The Rice Owls were losing to UAB late in the third quarter on Saturday. The Owls fielded a punt at their own 17. Nineteen plays later, nine-and-half minutes later, 83 yards later, quarterback Taylor McHargue found tight end Vance McDonald in the end zone and with the fourth quarter nearly over, the Owls were up 21-17.
UAB blazed back down the field, scoring in six plays to make it 23-21 -- the extra point was missed -- but unfortunately for UAB, there were still five minutes remaining in the game. Just over four minutes later, Jeremy Eddington took the snap from the wildcat formation, went wide right and found nothing but green space between himself and the end zone, and just like that, the Owls were up 28-23 and finishing out what had been a rather dismal season on a high note.
"I'm proud of this football team. I'm proud of the seniors," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "We hung together to win our last two conference games in a row, last two at home. It was fitting for this senior class, and I think it gives us a lot of hope in the future when you look at the young men and their ages who are making plays."
Yes the Owls only went 4-8 on the season. No, the Owls didn't make that bowl game they were aiming for this season. But the team did win two straight games at the end of the season, and those final two games revealed a solid reason for optimism for next season: most of the offensive starters are returning.
"Everybody coming back is a freshman or sophomore," Bailiff said. "We've got to continue to just take it one day at a time, one play at a time, and keep improving, but I think we have a very talented football team, offensively and defensively."
It took time for the offense to come together for the Rice Owls this season, but once Eddington and the wildcat were fully incorporated into the offense, and once McHargue and McDonald were able to return from their injuries, then the offense took off and the Owls soared. And that Owls offense started to soar on Saturday once the Owls got their act together at the half.
"We just knew we were beating ourselves, more than anything else," McHargue said. "It was penalties. We were beating ourselves, and we knew if we stuck with what we were doing we were going to keep moving the ball -- and they were tired. Our tempo kept them tired for most of the game as long as we were moving the ball and staying on the field. We never lost confidence. We just kept telling everybody to focus in and not make any mistakes that are going to beat ourselves."
The Owls tried to beat their self Saturday. That 19-play drive was 19 plays partly because the Owls kept committing penalties, especially early in the drive, that they had to overcome. There were multiple illegal-block penalties that forced the Owls to gain big yards to get first downs, but each time that happened, the Owls found ways to get the job done. And with under a minute left on the clock, the UAB offense nearly pulled off the win when Bryan Ellis's bomb down the middle of the field was just a mere inch or two too far for the outstretched fingers of a wide open Jackie Williams to gather in.
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But in the end, the Owls got the victory. And while there's no bowl game for this season, while this season is over, the seniors got to go out on the high of a victory, a winning streak, and the team gets to look toward next season with a sense of optimism because they realized the importance of playing for the pride of the team.
"The last few games we realized we weren't playing for a bowl game, it was about pride and going out with a winning streak" senior linebacker Justin Hill said. "Not just for the seniors, but for the program to create some momentum going into next season."
It might only be the momentum of a two-game win streak, but momentum is not something the Owls have had much of the past several seasons. So don't look at the Owls finishing this season at 4-8, look at them as being 2-0 with a long, long bye coming up.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: This was the first game this season that the Rice defense held an opponent to less than 30 points....Jeremy Eddington's two touchdowns give him 10 TDs in seven career games....Vance McDonald finished with 8 TDs for the season, including five in his last three games....Rice is 15-7 in November games since 2006....The Owls have scored a touchdown in 76 straight games, and they were last shutout 121 games ago, a 37-0 loss to TCU in 2000.