In what was likely the final half of his collegiate career, senior running back Luke Turner ran his wildcat package of the offense to perfection, catalyzing a 27-point outburst that secured a 27-7 victory over the University of North Carolina, Charlotte to improve to 5-7 (3-5) on the season.
The 49ers got the ball to open the game but were forced to punt after three plays by the Owls defense, giving Rice the ball at its own 29-yard line. While the Owls were able to drive the ball to Charlotte’s five-yard line, freshman kicker Hayden Tobola missed a 22-yard field goal that set the tone for a scoreless first half. The Owls failed to generate any rhythm on offense throughout the half, going three-and-out on two occasions, while also turning the ball over on an interception and having the missed field goal. Fortunately, the 49ers were no better. Three missed field goals from Charlotte helped keep the game scoreless entering the second half.
Rice Head Coach David Bailiff made numerous halftime adjustments that proved effective, such as more frequent utilization of Turner’s wildcat package and additional running plays. While the Owls were unable to score on any offensive drive in the first half, they scored on each of their five complete drives in the second half. The defense also continued to excel, keeping the 49ers off the scoreboard until late in the fourth quarter. The second half performance provided a strong finish to what had been a very uneven season.
Bailiff said he was very pleased with his team’s effort.
“I’m really proud of this football team,” Bailiff said. “It was amazing that in the first half, we just couldn’t get rhythm offensively, and the defense just kept playing. It’s a tribute to the type of young men we have. There’s no finger pointing. We just continued to work and pull for each other.”
Redshirt junior linebacker Alex Lyons, who led the team with nine total tackles in the game, said he was similarly impressed with his team’s effort on defense.
“I’m very proud of how the guys performed today,” Lyons said. “They sent the seniors home with a win.”
According to Bailiff, Turner provided versatility for the offense over his career.
“[Turner] is amazing,” Bailiff said. “If you just look at all that he has done for this team this year alone: He plays quarterback for us, he plays tight end for us, he’s played running back, he’s our deep snapper, he’s returned kicks for us, he’s returned punts for us. What he’s done is similar to what [former Rice tight end] James Casey did for us with all of the different skill sets that he has.”
In a video that has since gone viral, Turner was emotional in expressing his appreciation for Bailiff’s belief in him as a player and as a person, and said he will never forget his time at Rice.
“This was my only Division I offer,” Turner said. “I broke my leg my senior year in high school, and everyone sold me off, but that man right there [Bailiff] stuck with me and I’ll love him forever for it. He helped me get a great education that I know I’ll use very well, and he let me keep playing this game that I love. I love this university and I love that man back there; I’ll do anything for him and anything for this university.”
Due to a lack of six-win teams in Division I college football this season, at least two and as many as five 5-7 teams could earn berths to bowl games, depending on the outcomes of several games this upcoming weekend. Should this occur, the Football Oversight Committee will determine the 5-7 teams that will play in bowl games. As such, there is an outside chance that Rice, despite its 5-7 record, could qualify for a bowl game.
The Football Oversight Committee will use Academic Progress Rate scores to determine which 5-7 teams will qualify for a bowl. Rice is currently tied with the University of Illinois for sixth place in the rankings, making their chances of receiving a bowl invite incredibly slim.
While the team would undoubtedly accept such an invitation to a bowl game, they have already began to look toward next season, and the things they must improve in 2016.
“We have a lot to build on,” Bailiff said. “It’s what we’ll talk to the juniors about, and we’ll go back to work on Monday and get this football team better.”