FORT WORTH – In relief of injured Taylor McHargue, Driphus Jackson threw for 264 yards to lead Rice to a 26-0 second half shutout of Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl Saturday at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth.
The Owls 33-14 win was its fifth straight and ensured a winning season after the team began the year 1-5. Just like the season as a whole, Rice made many mistakes in the first half of Saturday‘s game before playing a much cleaner and smarter second half.
“I saw a lot of heads down in the locker room at halftime,” said Rice junior linebacker Cameron Nwosu about the 14-7 deficit. “I got the defense together and said ‘hey look, it’s a four quarter game. Everyone will remember how we perform in the second half.’ I thought we did a great job on defense getting turnovers and on offense controlling the time of possession and putting the ball in the end zone.”
Much of the offensive credit goes to Jackson, who was called in from the bullpen with 5:08 left in the second quarter when McHargue suffered a concussion on a quarterback keeper.
“Driphus started the Houston game when Taylor was hurt, and you can tell he had high anxiety in that game,” said Rice coach David Bailiff. “He was jittery in the pocket and quick to run. Today, he played like a seasoned veteran. He looked like he had started a bunch of ballgames. Some of his decisions and reads were outstanding.”
Jackson fumbled away a chance to score at the end of the first half, but he immediately led the team on a game-tying, 87-yard drive at the start of the second half. He finished 15 of 21 for 264 yards and two touchdowns. He also picked up 32 yards on the ground.
“After having that UH start under my belt, I knew what to expect,” Jackson said. “I had a good idea of what we were trying to do. They gave me the keys today and told me to go. That’s what I did.”
If Jackson was driving the car, Jordan Taylor could be considered the engine. The 6-foot-5 sophomore wide receiver from nearby Dennison tied an Armed Force Bowl record with nine catches, three of which went for a touchdown. Amazingly, he hadn’t scored a single touchdown all regular season. His 153 receiving yards also set a new bowl record.
“I have a little confidence in myself being this tall, but I’m just ready when they need me to make a play,” Taylor said. “It’s my first bowl game to play in, so it’s pretty surreal.”
Sam McGuffie also made several nice receptions during a five-catch, 80-yard curtain call. A total of six different Owls caught passes.
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said they tried to change the coverage up in the secondary, but Taylor and company were difficult to slow down.
“Sometimes we rolled the safety over the top;” he said. “We have a guy that’s deep, he’s in a position where he ought to play the deep ball. He didn’t play it well. Jordan’s a good-sized target. Their quarterback put the ball in there in terms of ball placement and gave their receive a chance to make plays.”
The Rice defense held Air Force to a dozen first downs and 166 rushing yards, about half of the Falcons season average. Star running back Cody Getz only gained 35 yards while the two Air Force quarterbacks, Connor Dietz and Kale Pearson, combined for 12 carried for just 26 yards.
“We are proud of what we did defensively to hold them,” Bailiff said. “We made the plays and the opportunities were there.”
After Rice tied it at 14 early in the third quarter, the Owls moved the ball across midfield on its next drive on a 10-yard pass to Turner Petersen. Bailiff decided to go for it on fourth and two at the Falcons 44, but Jackson’s pass was deflected and fell incomplete.
Despite good field position, three runs by Ty MacArthur and Getz only netted eight yards and the Falcons punted.
Rice took over at its 26 and took to the air. Jackson completed six straight passes to Taylor, McGuffie and Donte Moore to move the ball all the way to the Air Force 4. Jackson covered two yards on a run, and then Charles Ross took it the remaining two yards for the score. The extra point gave Rice a 21-14 lead 35 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Air Force couldn’t move the ball and punted it back to Rice. Peterson advanced the ball almost halfway across the field on an electrifying 48-yard run to the Air Force 7. The Owls could only get one yard closer, so Chris Boswell connected on a 24-yard field goal. Boswell added a 25-yard field goal with 4:31 left to push the lead to 27-14.
Air Force’s last gasp ended when Pearson’s pass was intercepted by Paul Porras at the Falcons 42.
The Falcons finished the year 6-7. They are 2-4 in bowl games the past six seasons.
The win gave Rice a winning season (7-6) and pushed the Owls all-time bowl record to 6-4, including a 4-1 mark in Dallas-Fort Worth. It’s the first time a Conference USA team had won the Armed Forces Bowl since 2008 when Houston defeated Air Force.
“We had our ups and downs,” Petersen said. “To finish with five straight wins means the world. The team really came together at the end.”