DeAndre Torrey was among a host of players who went to North Texas coach Seth Littrell in the days leading up to the Mean Green’s game against Rice on Saturday with plea that sounded a little like a demand.

“We told coach we didn’t care if offensive players had to play defense or special teams,” the senior running back said. “We just wanted to play.”

UNT hadn’t been on the field, at least not in an actual game, in 34 days heading into its showdown with the Owls after having its previous three games either canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Mean Green were finally able to end their hiatus and took advantage of the opportunity in a 27-17 win at Apogee Stadium.

UNT played what might have been its best game of the season defensively, despite bring shorthanded, and rallied from a 10-point deficit for its second straight win.

The Mean Green had not played since knocking off Middle Tennessee back on Oct. 17.

“Any time you can go out and compete, it’s a blessing, especially when you have been off 34 days,” Littrell said. “The players were excited. I was excited and so were the coaches. They had great energy. Their grit was there. Everything we needed was there.”

UNT needed that effort across the board on a day when it was shorthanded yet again. School officials passed out a list of eight players who were out for the Mean Green’s game against Rice due to a host of issues, including injuries, coronavirus infections and contact tracing protocols.

UNT was without linebacker Tyreke Davis, safety DeShawn Gaddie and wide receiver Deonte Simpson, a trio of starters.

Several of UNT’s other top players came through with big performances, while multiple backups filled the voids in the lineup. The combination helped UNT (3-3, 2-2 Conference USA) even its record both overall and in conference play while keeping its conference title hopes alive.

Each team in C-USA’s West Division has at least one loss in league play.

UNT stayed in the title chase largely because of a standout performance by its defense. Rice (1-2, 1-2) scored just seven points after the first quarter.

“Guys stepped up,” UNT safety Makyle Sanders said. “Everyone was on the same page. We knew what we had to do.”

The question heading into the day was if UNT would be able to do what it needed to after being off for so long.

Those questions lingered after Rice jumped out to a 10-0 lead. The Owls scored on each of their first two possessions.

UNT didn’t score until quarterback Jason Bean broke free for a 66-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter.

“Offensively it felt rusty at times throughout the day as players and coaches,” Littrell said. “We didn’t get into a much of a rhythm, especially there in the first half. You have to give Rice a lot of credit. They have a good defense and a defensive line that is as technically sound as I have seen in this league.”

UNT took the lead for good at 14-10 when Bean hit Jaelon Darden for a 25-yard touchdown late in the first half.

Bean threw for 120 yards and rushed for 94 in his first start since UNT’s loss to SMU in the second week of the season. The sophomore was elevated to the starting lineup after the Mean Green’s win over MTSU in its last game.

Torrey added 102 rushing yards and a touchdown.

UNT came into the night averaging 39.2 points per game and wasn’t at its best offensively. That didn’t matter on a day when the Mean Green’s defense excelled while holding Rice to 376 yards.

Rice quarterback Mike Collins threw for 327 yards and two touchdowns but couldn’t crack UNT’s defense when it mattered.

The Mean Green finished with seven sacks, its top total since posting 13 in a win over Nicholls State in the 2014 season. The Owls managed just 49 rushing yards.

UNT came into the night allowing 44.2 points per game and posted its second straight encouraging performance. The Mean Green allowed just seven points in the second half of their win over MTSU in their last outing.

“This showed how the defense is supposed to work,” defensive tackle Dion Novil said. “We minimized our mistakes.”

UNT maximized its return to the field after an extended hiatus in the process.

“We were super excited,” Torrey said. “We were holding our breath until we got to run out there. Then we knew it was real. Everyone enjoyed playing.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

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