When Rice freshman quarterback Driphus Jackson was suddenly thrust into action in the Armed Forces Bowl, he drove the Owls within 2 yards of a tying touchdown before his errant pitch.
Jackson more than made up for that miscue that ended the first half.
After starter Taylor McHargue was knocked out the game because of a concussion, Jackson threw for 264 yards with two second-half touchdowns to Jordan Taylor, and Rice beat Air Force 33-14 on Saturday.
”I couldn’t get down (after the fumble). The guys had all the confidence in the world in me,” Jackson said. ”Things slowed down for me in the second half.”
Rice (7-6), which had to win four in a row just to get bowl eligible, has won both of its bowl games under sixth-year coach David Bailiff. Before their 2008 Texas Bowl victory, the Owls had lost their only four bowl games since winning the 1954 Cotton Bowl.
”This football team has overcome a lot of adversity and really played well down the stretch,” Bailiff said. ”We had a very motivational talk with our team just before the winning streak, and our coaching staff and players worked hard and kept improving every game.”
And this is a Rice team with only seven seniors, three of them tight ends.
The Owls were 1-5 after a loss at Memphis on Oct. 6, and their only loss was 28-24 to Conference USA champion Tulsa.
”We had our ups and downs. To cap it after the start we had, it means the world,” said running back Turner Petersen (nine carries for 81 yards).
Air Force (6-7) scored on consecutive drives in the second quarter with backup quarterback Kale Pearson in the game. But the Falcons had a season-low 214 total yards.
Jackson’s first series ended with a bad pitch near the goal line only 2 seconds before halftime, when the Owls trailed 14-7. It was the third lost fumble by Rice in the second quarter.
”We didn’t make a lot of adjustments at halftime,” said Taylor, who had nine catches for 153 yards and three TDs, including a 16-yarder from McHargue in the first quarter. ”The coaches just told us to execute and protect the football better than we did in the first half.”
Jackson had consecutive completions of 25 and 22 yards before a 2-yard keeper and then a 22-yard TD to Taylor on Rice’s opening drive of the second half.
The Owls went ahead to stay, 21-14, when Jackson hit six passes in a row to set up Charles Ross’ 2-yard TD run.
”As soon as the starter went out, we knew there were adjustments we had to make,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. ”We put an enormous amount of strain on our defense. Any time you make only 12 first downs, you’re going to tax your defense.”
Jackson, who started against Houston when McHargue had a shoulder problem, completed 15 of 21 passes and rushed for 32 yards.
”After having one start under my belt, I knew what to expect,” Jackson said. ”I had an idea of how to manage the game. They gave me the keys and told me to go.”
McHargue never returned after a helmet-to-helmet collision on a 5-yard run with about 5 minutes left in the first half.
He put his head down and ran into defensive back Steffon Batts, and fumbled. McHargue was noticeably wobbly while being helped to the sideline.
The Falcons then went 35 yards in nine plays for a 14-7 lead. Mike DeWitt converted fourth-and-1 with a 2-yard run, and Wes Cobb scored on a 1-yard run.
Jackson then came in for the Owls and had keepers of 5 and 14 yards before a 23-yard pass to Taylor. After another 10-yard pass for first-and-goal from the 2 before Jackson’s bad pitch.
McHargue hit 6 of 8 passes for 31 yards. He stood on the sideline after halftime wearing a warmup suit and a cap.
Since the Falcons’ last game, senior quarterback Connor Dietz has graduated from the academy and been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force.
Dietz ran six times for 11 yards and completed only 1 of 3 passes.
Pearson wasn’t must better, 2-of-8 passing for 44 yards with six carries for 11 yards. But he was on the field for both of Air Force’s scoring drives with a 9-yard TD run
The Falcons have made a school-record six consecutive bowl appearances under Calhoun, but are 2-4 in those games (1-3 in the Armed Forces Bowl). Air Force lost four of its last five games to finish this season.
Chris Boswell made field goals of 24 and 25 yards in the fourth quarter, before Jackson hit Taylor for a 34-yard TD with 1:38 left.
Boswell, who made six field goals of at least 50 yards during the regular season, had apparently made a 52-yarder early in the second quarter before officials blew the whistle for an Air Force timeout. Boswell got another try, but pushed it wide right with about 9 minutes left in the first half.
That’s when Pearson took over for Air Force, leading them 66 yards in 10 plays. He had a 15-yard pass and ended the drive with a wide sweeping run to get into the front corner of the end zone to tie the game at 7.
”We really struggled. We had a good second quarter,” Calhoun said. ”But there’s no way you win this game playing well in one quarter.”