The Owls triumph over the Falcons
For only the second time in 50 years, the Rice Owls football team has a bowl victory to celebrate. After winning five of their last six games to be eligible for the postseason, the Owls beat the Air Force Academy in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl by a final score of 33-14, providing the program an opportunity to be proud.
The Owls, who were considered underdogs heading into the game, stopped one of the nation's top rushing attacks, holding the Falcons scoreless in the second half. It was an incredibly impressive effort for a team that has made large improvements in seemingly every aspect of the game. Watching the second half of the season, the Owls looked to be a completely different group than the team who started in August against the University of California at Los Angeles.
"This is a memory that this football team will treasure," Head Coach David Bailiff said. "The Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl has been an absolutely great experience from our arrival to our departure."
The game, with an odd 10:45 a.m. start time, cut into both teams' pregame rituals. The Owls' defense sparked the first points of the game, with a fumble forced by senior defensive end Jared Williams, providing the offense prime field position. A run by quarterback Taylor McHargue set up a 16-yard pass to wide receiver Jordan Taylor that put a touchdown on the board.
After that series, the rest of the first half spelled potential disaster for the Owls, with a multitude of setbacks. Two unanswered touchdowns from Air Force, a McHargue injury, a missed Chris Boswell field goal and a goal line fumble sent the Owls into the locker room down 14-7.
Driphus Jackson, a redshirt freshman who saw limited snaps this season, stepped in and filled the void during McHargue's injury, going 15 for 21 with 264 passing yards. Jackson's favorite target of the second half, wide receiver Jordan Taylor, ended the game with 153 total receiving yards, breaking Houston Texans running back James Casey's record in a Rice bowl game. Even more impressively, Taylor played most of the game with a sprained shoulder.
"I thought Driphus [Jackson] did an excellent job of coming in when [McHargue] got hurt," Taylor said. "He stepped up and made a lot of plays."
The defense figured out the Air Force's offense (which, ironically, could not put the ball in the air), stopping its option and holding it scoreless in the second half. With the offense clicking and the defense seemingly unstoppable, the Air Force Falcons looked incredibly overmatched against the Owls.
"I'm just so proud of these young men and our coaching staff," Bailiff said. "We came out at the second half and made a couple adjustments and, more importantly, some attitude adjustments, not so much from coaching, but from the team leaders. We came out more determined to play the second half stronger."
The Owls, who will lose few players from their potent offense, have to be considered one of the favorites to win the diluted Conference USA West next season with the departure of many teams to the Big East Conference. But no players will be quick to forget this season, the amazing turnaround and the second-half effort in the final game.
"I think the second half is how we responded all season," Williams said. "A lot of great leadership on the team. We came into the locker room. The second half was a new game for us, 0-0. We came out, executed and got the job done."
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