The Rice Owls went out Saturday on a cold, dreary afternoon and demolished the Marshall Thundering Herd, capturing the Conference USA title with a 41-24. Rice stormed out to the lead, didn't let up on the gas, and controlled the action for the entire 60 minutes of the game. It was the best game the Owls played this season, the best game they've played in several seasons, and now Rice is going to the Liberty Bowl.
It's the second bowl game in two seasons for the Owls, the first time they've accomplished this task in over 50 years. But it hasn't been easy, this winning 10 games in a season because the Owls were 1-5 at one point last season and it looked as if head coach David Bailiff might not make it back for this season, not before the Owls won six of their last seven games, won a bowl game, and Bailiff's vision for his team, his players, came into focus for all.
"I am so proud of this football team," Bailiff said after Saturday's game. "Each and every one of them. The 23 seniors. The 19 fifth year players. What makes those men so special is they never fragmented, they never cheated a day. They came here and worked hard through the bad times, through the good times. Their hard work and love for each other has paid off."
It would have been easy for those 23 players to quit on the team. Lots of fans and boosters did, especially those boosters who never brought into Bailiff or his plan, who thought they've could have, should have gotten better. Those boosters who think playing in Conference USA is a step down for a big time program, not realizing that Rice hasn't been a major powerhouse program since the 1950s.
But the players believed in Bailiff. They bought into his vision. They refused to quit on him. Refused to quit on their teammates, on the school. They knew there would be tough times. That it wouldn't be easy. Then came that closing streak last season, and the Armed Forces Bowl win. And then they really believed.
"Along the way, it's amazing when the chemistry happens, when the football team, when those around them are more important than themselves," Bailiff said of the players. "That happened to that class, where they were living for each other it truly became a family atmosphere where they loved each other. Chemistry and love make pretty good players when that happens."
"Coming in with the class that we did, there was never an option to quit," quarterback Taylor McHargue said. "You came in with these guys and they were suffering through the same things that I was suffering through, and it would be selfish to give into that kind of stuff....We also kept faith in Coach Bailiff's plan for our program." The Owls changed the plan up a bit Saturday, abandoning for a bit their power running game and going with deep passes and trick plays. Trick plays like running back Luke Turner taking a pitch from McHargue, running toward the sideline, then planting and throwing a perfect strike to a streaking Jordan Taylor for a 35-yard touchdown that put the Owls up 7-0. Or the 75-yard bomb from McHargue to Taylor on the second play of the Owls second drive that put them up 14-0 on a Marshall team that was expecting nothing but rush after rush after rush and never recovered.
"[Offensive coordinator John] Reagan put together a great game plan for this game, he mixed pass and run really well, and throwing in a couple of those trick plays really put them on their heels a little bit," Turner said. "They really didn't understand what we were doing."
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Then it was just up to the Rice defense to do what it's done all year, stop the other team from scoring. And the defensive unit, which has played superbly all season, did just that, holding a high-powered Marshall unit that had been averaging over 50 points a game for most of the season to just 24.
Now the Owls (10-3) are off to the Liberty Bowl for a matchup against the SEC's Mississippi State (6-6) on New Year's Eve. The Bulldogs will probably be favored, they play in the all-mighty SEC after all. But the Owls are out to prove a point. That they're more than just this minor school playing in a minor conference.
"This is just another opportunity to show how good we really are," McHargue said. "There'll be a lot of people who'll come out and say 'well that was a good win against Marshall, but they're still a Conference USA school with three losses.' This will be an opportunity to show that this team can compete with anybody in any conference."
It's been a long time coming for Rice. There have been many bad years of few wins, lousy attendance, and student apathy. But Bailiff's bought into the school, into it's vision, and he's gotten players who buy into him, into his vision, into the school. It might just be Conference USA, but the Owls are the champions, and that's a good thing.