In the near future, the showdown between Rice and North Texas will transpire with American Athletic Conference signage, but on Saturday, the in-state battle belonged to Conference USA. A wild finish to regulation sent the C-USA opponents into overtime, where North Texas emerged triumphant with its first FBS win of 2021. Running back Ayo Adeyi punched the ball in from 1-yard in overtime to hand the Mean Green a 30-24 victory and snap their 6-game losing streak.
The Mean Green never trailed Saturday afternoon, but Rice responded to all four of their scores in regulation. However, a missed 46-yard field goal by the Owls on the opening drive of overtime provided North Texas an opportunity to pounce. With quarterback Austin Aune leading the charge, seven consecutive runs did the trick and the Mean Green exited Rice Stadium with their first road win since Oct. 17, 2020.
“We lost a starting quarterback and really struggled to get anything going for a while but then we rallied the troops. That’s winning football, but what we did in overtime, is not,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “This one stinks and I hate for our kids that we couldn’t find a way to win this game.”
Heroics of Owls quarterback Jake Constantine sent the game into overtime. Constantine’s presence on the field was a result of an unfortunate theme continuing for Rice. Week 1 starter Wiley Green, who returned from injury to start last week’s upset over UAB, absorbed a sack in the first quarter. He was subsequently carted off the field after suffering an apparent leg injury, causing Constantine to return to action. It was the fourth occasion this season where an Owl quarterback suffered a game-ending injury.
“You gotta feel for a guy like Wiley Green right now. You just gotta love the fight he brought last week and brought our team back up after a tough loss to UTSA. He got off to a great start in today’s game. I’ve been through an injury like that so you just feel for him and you love him up,” Constantine said. “It’s not too tough coming in as a backup. You gotta be prepared all times to help the team out to go forward. I just tried my best to help us win today and came up a little bit short.”
Constantine missed the prior game due to a non-contact injury but some of the most impressive throws of his collegiate career were exhibited in his return. Constantine extended countless plays and finished with 242 passing yards on 16 completions. He fired a pair of touchdowns without an interception in the defeat, including an 12-yard quick slant to Cedric Patterson III to tie the game with 16 seconds remaining.
“Jake was a big part of rallying us together and a big part of the second half we were able to have to go out there and put some points on the board,” Bloomgren said. “Being the backup quarterback and preparing like a starter, that’s easier said than done... That’s the Jake Constantine on that last drive — the plays he made to Jake Bailey, the plays he made with his feet — he gave us a chance to get in the zone. He’s been a wild horse rider finding a way to make plays.”
Fourth down opportunities were automatic for Rice for the second week in a row. After converting all five fourth down attempts last week at UAB, the Owls successfully nailed all four tries Saturday afternoon. Two conversions stemmed from halfback dives, but the other two were downfield heaves by Constantine. He found Jake Bailey on a 27-yard air mail near the goal line in the second quarter to set up a touchdown. On the Owls’ final stand, he launched a 36-yard pass to a diving Bailey to maneuver the team from their own 11-yard line to midfield.
“Most of them are reasonable short. The last one certainly wasn’t,” Bloomgren said. “When they’re short, you call a play you believe in. The fourth down stuff, I’m glad it’s going well. We’re in it to win it as a coaching staff. We want to be able to go green for the guys in those situations for the guys as well.”
In a contest which featured a 100 percent success rate on both teams’ fourth down attempts, this game was no stranger to bizarre happenings. Penalties were abundant as Rice finished with 15 flags for 114 yards, signifying the most-penalized showing of the Bloomgren era. Meanwhile, North Texas committed seven penalties for 74 yards including three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties — one which extended Rice’s final scoring drive in regulation.
The most bizarre sequence of the game featured Rice running 13 plays inside the red zone. The elongated stretch, set up by a pass interference penalty, featured four additional flags including two North Texas unsportsmanlike conduct fouls to extend the drive. Despite a litany of opportunities, Rice only managed a tying field goal on a possession which consumed over 12 minutes of clock.
North Texas responded with a quicker 9-play drive which resulted in DeAndre Torrey’s eighth rushing touchdown of the season. Fifteen seconds remained on the first half clock following Torrey’s score, sending North Texas into halftime with a lead for the second consecutive week.
Rice’s time-crunching ways prolonged into the third quarter. The Owls rank 14th in the FBS in time of possession and sustained that brand of football after halftime with a 6-minute, 45-second game-tying drive. The Mean Green regained control in the late third quarter with another short rushing touchdown. Adeyi, the owner of the game-winning touchdown, completed the team’s second sub-3 minute scoring drive of the afternoon with a 1-yard touchdown to hand North Texas a 17-10 advantage. Running the ball was the main strength of North Texas, and three Mean Green rushers — Aune, Adeyi, and Torrey — surpassed 40 yards on the ground.
“We knew they were gonna try to run the ball down the middle and we prepared all week to slow them down,” nose tackle Elijah Garcia said. “They were a physical team up front. We just got to be better filling gaps and being in position to make those plays. When we’re in position to make the plays, we just gotta finish it.”
A total of three touchdowns were called off the board in the contest. The final negated touchdown occurred in the early fourth quarter when Constantine delivered a bomb down the left sideline to Cameron Montgomery, but Montgomery stepped out of bounds prior to the diving grab. Still, the Owls wound up in the end zone on a 17-yard strike from Constantine to Bailey for the tying score.
Rice attempted to break the tie and garner its first lead on a fourth quarter 53-yard field goal attempt, but Christian VanSickle’s longest kick of his career fell short. Capitalizing on field position, North Texas kept the ball grounded for the final eight plays of the drive en route to a go-ahead score. On a 6-yard run, Isaiah Johnson became the third different Mean Green running back to hit paydirt, handing the visitors a 24-17 lead with 2:03 remaining. However, Rice’s unlikely 12-play, 89-yard drive ensured the Mean Green wouldn’t win in regulation.
“It’s just nobody quitting. We’re on 4th and 10 and we’re backed up and have 90 yards to go. Guys are just fighting to make plays. Jake Bailey dives out and makes a crazy catch, one of the best catches I’ve ever seen,” Constantine said regarding Rice’s final drive. “We just execute a few things a little bit better and we win that game.”
After a golden opportunity as home favorites to move to 4-4, Rice could not capitalize. The fifth loss of the season sets the Owls’ bowl hopes at lesser odds, but Bloomgren’s team aims to finish strong for its first postseason appearance since 2014.
“We’re definitely not out of the fight of making a bowl game,” Constantine said. “I think we’re a great team and can easily win three more games. We just gotta keep our heads locked in and stay down.”
Meanwhile, North Texas remains alive for bowl season by avoiding a seventh loss. The Mean Green test their momentum in Hattiesburg next week against a struggling Southern Miss squad on a 5-game skid.