Owls Soar Over Falcons and Triumph in Armed Forces Bowl
It was strange watching the Rice Owls players celebrate on the field following their 33-14 Armed Forces Bowl win over Air Force on Saturday at TCU's Amon G. Carter Stadium. Strange because the Owls were only 7-6 on the season and they were acting like they'd just won the mythical national championship.
Owls head coach David Bailiff celebrates his team's victory on Saturday afternoon.
Then you remember that at the midway point of the season, the Owls were 1-5 and the thought of a bowl game was probably just of something the players would be watching after the season ended. And then you remember that this team had to play some incredible football to even reach a bowl game.
Then there's the fact that the Owls shouldn't have even defeated the Air Force Falcons. Not after they committed three turnovers in the second quarter. Not after the usually reliable Chris Boswell missed a field goal wide right from 52 yards. Not after quarterback Taylor McHargue left the game with a concussion which he suffered while committing his third fumble.
But the first half of Saturday's Armed Forces Bowl was the perfect epitome of the first half of the Rice Owls football season. That part of the season that saw the Owls go 1-5 by playing sloppy, turnover-prone football featuring poor execution, stupid penalties, some poor tackling and an injury to quarterback Taylor McHargue.
The Owls and Air Force were tied 7-7 late in the second when McHargue took off on a quarterback for an apparent first down. Only he was subject to a helmet-to-helmet hit as he went down and fumbled the ball, leaving the game due to a concussion while committing his third turnover the half. Air Force promptly took the 14-7 lead.
Redshirt freshman Driphus Jackson took over at QB for the Owls and drove them down the field, the offense looking the best it had the entire game. But on first and goal at the Air Force two yard line, Jackson's pitch to Tyler Petersen went wide and was recovered by the Falcons.
And if that first half was the first half of the Owls' season compressed into 30 minutes of play, the second half of the game epitomized the second half of the Owls' season. The team could do no wrong. Jackson looked like a poised senior, expertly guiding the Owls down the field, finding his receivers -- usually wide open -- and putting the ball where it needed to go. The receivers made spectacular catches, the line executed blocks, the running backs broke off runs that should be featured on SportsCenter, the defense stifled the Falcon offense.
The Owls scored on five of seven drives in that second half. The defense held Air Force to just 58 total yards. It was probably as close to perfection as the Owls have played this season.
The game's Most Outstanding Player was sophomore wide receiver Taylor Jordan, who tied two Armed Forces Bowl records and broke another while hauling in nine passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns. Though he's been an integral part of the offense the entire season, these were Jordan's first three touchdowns of the season. There were two keys to Jordan's game. He had a noted height advantage on the Air Force defensive backs. And he had faith in Jackson's ability to get him the ball.
"Well, obviously I have a little confidence in myself being this tall, but I'm just ready, and when they need me to make a play, I do my best to try to do that," Jordan said. "I thought Driphus did an excellent job of coming in when [McHargue] got hurt and stepped up and made a lot of plays."
So a game the Owls appeared to have lost became a game they won easily. Just as a season that appeared lost for the Owls turned into a winning season. All because the Owls learned to execute and cut out the mistakes. And a young team that seemed intent on repeating the errors of many a Rice team over the years now seems poised to soar through next season.
"A lot of guys were looking down on the season, here we go again," junior safety Paul Porras said. "And since I've been here, it's my fourth year, we went 2 10, 4 8, 4 8 and we were 1 5 going into game seven. And it was just unbelievable how our senior leadership all the way down to freshmen, we all came together as a family and we definitely just embraced each other, embraced the situation, and we just were positive throughout the week going into game seven."
And so ends the 2012 season for the Rice Owls. A season of near disaster turned triumphant. Maybe a 7-6 team celebrating a bowl win like they just won a national championship does look a bit funny. But if any team earned this right, then maybe it's the Rice Owls.