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Rice turns over First Responder Bowl to Texas State, 45-21

Wide receiver Luke McCaffrey celebrates after catching a first-quarter touchdown pass. The Owls lost 45-21 to Texas State University on Tuesday in the First Responders Bowl. Photo courtesy Rice Athletics.

By Landry Wood and Sarah Knowlton     12/29/23 1:38pm

Until Dec. 26’s Servpro First Responder Bowl against Texas State University, Rice Football had not committed seven turnovers in a single game since 2007. Despite a strong first half with three Owl touchdowns, the team lost momentum in the second half and let 21 Texas State points go unanswered. The final score was 45-21 in the Bobcats’ favor, with Rice dropping to 6-7 to end the 2023 season. 

“We’re heartbroken for some of our seniors that will never be able to play college football again,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “We put a lot of work into this. We didn't perform very well, and that’s always disappointing.”

Redshirt freshman AJ Padgett played quarterback for Rice until he missed snaps in the third and fourth quarters following his second and third interceptions of the night. Bloomgren later confirmed Padgett was removed from the game for the same reason each time.

“Both times [Padgett] left the game were performance-related,” Bloomgren said. “I wanted to see if we could give ourselves a spark … That didn’t happen. So I said, ‘AJ’s going to give us our best chance’ and went back to him, and the turnovers continued.”

Padgett has started at quarterback since Nov. 11’s game against the University of Texas at San Antonio, winning two games against the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Florida Atlantic University to secure Rice’s place in its second consecutive bowl game. Graduate transfer JT Daniels, the Owls’ star quarterback for the first nine contests of the season before missing the final stretch due to injury, announced his medical retirement from football on Dec. 1.

Both schools’ bands performed before gametime Tuesday: the Marching Owl Band, playing for the small group of Rice fans, followed by the massive Bobcat Marching Band, energizing the maroon sea of Texas State fans that composed the vast majority of Gerald J. Ford Stadium’s season-high attendance of 26,542. The Bobcats gained immediate momentum with a 26-yard rush on the game’s very first down and capped off the drive with a 29-yard rushing touchdown. According to Bloomgren, this rough start was the product of a coaching mistake, in part arising from technical difficulties with headsets throughout the first quarter.

“On the touchdown we had a substitution error where we didn't have enough people on the field,” Bloomgren said. “That always goes back to coaching. If we can't get eleven out there that's on all of us as coaches, and, ultimately, on me. 

“Then we settled in,” he continued. “We were able to get our personnel and communication going, how it would work without the headsets. We seemed to figure that out and get into a groove.”

That groove culminated in a passing touchdown from Padgett to redshirt junior wide receiver Luke McCaffrey. The drive began at Texas State’s 43-yard line and was accomplished by 16 total receiver yards after catch and a 13-yard McCaffrey rush, with help from a personal foul called on the Bobcats — one of the game’s 18 penalties, which resulted in a total of 177 yards and the ejection of a Texas State player.

“Our receivers probably made every play there was for them to make,” Bloomgren said. “I certainly wish we’d given them a few more opportunities.”

After Texas State scored another rushing touchdown to regain the lead, Padgett began the second quarter by throwing his first interception returned for a touchdown of the evening. The teams traded three-and-outs before senior tight end Elijah Mojarro moved the Owls down the field, tallying 36 total yards after catch, and junior running back Dean Connors capped off the drive with a rushing touchdown. Rice’s defense forced another three-and-out, and the Owls tied the score on a 27-yard run followed by a 28-yard rushing touchdown, both by Connors.

Texas State got the ball back with 3:40 left in the first half and drove down the field, at one point being first and goal on Rice’s 3-yard line. Partly on the strength of a second down sack from junior defensive tackle De’Braylon Carroll, the Owls’ defense forced a field goal as time expired on the second quarter, making the score 24-21 Texas State with Rice to receive the second half kickoff.

“[Our defense] was dominant,” Bloomgren said. “It didn’t matter what situation they got put in … With them battling the way that they did today, there's a lot to be proud of in the growth of this defense and to be excited about for the future.”

As beer supposedly began to run out at Gerald J. Ford Stadium to start the third quarter (but probably not actually), the Owls muffed the kickoff, giving Texas State the ball at Rice’s 30-yard line. The Bobcats scored, and then scored again on another Padgett pick-6 to make the score 38-21 when the game had been tied less than seven minutes earlier. 

Padgett was on the sideline when Rice got the ball back, as freshman Chase Jenkins played quarterback for the next two Rice possessions. Padgett returned to the game for Rice’s first drive of the fourth quarter, which ended in another interception. Redshirt sophomore Shawqi Itraish played quarterback for the game’s remainder.

After the game, Bloomgren expressed appreciation and pride in the seniors’ work and contribution. 

“I just thanked my senior class profusely in that locker room,” Bloomgren said. “Those guys that have stayed and fought have been such a part of our constant growth … If we can go do something really cool, like win this conference next year, those seniors will be the reason why. Those guys laid the foundation, willed everybody to get better, and helped bring every recruit. Those guys will be the ones I tip my cap to.”

With recent recruits such as quarterback E.J. Warner to bolster Rice’s roster in 2024, Bloomgren also said that he has high hopes for the team’s potential. 

“This is a really good football team coming back,” Bloomgren said. “I think that with the right pieces that we’ve added … the future is very bright for this team.”

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