Rice Football is going bowling for the second year in a row following a Senior Day victory over FAU, led by former Owl Tom Herman.
FAU struck first, but Rice football weathered the storm and gutted out its sixth win of the season, securing a second-consecutive bowl trip for head coach Mike Bloomgren and the Owls. On the arm of backup quarterback AJ Padgett, a resilient defense and an unrelenting desire to finish, Rice made the plays when they mattered most and found a way to win. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
This team is tough
Everything about this week of preparation suggested that Rice football would be ready for this game, so it was quite a surprise when FAU’s first play from scrimmage was a 75-yard touchdown run, possibly aided by a hold on Rice corner Tre’shon Devones. To follow that up with a long drive on offense that resulted in zero points and a turnover on downs inside the 10 was crushing.
Both the offense and the defense had come up short on their opening sequence whilst FAU had made the big play, twice. Rice had a choice to make. Was it going to be “Here we go again?” or would it be a call to arms with a renewed focus? Fortunately, it was the latter.
The offense got things back in gear, marched down the field and scored. The defense, after allowing 75 yards on the first play of the game, allowed FAU just 47 yards in the rest of the half.
A redzone interception by quarterback AJ Padgett didn’t do the Owls any favors, but the young signal caller recovered by leading a scoring drive on the next possession to put Rice in front at halftime. After so much going wrong for Rice in the first half, to enter the locker room with a lead spoke volumes. This team wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
It was fitting, then, that after a clock-killing drive that came up short on a failed fourth down conversion attempt the Rice defense was thrust back onto the field to make one last stop. With the game (and the postseason) literally on the line, the Owls got the job done.
Growing up before our eyes
Padgett took almost every snap during practice over the past two weeks but played relatively poorly in his two starts entering Saturday. His struggles, combined with the four-game redshirt rule which left backup freshman quarterback Chase Jenkins with one more game to play this season, led the staff to split reps between the quarterbacks during practice this week.
Bloomgren was adamant Jenkins would play. Offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasopop0 said he’d been in the game early. Yet when the halftime whistle sounded, Jenkins hadn’t moved from his perch on the Rice sideline. Why? Padgett, although not perfect, was moving the offense up and down the field.
In the first half alone, Padgett completed 12-of-19 passes for 172 yards, one touchdown and one pick. The interception was an impressive leaping grab by an FAU defensive back that wasn’t nearly as inexcusable as turnovers Padgett had committed in previous games. Despite only one score to show from it early on, the Owls’ redshirt freshman quarterback was playing well.
Bloomgren believed he could have been even better, though. “Still not the best of AJ Padgett,” he said after the game. “He is such a much better quarterback than what we’ve been able to put on display in games.”
Given a resilient running game and some penalties committed by FAU — at long last, a break on the officiating front for Rice — Padgett wasn’t asked to do too much in the second half. He calmly guided the team down to what would be the game-winning touchdown drive, finding Boden Groen in the back of the endzone for the score.
He finished the game 24-of-37 for 255 yards and three touchdowns with 32 yards rushing, before sacks. He was great on Saturday. And Rice needed every bit of it to win this game.
We’re going to miss Luke McCaffrey
“We talk about Luke McCaffrey so much, and we don’t talk about him enough. I think that couldn’t be more true,” Bloomgren said. “The impact that he has on our team and the player that he is. I feel so blessed to be able to work with him.”
Expectations were sky-high when McCaffrey committed to Rice prior to the 2021 season. A dual-threat quarterback, he was electric with the ball in his hands so hopes remained high when quarterbacking didn’t pan out and he made the decision to switch positions to wide receiver. Still, few could have expected just how impactful his time as a Rice pass catcher would be.
Despite only playing the position for two years, McCaffrey will leave Rice football among the top 10 in several all-time receiving record lists, climbing those charts on Saturday against FAU.
In what is expected to be his final regular season collegiate game, McCaffrey hauled in 12 passes for 141 yards and one touchdown reception, also adding 31 yards on the ground. “Whether he was running the ball today or catching it, I thought he was exceptional,” Bloomgren lauded.
McCaffrey has now caught at least one touchdown in seven consecutive games and scored in 10 of the Owls’ 12 games this season. In one of the games he didn’t score, he went off for a career-best 206 all-purpose yards
“Like earn it, for real”
There wasn’t a soul in the Brian Patterson center that was going to pass over a trip to the Lending Tree Bowl to play Southern Miss last season. Getting to the postseason, even with only five wins, was a meaningful step for the Rice football program a year ago. But at the same time, everyone knew they hadn’t quite delivered on those preseason expectations.
Offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo said it best this week when asked about how much a win on Senior Day to reach six regular season wins would mean to this team. Defeating FAU and clinching a bowl berth, in his words would be to “like earn it, for real.”
Saturday’s bowl-clinching win over FAU comes with no asterisks or what-ifs. It was a hard-fought, progress-proving victory, one that transpired without the Owls’ star quarterback JT Daniels.
“It makes me really proud of these kids, of these coaches,” Bloomgren said. “Because nobody has ever blinked. Everyone who’s still in this building has just kept fighting for what they believe in, for these kids… this team has always been worth fighting for for me, so it’s really cool.”
Rice concludes its 2023 regular season with six wins, the most for the program since 2014. The Owls were the only AAC team with a Power 5 victory, knocking out rival Houston to win the Bayou Bucket for the first time since 2010. Against a much more challenging schedule, Rice was better than they’ve been in a decade, “for real.
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Sneaky solid defense
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