Rice football found itself on the wrong side of history in the Lending Tree Bowl against Southern Miss. Now they’re ready to turn the page.
Nobody in the Rice football locker room had envisioned participating in what Mike Bloomgren aptly dubbed “the Frank Gore show” on a chilly December night in Mobile, AL. The last team to make it into the postseason was rewarded with a spot in college football history, albeit one they’d rather not be linked to. In some ways, though, it’s a fitting in-between that’s representative of who this team was this season.
“There are a lotta guys in that locker room that are in shambles,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said after the game. “They’re incredibly invested in what we’re doing and they wanted to find a way to win this game, but we didn’t get it done.”
The failure drops the Owls to 5-8. It’s their most wins since 2014, yet somehow symbolizes the floor of expectations moving forward. Senior defensive end Ikenna Enechukwu, who likely played in his last game as an Owl, forcing a fumble and being credited with a sack, said as much in his comments following the game.
“I want this to the bare minimum for them,” he said. “The bare minimum should be those six wins and they should be aiming for that conference championship, even if it’s in the AAC. I feel like they can do it.”
In a sense, Enechukwu knew that being in Mobile as a five-win team required a stroke of luck. Rice didn’t get much luck on Saturday evening, whether from their own efforts, a set of dubious officials or anyone else. The results were what they were. Now the next step is figuring out how to be on the right side of history next year and beyond.
There is hope on that front. Freshman quarterback AJ Padgett completed 19-of-37 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns against Southern Miss, just his second career start. Luke McCaffrey, who led the Owls in receptions, was a go-to target for Padgett after missing essentially the last three games. Joshua Pearcy had a sack.
Joining Enechukwu, Gabe Taylor and Izeya Floyd each forced fumbles. The offense finished with two turnovers of their own, the final one occurring on the arm of backup quarterback Shawqi Itraish in the final minutes. Still, it was only the third time this season Rice had finished with a positive turnover differential. And most of those playmakers are set to return.
And then there’s Padgett, who transformed himself from a fourth-stringer to starter in the span of a few weeks. Whether he’s given the shot to start next season or not, he wasn’t afraid to echo the sentiments of Enechukwu and Bloomgren when they turned their eyes to the future,
“[Going bowling] should 100 percent be the standard. If that’s not the standard, then what is? We should approach a season with the attitude that we want to win a bowl game. We want to win conference. We want to beat everybody we play,” he declared. “I don’t really think there’s any other mindset to approach a season with or you’re just going out there to lose and that’s not what I’m about. I’m a ballplayer. I go out there to win.”
Rice didn’t win on Saturday. Everyone is crushed by that. Now they’re tasked with getting their house in order for 2023 to ensure that a loss like that — bowl game or otherwise — isn’t a part of their future again.
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