The minor bowl games are usually boring. These games often feature not-so-epic battles between two teams who finished sixth or seventh in their respective conferences and who usually don't even have a winning record. These games generally exist as nothing but programming for ESPN and in which the stadiums are only about half-occupied.
The Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth is one such game. It kicks off early in the morning. It's played in a small stadium on the campus of TCU. There are no glamour teams here. It's something that is watched while waiting for a better game.
But this year is a little different. The teams still aren't glamorous. Both teams finished with 6-6 records. And kickoff is tomorrow morning at 10:45 a.m. And it's doubtful that it'll draw a huge crowd for ESPN or that the stadium will be packed with fans.
The difference is that there is a Houston team involved in the game, a Houston team that at the midpoint of this season was only 1-5. Yet the Rice Owls refused to give up. They didn't quit on the season. They didn't quit on their coach. They didn't quit on each other. They ended up winning four straight to end the season (going 5-1 over the last half of the season). And their reward was an invite to the Armed Forces Bowl, where they'll be facing Air Force.
"There's an enthusiasm right now, and a pride with everybody that's associated with Rice, and I've never been more proud of a bunch of young men who stuck together and won four in a row and made this possible," head coach David Bailiff said. "It was tremendous senior leadership...They just drew a line in the sand and refused to lose."
The Owls were a maddening team to watch this season, especially during the first half of the season. The Owls lost several games they should have won easily, like an overtime loss to Marshall where Rice had a first and goal from the two-yard line in the final minute and where a touchdown would've won the game, only to watch the team settle for a field goal. Or the loss to Memphis, one of the worst teams in college football. Then there was the Owls blowing a game in the fourth quarter against eventual Conference USA champion Tulsa (the team's lone loss in the second half of the season) in a game the Owls led all of the way before the team fell apart.
A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and presto, the Owls are 9-3 and not 6-6 and they're playing a higher-caliber bowl. But this is the Owls, a team that's made a habit over the past several seasons of finding ways to lose games, of Rice beating Rice.
Tight end Luke Willson thinks all of these tough losses, all of the close calls, the stupid penalties, the inability to make tackles, helped to make Rice a better team because the team started feeding off the frustration of the losses.
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"For me it had been a couple of years of just frustration built up," Willson, one of the team's three seniors, said. "Almost being there, a couple of plays away. Some minor things. It was like, enough's enough. We've got to start this run today. Let's put it together...It was almost like the frustration mounted, and we were finally able to push through and start winning games."
Air Force will offer up a type of offense that the Owls haven't seen in a while. It's a purely running offense. And the Owls have had difficulties this season -- and in past seasons -- with stopping the run. Then again, the Owls have been playing with a confidence that they haven't displayed or possessed in several years. If the Owls just trust quarterback Taylor McHargue to run the offense with the skill he ran it over the past month, then they should put some points up on the board, which means it'll just be up to the defense to keep Air Force off of the board.
If this game would've been played three weeks ago, the Owls would probably be easy favorites to win the game because the Owls were playing such good football at the end of the season. However, they haven't played since the end of November, and the Owls aren't used to the long break that comes from the end of the regular season and the start of bowl season.
The Owls were written off in early October, yet they somehow found a way to make a bowl game. So now it's just up to the Owls to finish what they started. And it will help if they don't let Rice beat Rice.