Rice didn’t show its best side in the Liberty Bowl and failed to reach a team goal for one of the few times this season.
The Owls (10-4) saw their four-game winning streak come to a crashing halt Tuesday, falling 44-7 to Mississippi State in the most one-sided game in the Liberty Bowl’s 55-year history. Rice, which won the Armed Forces Bowl last year, was seeking to earn bowl victories in back-to-back seasons for the first time.
"We knew coming into this game we were going to have to play our best to win it," Rice coach David Bailiff said. "We didn’t."
Rice scored the opening touchdown on a 1-yard run by Charles Ross in the first quarter, but the Owls fell apart after that. Offensively, Rice managed a mere 145 yards of offense in the game, including only 32 yards and one first down in the second half.
Rice gained only 61 yards rushing — 179 below its season average — on 32 carries. Ross, who averaged 113.8 yards rushing per game during the regular season, finished with 28 yards on 10 carries.
"We knew coming in their `D’ line was pretty big, and we were going to have trouble moving them," Ross said. "We were going to try and do some things to get some movement. Their game plan, whatever they had, worked better than ours."
Rice also couldn’t contain Mississippi State’s passing game and couldn’t stop the Bulldogs on third down.
Defensively, Rice surrendered 283 yards passing by Bulldog quarterback Dak Prescott, who accounted for a Liberty Bowl record five touchdowns — two rushing and three passing. Prescott delivered arguably the finest performance of his career less than two months after his mother, Peggy, died of cancer.
"It’s really just been about Mississippi State University and this football team comforting me, being there for me and just helping me and making what I would say is the hardest thing in my life easier," Prescott said.
Although Prescott and senior Tyler Russell had shared Mississippi State’s quarterback duties throughout the regular season, Prescott had the job to himself in the Liberty Bowl while Russell recovered from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Prescott responded better than anyone could have reasonably imagined.
Prescott’s main target was Jameon Lewis, who caught nine passes for 220 yards to break the Liberty Bowl receiving record. Lewis also set the school single-game record.
"He’s a great player," Bailiff said about Lewis. "We tried covering him, we tried doubling him. He caught `em anyway."Mississippi State finished with 533 yards of total offense.
The Bulldogs were 8 of 12 in third-down situations, including 7 of 9 through three quarters. In several cases, Rice failed to execute, allowing Prescott to escape a potential sack and scramble for first downs. The loss of containment, Bailiff said, was one of Rice’s downfalls.
"This one falls on me," Bailiff said. "If you’re not ready to play, it’s the head coach’s responsibility. We didn’t play well offensively or defensively."
Bailiff said the Liberty Bowl loss was not the defining moment of Rice’s season. Rice won the Conference USA championship for its first outright league title of any kind since 1957. The Owls had one of the top graduation rates of any Football Bowl Subdivision program and reached 10 wins this season, part of changing the perception of Rice football.
"We were dreaming big," Bailiff said. "We were dreaming big all year. We came here wanting to win the Liberty Bowl. That was the only goal we didn’t achieve this season."