The Rice Owls were 1-5 at the halfway point of this season. It looked like just another lost season. Something to which the Owls and their fans have become far too accustomed. Then a funny thing happened. The Owls started winning games.
The Owls easily handled SMU on Saturday, winning the game by a decisive 36-14 score. The win was the team's fourth in the last five games, and moved their record to 5-6 on the season. The Owls have one game left this season, at UTEP on Saturday night.
And as hard as it might be to believe, if the Owls win that game against UTEP, they'll be bowl-eligible. Yes, that's right. The Rice Owls might actually be heading to a bowl game this season.
"We knew we could do it," quarterback Taylor McHargue said. "I guess about a month ago we said look, we got four more and a bye week. It's going to be on us because we put ourselves in this spot and we made this tough on ourselves. But we can make it happen, we can win the next four."
The Owls on Saturday played, without a doubt, the best game of football they've played this season. The best game they're played, perhaps, in several seasons. McHargue's mastery of the offense continued to grow as he threw for 297 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 54 yards. Vance McDonald returned to the lineup after missing the past several games with an injury, and he showed time and time again why he's so important to the team's passing game.
"He's infecting that offense with a belief that we can do anything," Head Coach David Baliff said of McHargue. "I'm very proud of the way that Taylor's running this offense."
Kicker Chris Boswell tied an NCAA record by becoming the sixth kicker in history to hit three field goals of 50-plus yards in a single game, and he set a Rice single-game record by nailing five field goals. And the defense shut down the SMU offense.
But the most important thing the Owls did was cut down on the stupid, idiotic mistakes that they so often make during games. The Owls committed no turnovers. They kept drive-killing penalties to a minimum. They made tackles. They took advantage of the mistakes made by SMU instead of the usual, which consists of the opposition taking advantage of Rice mistakes.
"We're a talented football team," Baliff said. "We've been talented. We've had some hard luck along the way...We've got seven seniors. But we're talented and they're learning to play together, and each game they continue to improve each week."
This game also points to just how disappointing the rest of this Rice season has been. The Owls led Tulsa until the final minutes, when offensive miscues led to a missed field goal, which led to Tulsa breaking off a long run then getting a TD off the Rice defense on the next drive. The Owls were going in for the game-winning TD against Marshall when McHargue dove for the end zone, came up short and injured his shoulder. The Owls settled for getting that game into overtime, where they lost.
They blew an easy game in losing to an awful Memphis team. If the Owls show up for the first half against UCLA and make a few tackles, it's possible that they could have won that game. And who knows how the UH comes out if McHargue is able to play at quarterback.
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While the Owls probably wouldn't have won all of the games, it's not inconceivable that, instead of being 5-6, the Owls are 7-4 or 8-3 for the season, guaranteed a bowl game and possibly playing for the C-USA title. But Rice beating Rice, making errors, turning the ball over, committing penalties, has the Owls in the position where they are now, needing one final win to qualify for a bowl game.
"It's been a tough, tough season," Baliff said Saturday night. "It's been a lot of fun, but importantly, you watch these young men on this journey this season and they continue to grow closer and they continue to do everything we ask them to do, and I'm really proud of them."
But let's not focus on what could have been. The Owls have come up big the past month. They've won games when they needed to win games. And because there are only three teams in C-USA that are currently bowl-eligible with the conference having five bowl spots, if the Owls can win on Saturday, if they can beat UTEP and go 6-6 on the season, then a season that was reeking of disgust and disappointment could be turning into one of triumph.
All because Rice finally learned how to stop beating Rice.