Coming off their second bye week of the 2019 season, the Mean Green are slated to face off with the Rice Owls (1-9, 1-5 Conference USA). North Texas (4-6, 3-3 C-USA) has two games remaining on their schedule and after falling 52-17 to Louisiana Tech (8-2, 5-1 C-USA), must win both games in order to guarantee a fourth-straight bowl game.
Through five away games in 2019, the Mean Green have yet to win a game outside of Apogee Stadium. At the same time, the Owls have yet to win at home and their sole victory came in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Rice picked up their first win of the season last weekend against Middle Tennessee (3-7, 2-4 C-USA), who North Texas defeated earlier this season 33-30. Despite picking up one win all year, head coach Seth Littrell is reminding his team that the Owls will still present a challenge to the Mean Green.
“We’re excited to get back to work this week and prepare for a very talented Rice team,” Littrell said. “There’s no way you can look at their record because I think they probably play one of the toughest schedules in Conference USA.”
Of the teams on Rice’s schedule, six are bowl-eligible (Wake Forest, Texas, No. 13 Baylor, Alabama-Birmingham, Southern Miss and Marshall).
In Rice’s game against Middle Tennessee, graduate quarterback Tom Stewart threw 222 yards and three touchdowns on 78 percent passing. Five rushers combined for 155 yards and one touchdown on the ground. All of the Rice points scored in the 31-28 victory came in the first half and the Blue Raiders put up 14 points in the second half to mount a comeback, but the Owls defense was able to hold on.
From his performance against Middle Tennessee, junior receiver Brad Rozner was named C-USA Offensive Player of the Week. Rozner caught eight passes for 130 yards and three touchdowns. He became the first Owl since 2013 and the seventh ever to record three touchdowns in a game.
Through 10 games, Rice has been out-rushed 1,160-1,486 and out-thrown 1,671-2,524. The Owls are averaging 16.5 points per game, compared to 28.1 points allowed per game. In comparison, North Texas has been out-rushed 1,525-1,938 and have out-thrown opponents 2,971-2,355 behind the arm of senior quarterback Mason Fine.
Rice and North Texas have a nine-game history, with the Mean Green coming out on top 5-4, including a 3-0 record under Littrell. Since Littrell came to power, North Texas has outscored the Owls 113-66.
Echoing his head coach, Fine holds Rice’s defense to a high standard and isn’t taking the one-win team too lightly.
“Rice is very disciplined, well-coached,” Fine said. “They all have high motors, play fast, play physical and they don’t give up on a play. If we don’t go out there ready to play, they’re gonna punch us in the mouth.”
With 13 days in between their last game and this game, Littrell is grateful for the timing of the bye week and believes it is giving North Texas time to get healthy again.
“The bye week came at a perfect time for us,” Littrell said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen or had a season that we’ve had this many injuries. We’re far from 100 percent injury-wise, but it did get us an opportunity to get some of the minor injuries, bumps, bruises [from] this past week healthy.”
The biggest injury that occurred in the matchup against Lousiana Tech affected the quarterback. Fine got hit early in the game and began to suffer symptoms of a concussion, spurring the health team to take him through concussion protocol.
“I kind of kept to myself for a while,” Fine said. “I told a couple people and they kept a close eye on me and then [the] symptoms didn’t get any better and the doctors took a look at me and said you know, it has some symptoms of [a] concussion.”
After Fine went down, the coaching staff turned to redshirt freshman Jason Bean, who had played in six games this year. Bean threw 94 yards and two interceptions on 75 percent passing before being pulled for redshirt freshman Austin Aune. The 26-year-old came in and finished the game for the Mean Green, throwing 123 yards and one touchdown on 75 percent passing in his first appearance of the season.
Following the bye week, Fine feels good about the upcoming matchup.
“I went through a concussion protocol, all that,” Fine said. “Took care of that last week, got through all that and I’m good to go this Saturday.”
With two guaranteed games left in the senior class’ collegiate eligibility, seniors like receiver Michael Lawrence know the challenge that stands behind them and aren’t leaving anything on the practice field from day-to-day.
“It’s do or die,” Lawrence said. “It’s kind of like our playoff right now. We gotta win out, we’re gonna win these next two games. I think there’s like 23 seniors on our team and so that’s our mentality: We really want to win every single game and take every rep seriously these next two weeks because you don’t get those reps back.”
The Mean Green will play their final road game of the regular season on Nov. 23 in Houston at 2:30 p.m. North Texas has a 67.6 percent chance to win and a 5.5-point spread, according to ESPN’s Power Index.
Featured Image: Defensive players line up against Texas-El Paso on Nov. 2, 2019. Jordan Collard