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Rice wraps up 2021 season with 35-31 comeback victory over Louisiana Tech

McMahon’s late touchdown, Taylor’s interception help Owls secure their best finish since 2015.

NCAA Football: Rice at Texas El Paso Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

The finished product still awaits, but the Rice Owls certainly made a step forward in 2021.

With a 35-31 victory over Louisiana Tech on senior day, Rice ended its 2021 campaign on a high note and ended its 6-game losing streak to the Bulldogs. Despite missing out on bowl eligibility for the seventh straight season, the 4-8 Owls concocted their highest win total since 2015 and sent the seniors out in triumphant fashion.

“I’m so proud of these seniors for finding a way to win and I’m so proud of these underclassmen for making a commitment to make sure they got to celebrate one more victory locker room,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “It makes everything we do the rest of the year worth it when you get those victory locker rooms.”

Entering Saturday, Rice was 3-0 in games when it scored first and 0-8 when the other team did. The Owls finally reversed that trend. They trailed 10-0 in the first quarter, and later, 31-21 in the final five minutes of action. But Rice didn’t let its season dwindle down to a disappointing close. Instead, it sliced the double-digit deficit to a one-score game with 4:12 remaining.

Quarterback T.J. McMahon fired a 31-yard touchdown pass to August Pitre III for his first collegiate touchdown pass. McMahon entered the season as the team’s fourth quarterback on the depth chart, but Rice was down its top two quarterbacks Wiley Green and Jake Constantine due to injury. Luke McCaffrey started the game for the Owls, but Bloomgren substituted McMahon into the game in the third quarter.

“There were just a few things that built up and I just said to (offensive coordinator) Coach Tui, ‘I think right now, T.J. gives us our best chance in this game,’” Bloomgren said on the decision to change quarterbacks. “I told T.J. this morning when I saw him walking into the pregame meal to be ready all day, and gosh, he was, and I’m so glad he was able to come through.”

McMahon had never thrown a collegiate pass before Saturday but the California native completed 12/20 attempts for 191 yards and delivered two touchdown strikes in the last five minutes. His final touchdown pass transpired with 1:01 remaining. After a 48-yard punt return by Sean Fresch set the Owls up in the red zone, McMahon capitalized on the opportunity. He found Cedric Patterson III in the end zone to hand the Owls their first lead since the late third quarter.

“I always think about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning talking about it on Peyton’s Places. Tom Brady says, ‘I don’t care where you’re drafted. It could be first round, second round, sixth round, hell, I was 199. But if you get your opportunity, you better not waste it,’” McMahon said. “That’s the mindset I went in with. If I get a shot I better pull through and do my job.”

The job wasn’t done after Patterson’s go-ahead touchdown. Louisiana Tech drove down the field instantly, reaching as far as the Rice 33-yard line. That’s when strong safety Gabe Taylor, a freshman playmaker who has become the team’s kingpin in forcing turnovers, capitalized in a crucial moment. Taylor captured an interception from Bulldogs quarterback J.D. Head to ultimately seal the win.

“Emotions were high. We knew right then that the game was over,” Fresch said. “It really just felt so good — the work we put in all week, all season, for it to end like that with us coming out on top.”

The deciding interception was an emotional moment for Taylor, as Saturday represented the 14th anniversary of the tragic passing of his brother — legendary Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor.

“It comes down to Gabe Taylor, who I think played with a heavy heart today,” Bloomgren said. “This is the 14th anniversary of his brother passing away. Just the way the football gods worked, to have that ball — that last interception — land in his hand was perfect for him and perfect for our team.

Rice completed the 10-point comeback, which marked its largest of the Mike Bloomgren era. The Owls hadn’t erased a double-digit deficit since Oct. 10, 2015 when they stormed back from a 12-point margin in the fourth quarter against Florida Atlantic.

“To do this in the fourth quarter of a very motivated team on the other sideline to try to win one for their head coach, it just speaks volumes,” Bloomgren said of the comeback. “We don’t want to get behind in the first place, but we sure want to have the belief that we’re never out. We’re good enough that when we perform and do our job in all segments, we can beat anybody.”

While the Owls fell short of goals including bowl eligibility and competing for a conference title, progress was still evident in the 2021 season. Rice is 3-1 in season finales under Bloomgren, and he hopes the inspiring comeback win can provide a springboard into 2022 success.

“It’s not happening at the pace I want it to, but it’s happening,” Bloomgren said. “It’s the first time Rice has had four wins since 2015. These seniors, it’s so important for them to leave the program better than they found it, and I think they can tangibly say they did. Their freshman year, they had one win. The next year, they had two, and now we’re building. Not at the pace any of us want, but we’re building.”