Frank Gore Jr. proved too much to handle for Rice Football, who were unable to overcome his record-setting game at the Lending Tree Bowl.
A slow start, a furious rally and a Frank Gore-filled fourth quarter sent Rice football home from Mobile, Alabama without a win. Rice took a 24-17 lead in the third quarter of the Lending Tree Bowl before being outscored 21-0 for the remainder of the contest. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Hang in there
The game did not start out well for the blue and gray. Southern Miss raced down the field for the opening score. Rice punted on their next drive. Then after a defensive stand, Rice had what appeared to be a clear targeting flag against running back Quinton Jackson picked up prior to Rice turning the ball over.
As has been the case with so many Rice turnovers this year, the play was absurd and strange. Padgett squeezed a ball in between two defenders into the waiting arms of Jack Bradley who appeared so surprised that the ball reached him that he never went on to complete the catch. Rice wouldn’t challenge, though, and the nation’s leading turnover team added one more to their ledger.
Outside of a series of three consecutive 20-yard plays, the offense wouldn’t do much of note in the first half. The defense was in survival mode and the Owls can’t have been too upset to enter the break down trailing by just two scores.
Boom and bust
The Rice defense was back and forth all night, seemingly oscillating between big plays for either side. They held Southern Miss to 3.3 yards per carry on their first 11 carries of the night… then the twelfth happened, a 64-yard touchdown run by Frank Gore Jr.
That’s kind of how the early portions of the evening went for the Owls. The pass rush was, for the most part, particularly effective. Ikenna Enechukwu got the ball back himself once, but even when they didn’t get home, they forced Southern Miss quarterback Trey Lowe to force throws, often ending in the dirt. The front four plugged gaps and made running lanes hard to reach.
Not long after near the end of the second quarter a 55-yard completion set the Golden Eagles up inside the 10. Pass interference gave them a fresh set of downs inside the two. They had to settle for a field goal. Had it not been for the few big plays sprinkled in, this would have read like a strong defensive performance.
Rice did not have a single tackle for a loss against North Texas. They had seven against Southern Miss, two sacks and knocked the ball away from Trey Lowe twice. They forced a crucial fourth quarter fumble from Gore. They were disruptive and impacted the game in a big way.
But the busts were real. Gore made Rice pay dearly for their inability to tackle late and every misstep in their front. He exploded for an NCAA bowl-record 329 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns, tacking on a passing touchdown for good measure. Whether Rice ran out of gas or not, they couldn’t handle Gore when it counted down the stretch.
AJ Padgett swagger
In the second half, Rice started to find its rhythm on offense and they found it by keying in on the pattern they discovered on their longest drive of the first half. The Owls utilized their speed from side to side, running reverses and sweeps to bring the defense in and then taking shots down the field. Like this:
Esdale's second TD grab. Check out Padgett stepping into the throw with pressure in his face. Big play for the Owls. pic.twitter.com/zjfgve8ztQ
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) December 18, 2022
The conductor of the offensive explosion was AJ Padgett, who transformed from his first-half self. Padgett started the third quarter with completions on 9-of-10 passes for 154 yards and three touchdowns. That, after a first-half mark of 7-of-13 passes for 84 yards and no scores.
It’s hard not to overstate just how incredible Padgett’s explosion really was. He was the scout team quarterback just two weeks ago. He’s the fourth different option the Owls have turned to under center this season and was playing in just his third career game against a pretty good defense that had his number early on.
In the third quarter, Rice scored touchdowns of 26 yards, 32 yards and 18 yards. Only once this season had Rice exceeded two touchdowns in a game from outside the redzone. That came against Charlotte, with the final score coming with the Owls trailing by multiple scores against backups on defense.
Including the touchdown scores, Rice had nine pass plays of 15+ yards and four rushing plays of 10+ yards. Cam Montgomery had the long run, breaking off a 57-yard gain on the ground. The longest pass play came on a leaping 34-yard reception by Quinton Jackson.
Then he lit them up. All the while being beaten up and bruised by a front seven that gave the Rice defensive line fits all night. Padgett was stellar, and that would have been the case if he’d been a veteran starter. Unfortunately, he would be unable to finish the job, leaving the game in the fourth quarter after taking a particularly nasty hit. As the protection wore down, so too did the Rice offense.
It’s been a tumultuous season, and as the fans trickle out of Hancock Whitney Stadium on a mid-December Saturday evening, there’s a bitter taste that will linger following a loss in the Lending Tree Bowl to Southern Miss.
Although it’s unequivocally true that Rice football has officially accomplished one major goals (reaching a bowl game), a 5-8 record will be tough to swallow, even with a back-and-forth game that went down to the wire.
From training camp until the moment the clock hit triple zeroes, the well-verbalized expectation for this program was to go to a bowl game and to win it. The path was unconventional — Rice made it here via APR score, not the more conventional six-win threshold — and the results show this team still isn’t quite where they’d like to be.
To be quite honest, that sets things up for a pivotal brave new world in 2023 when Rice will move to the American Athletic Conference. But that’s a discussion for the offseason. For now, it’s safe to say progress has been made, but there is more needed to be achieved for Rice football to be where they truly want to be.
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