.
But North Texas sent the Owls into retreat, despite giving Rice a second chance with a holding penalty in the end zone on the first of two fourth-down attempts.
Ultimately, North Texas withstood the assault of eight plays inside the 6, including seven inside the 3.
“That shows the grit and heart of this team,” said Orr, a senior captain. “We talk about being fearless, no matter what situation we’re in; we have to keep on fighting. And that’s what we did.”
Jimmerson touched the ball only nine times, but he made the most of it with a TD run of 42 yards in the second quarter and a 46-yard scoring reception from Derek Thompson in the third.
“It was a complete victory, especially when you see how many guys stepped up and made plays for us,” McCarney said. “This is not the ceiling. We have a lot to play for.”