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Going bowling: Rice extends season with hard-fought win over FAU

Redshirt junior Luke McCaffrey catches the ball on Saturday. The Owls defeated FAU 24-21, winning their sixth game of the season and qualifying for their second straight bowl game. Courtesy Rice Athletics

By Andersen Pickard     11/28/23 11:14pm

Rice Football head coach Mike Bloomgren found himself covered in Gatorade, sweat and champagne within a matter of minutes following Saturday’s 24-21 win over the Florida Atlantic University Owls. The victory secured a second consecutive year of bowl eligibility for Rice, whose players, coaches and fans celebrated accordingly.

“I’m wet from getting doused with the Gatorade bucket,” Bloomgren said. “I’m stinky from hugging all those players and people throwing champagne at me on the second floor of [the Brian Patterson Sports Performance Center].”

The Gatorade shower was courtesy of graduate transfer defensive end Coleman Coco, who has emerged as a leader in his first season with the team after transferring from Colgate University over the offseason. Two weeks ago, when Rice needed to win the rest of its games in order to achieve bowl eligibility, he wrote “So what, now what?” on a whiteboard in the Patterson Center. He hoped this would remind the team to ignore previous highs and lows and focus on winning day by day, not just during games but also throughout the practice week. 

Coco maintained a similar forward-focused mentality after Rice surrendered a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage Saturday. 

“It’s tough to give a touchdown up on the first play of the game, but you just pretend like it didn’t happen and go play football,” Coco said. “Line the ball up. We’re going to play. We’ve got a tough defense and throw whatever you want at us.”

The defense’s resilience was on display as they held FAU scoreless for the rest of the first half, allowing the Rice offense to pull ahead 10-7 on a touchdown and field goal. For the third consecutive week, freshman quarterback AJ Padgett led the unit, with graduate transfer JT Daniels still sidelined due to a concussion that he suffered in the Owls’ home loss to Southern Methodist University.

FAU struck for seven points to open the third quarter, but Rice quickly answered with a seven-yard touchdown from junior wide receiver Luke McCaffrey. With this score, Rice took the lead and never looked back.

A candidate to declare for the NFL Draft, McCaffrey finished the regular season with 822 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. He helped his stock by adding 172 all-purpose yards on Saturday alone, drawing Bloomgren’s praise once again.

“We talk about Luke McCaffrey so much, and we [still] don’t talk about him enough,” Bloomgren said. “I feel so blessed to have been able to work with him.”

Other offensive standouts Saturday included junior tight end Boden Groen, who had his first career multi-touchdown game, and running backs Dean Connors and Juma Otoviano, who combined for 157 yards from scrimmage. Steady production from the running game allowed Rice to drain the clock while continuing to score points.

“It got to a point in the game where I kept telling [Bloomgren] to keep running the ball,” Otoviano said. “Let me and [Connors] eat.”

Connors finished the year with 1,068 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, both representing career highs.

At a quick glance, one might think that the Owls embodied mediocrity this season. They were 6-6 overall (4-4 AAC), ranking sixth out of 14 teams in the conference. However, digging deeper reveals several reasons for Rice football to be proud of their performance.

Beyond defying expectations during their first season in the AAC, Rice burst onto the national spotlight, snapping their losing streak against the University of Houston and remaining competitive against two ranked programs. They also outscored their opponents 363-320 and made improvements on defense and offense. From 2022 to 2023, the defense saw its Pro Football Focus grade jump from 68.3 to 78.5. Meanwhile, the offense improved from a grade of 66.6 to 72.3. The Owls will look to build on this momentum when several major starters return in 2024. 

Coco explained why Rice is such an appealing landing spot for recruits going forward.

“If you like a world-class education and [being] part of a football team on the up-and-up, it’s the place to be,” Coco said. “In the beginning of the year, [projections] had us second-to-last in the conference, but that didn’t matter to any of us. We knew we had a talented ballclub, and we know we’re going to be even better next year.”

Before Rice football turns the page to next season, they will prepare for the extra game they earned in 2023. Bowl-eligible for the second consecutive year, the Owls will take the field one last time in late December. Rice hopes to earn their first bowl victory since the 2014 Hawaii Bowl when they defeated Fresno State 30-6. The official date and venue for their bowl game will be announced Dec. 3.

This major achievement is particularly special for Bloomgren as he’s only the third head coach in Rice football’s 110-year history to lead the program to back-to-back bowl games.

“There were a lot of people in the national media and coaches that told me not to take this job because they could never go to a bowl again,” Bloomgren said. “But I’ve got a good group of kids that really wants to fight and here we are.”

And here they are, indeed. For the second year in a row, Rice is going bowling.

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