FORT WORTH, Texas — Rice really, really wanted to play in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. And it showed in the second half.
The Owls had to win their last four regular-season games just to qualify for Saturday’s game. With a backup quarterback and a big-play receiver, Rice dominated Air Force in the second half for a 33-14 win.
Sophomore Jordan Taylor was named the game’s MVP for Rice after catching nine passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns.
Taylor caught his first touchdown in the first quarter from starting quarterback Taylor McHargue, who was knocked out of the game after suffering a concussion with five minutes left in the first half.
Air Force led, 14-7, at intermission but had no answer for the Rice offense in the second half.
Backup quarterback Driphus Jackson tossed a 22-yard touchdown pass to Taylor to tie the score at 14-14 early in the third quarter. That was the first of 26 unanswered points in the second half by Rice, capped by a 34-yard scoring toss from Jackson to Taylor.
Not bad for a Rice team that was 2-6 heading into late October.
“We took great advantage of our opportunities in the second half and made the most of them,” Rice coach David Bailiff said. “This football team has overcome a lot of adversity and really played well down the stretch.”
The victory was just Rice’s second bowl win since the 1954 Cotton Bowl — the Owls were playing in just their third bowl since 1961.
The win also assures Rice a winning record. The Owls finished 7-6 after having to win their last four regular-season games to become bowl eligible.
“We had a very motivational talk with our team just before the winning streak, and our coaching staff and players just worked hard and kept improving every game,” Bailiff said. “This is just a great day for Rice football and the university.”
Air Force finishes at 6-7 after going 5-3 in Mountain West Conference play.
The Falcons were held to just 12 first downs and were outgained 503-214. Air Force also had quarterback issues as starter Connor Dietz alternated with Kale Pearson.
“The difference in the game was clearly in the second half,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “Stating the obvious there, but they really took control in the second half of all three phases, and I thought their offense did a super job.”
Linebacker Austin Niklaas was named the Air Force MVP with 14 tackles, tied for the second-most by a Falcons player in a bowl game.
“We fought hard the whole game,” Niklaas said. “Rice has a good football team, and we were just unable to stop them consistently in the second half.”
After spending the past two years in temporary digs at SMU’s Ford Stadium, the Armed Forces Bowl returned to its original home of TCU’S Amon G. Carter Stadium, which had undergone a massive makeover.
An announced attendance of 40,754 (tickets distributed) braved a frigid 30 degrees at the 10:45 a.m. kickoff. The chilly temperatures seemed to affect the ball security: Rice fumbled five times — four times in the first half — and lost three while Air Force fumbled twice and lost both.
As the temperature warmed into the mid-40s in the second half, Rice’s offense warmed up, too.
“We didn’t make a lot of adjustments at halftime,” Taylor said. “The coaches just told us to execute and protect the football better than we did in the first half.”
Taylor’s 18 points tied the Rice record for points in a bowl, matching Owls legend Dicky Maegle’s performance in the 1954 Cotton Bowl against Alabama.
“I can’t express how much it means to me to play with this team and camaraderie that we had throughout the season, just the way we would overcome things,” Taylor said.
Jackson was 15-of-21 passing for 264 yards and two touchdowns in relief of the injured McHargue. Driphus, a redshirt freshman, had started one game this season.
“We didn’t have to move the offense at all the way he was continuing to work from inside the playbook,” Bailiff said. “I thought today he played like a seasoned veteran, like he was calling all the games this season, the decisions he made.”
Receiver Sam McGuffie caught five passes for 80 yards to become the first Rice player to surpass 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in a career.
When the game ended, Texas teams were 4-0 in bowls (SMU, Baylor, Texas Tech and Rice) with Texas and TCU to play in their bowl games later in the day, followed by Texas A&M in the AT&T Cotton Bowl on Jan. 4.
Conference USA also improved to 3-1 in bowls with UCF, SMU and Rice earning wins and East Carolina falling short. Conference champion Tulsa, the only remaining C-USA bowl team, faces Iowa Sate in the Autozone Liberty Bowl on Dec. 31.
Air Force’s loss closed out the Mountain West Conference’s bowl season at 1-4.