For the first time since 2018, the bragging rights for the city of Houston were settled on the gridiron. The Houston Cougars traveled less than five miles west within the city limits to prove superiority over the Rice Owls. And the Cougars left no questions on the field, quickly disposing of their rival 44-7 to claim the Bayou Bucket rivalry trophy for the sixth consecutive meeting.
“We all know we needed a win,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said after Houston’s first victory since Nov. 14, 2020. “There’s a lot to play for in the Bayou Bucket. It means a lot to both fanbases. We made a big deal about the Bucket staying home with all the Big 12 news and everything.”
Holgorsen gave his quarterback Clayton Tune a full vote of confidence after committing four turnovers in the opener. Tune bounced back gracefully, coming out of the gate firing on 11/13 passes for 139 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Houston’s offense concentrated on getting the ball to the sidelines early, and Tune had plenty of success targeting the perimeter. His efficient night finished without an interception and he earned a well-deserved rest in a lopsided fourth quarter.
“I talked to him. I told him to keep his head up because we got him. He wasn’t worried about on what the outside was saying,” running back Alton McCaskill said about Tune.
Tune’s first touchdown pass involved hitting McCaskill on a wide open 35-yard wheel route. His second strike found wide receiver Jake Herslow open on a corner route in the end zone. Houston’s early offensive success coincided with defensive dominance, forcing Rice to suffer a pair of three-and-outs and an interception on its first three drives. Before the two minute mark in the first quarter, Houston was already ahead 17-0.
Rice started Nebraska transfer quarterback Luke McCaffrey after opting for Wiley Green in Week 1. McCaffrey earned limited reps as a backup last week, but he played the entirety of the rivalry game — even after things went south for the Owls. The newcomer showed flashes of potential, utilizing his mobility to scramble outside the pocket and create plays. McCaffrey shrugged off a pair of early interceptions to captain his troops down the field, finishing with his first touchdown pass as an Owl — a 5-yard rollout dump off to Jordan Myers.
“Today, what I saw was the ability for him to be explosive with his legs and do some of the things we know he’s capable of doing,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “It’s hard for me to sit here and be like, ‘How was his passing?’ when I felt like he was on the move a lot and I feel like he wasn’t protected totally well throughout the day, so it’s a little bit of a tough assessment.”
McCaffrey entered halftime connecting on 8/12 passes, but the second half was an offensive struggle for the Owls. He only completed 1/7 attempts in the final two quarters and Rice began to stall. The offense didn’t even finish the third quarter with positive yardage — logging -3 yards on five plays. It was welcoming progress for Houston’s defense to pitch a shutout in the second half, especially after allowing 31 points to Texas Tech in the final two quarters last week.
“Considering how we came out in the second half last week, that was just an affirmation for us,” defensive tackle Logan Hall said.
Rice’s lack of offensive plays in the third quarter was a culmination of the offense’s failure to run through Houston’s front seven and the defense’s inability to get off the field on 3rd downs, as the Cougars converted 5/5 in the third quarter. Many of those 3rd downs landed in the hands of Nathaniel Dell who led all players with seven receptions and 87 receiving yards.
“I really saw us not getting home, not getting to the quarterback on those third downs,” Bloomgren said. “Their quarterback did an unbelievable job staying in there and he ripped it, and dadgum, we knew No. 1 (Dell) was a heck of a player. We talked about him all week. But he made play after play, climbed the ladder, got hit, and made play after play.”
While Dell and the receivers handled the Rice secondary, a new skill position player emerged for Houston. The Cougars’ running backs couldn’t churn out much production last week, but the team found a solution in true freshman Alton McCaskill. The Conroe, TX product stepped up to the plate to produce 40 rushing yards, 51 receiving yards, and his first three touchdowns as a college athlete.
“He’s a complete back,” Holgorsen said. “We wanted to get him involved in some of the pass game stuff, but he can be in the backfield and get hard yards too. That’s just the start of what he can do.”
No Rice running back was able to mirror the performance of McCaskill. The Owls were stuffed to 2.1 yards per carry in Week 1 at Arkansas and it was more of the same when returning to their home turf. Collectively, Rice managed 126 yards on 36 attempts — settling out to an average of 3.5, with many of those yards generated in garbage time.
Rice’s offense never got a foot off the ground, but an atypical performance from the defense ultimately plagued the Owls. Houston snapped Rice’s 15-game streak of preventing opponents from scoring a touchdown on their opening drive. The Cougars also piled on the highest scoring effort of any Rice opponent since Week 3 of the 2019 season.
“It hurts because it’s something we take pride in a lot — playing defense, putting the ball down no matter what,” defensive tackle Elijah Garcia said. “We can’t control what the offense does but we’ve got to play our part. Our job is to not let them in and today, they got in too many times.”
The final play of the game perfectly summarized the outcome. McCaffrey’s last pass was jumped by Houston cornerback Alex Hogan for a 91-yard walk-off pick six — the third interception exchanged between the Rice offense and Houston defense. Then, the Cougars raced to midfield to celebrate with the coveted Bayou Bucket.
Rice’s schedule after an 0-2 start does not ease up heading into next Saturday. The Owls travel to the state capital to battle the Texas Longhorns — an opponent they’ve lost 14 consecutive games against. On the other hand, Houston finally returns to the confines of TDECU Stadium next week. Despite not leaving the city this season, the Cougars have yet to host a true home game. On Sept. 18, they’ll have the luxury of welcoming FCS opponent Grambling to their home base.