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Rozner’s clutch touchdown reception lifts Rice past UTEP, 37-30

Rice moves to one win away from bowl eligibility after downing the Miners on Thursday night.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Rice Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Everything Rice did, UTEP matched. Every time the Owls gained an advantage in the final three quarters, the Miners always responded with a tie, but never a lead. UTEP’s last response was a Gavin Baechle field goal with 2:35 remaining.

But the Owls took full advantage of those 155 seconds to ensure there would be no UTEP response for once. First, Rice overcame a 2nd and 20 created by penalties with two crucial completions by TJ McMahon. The second of those completions, a 20-yard strike to Isaiah Esdale, pushed the Owls into the fringe of field goal range. Instead of playing for the field goal, Rice went for the knockout punch.

“I wanted to give us a situation where we knew we were in field goal range,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “I completely trust (kicker) Christian VanSickle... The trust was certainly there but there was a lot of time on the clock. We knew we would have time to spike it if it was caught inbounds, but what we told TJ is let’s assess the matchup if (wide receiver Brad) Roz(ner) is on top and let’s give him a chance.”

With 25 seconds remaining, McMahon floated it down the sideline to wide receiver Brad Rozner, who got a step on man coverage and beat the safety closing in toward end zone. Rozner extended his arms and brought the pigskin to his chest. When he got up from the ground, the referee extended his arms to signify the game-winning touchdown. Rozner’s sensational touchdown grab completed a memorable night where he posted a career-best 142 yards, serving as the difference maker in Rice’s 37-30 win over UTEP.

“I saw the safety kind of creeping my way, but he wasn’t far enough over,” Rozner said, recalling the play. “I just gave the corner an inside move, took off, and TJ put the ball up there and made a play.”

It’s been a long journey for Rozner, who played one combined game in the 2020 and 2021 seasons due to unfortunate injury luck. But every time McMahon needed a receiver to deliver, Rozner answered the call. After Thursday night’s impressive showing, the senior receiver is up to 721 yards and a personal-best eight touchdowns in his comeback season.

“I’m so proud of him,” Bloomgren said. “I really am, and this story is still being written so it’s not like there’s finality to it. But the middle chapters weren’t cool. They were real rocky for a kid that had to go through a lot of challenges to get back to this point. So I probably celebrate for him a little bit more in my heart right now.”

The contest versus UTEP marked Rice’s first Thursday night home game since 2012. The short week was certainly beneficial to the Owls, which desperately wanted to flush away their alarming 56-23 defeat to a 2-7 Charlotte squad five days prior. Rice left zero evidence of that outing on the field Thursday, drastically improving on both sides of the ball to out-gain UTEP, 502-313. The 502 yards of offense are Rice’s best of 2022, but perhaps the most impressive stat in the Owls’ bounce-back win was faring 8-of-13 on third downs.

“It’s awesome the grit that this team has,” Bloomgren said. “The way we approached last week was the only way we could and that was, they had to be pros, they had to flush or burn the game, and we had to move forward. To do that and to be able to handle all the things this UTEP team presents with only one real day of physical practice, my hat is off to these guys for the way they worked. This was a big win.”

Quarterback TJ McMahon was essential in guiding the Owl offense, especially on the final drive. He overcame the aforementioned 2nd and 20 by connecting on back-to-back clutch throws to Rozner on a toe-tapping sideline grab and Esdale across the middle to provide Rice a new set of downs. The quarterback finished 21-of-31 for 331 yards and two touchdowns, and with that gutsy performance, he is the first Rice quarterback since 2008 Chase Clement to register three 300-yard games in a season.

“That’s big time stuff,” Bloomgren said. “The way he’s managing things, the way he’s also affecting the game with his legs — he’s playing winning football right now. We obviously want to find the way to get the ball security issue off the board because we know how critical those can be, but there’s very few things he’s not doing well right now. Our team believes in that dude, and I believe in that dude.”

NCAA Football: Rice at Southern California
By posting 331 passing yards Thursday night, TJ McMahon fell three short of his career-high. The quarterback accounted for three touchdowns in his eighth consecutive start.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Rice’s offense received a boost from a myriad of contributors and six different Owls were responsible for a pickup of 20 yards or greater. The running back duo of Cameron Montgomery and Juma Otoviano helped keep the unit both multidimensional and explosive, collectively garnering 123 yards on 8.8 per carry.

“Cameron’s explosiveness is always something that we love to have,” Bloomgren said. “We always will have roles for Cameron and things that he can do, but we started leaning on Juma a little bit and you saw him come in in the third and fourth quarters and really have some big time runs and dragging people and not being arm-tackled and driving his legs through — some really cool things to see. I still feel like those are our two backs we’re gonna lean on right now.”

Although significantly out-gained, UTEP kept things within striking distance thanks to winning the turnover battle 2-0 and through a methodical offense. The Miners struck first with a touchdown drive on the opening series on a Deion Hankins rushing touchdown and remained in arm’s reach courtesy of the quarterback-receiver connection of Gavin Hardison and Tyrin Smith. However, Hardison left the contest in the late third quarter with an apparent lower body injury.

This forced backup Calvin Brownholtz to check in as a relief quarterback, and he provided a different look for the Rice defense. With a greater emphasis on running the ball when compared to Hardison, Brownholtz stunned the Owls by shooting of a cannon for a 25-yard touchdown to tie the game at 27 with 11:17 remaining. Overall, he finished with a team-best 64 rushing yards while completing 70 percent of passes.

“The backup comes in and he’s more of a run guy, so you’re thinking you’re gonna see quarterback power, and they did and they ran it well,” Bloomgren said. “They weren’t just able to walk the ball down the field, but then the kid stepped up and made a few throws too and you’re like, ‘Oh goodness! Backup quarterbacks aren’t supposed to be able to do that!’ But he did, he made some plays.”

UTEP v Oklahoma
UTEP quarterback Calvin Brownholtz completed 7-of-10 passes and rushed for a Miner-best 64 yards while checking after the injury to Gavin Hardison.
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Rice settled for a field goal on the other end, providing Brownholtz with an opportunity to secure UTEP’s first second half lead. The backup quarterback quickly guided the Miners to the red zone, but his near-touchdown pass to Smith was broken up by Rice strong safety Gabe Taylor, who finished with eight tackles in the win. Taylor’s breakup forced UTEP to kick a chip shot field goal instead of taking a lead in the final three minutes.

“That was a critical, critical moment in a verycritical situation,” said Rice inside linebacker Myron Morrison, who totaled a game-high nine tackles for the Owls. “Gabe Taylor has proven himself to be a guy who will come up and make those type of plays happen in those type of moments, over and over again.”

In a battle between two of the nation’s most accurate kickers, field goals were commonplace. Christian VanSickle (9-for-9) and Gavin Baechle (19-for-20) combine for one miss in 2022, and both special teamers were money Thursday night. VanSickle hit several medium range attempts, while Baechle was lethal from distance by draining 46 and 51-yard bombs.

By failing to emerge on top in the heated C-USA battle, UTEP (4-6, 2-4 C-USA) is pushed to the brink of bowl eligibility. The Miners must knock off FIU and reigning conference champion UTSA in order to qualify for back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since 2004 and 2005.

Meanwhile, things are trending upward for a bowl-starved Rice squad. By notching its fifth win, Rice (5-4, 3-2 C-USA) has its most victories since 2015 and stands one triumph away from attaining bowl eligibility for the first time in eight years. By successfully bouncing back from the Charlotte loss, Rice maintained its trend of rebounding from every defeat with a win this season.

“Coming from last week and the disappointment we felt, we knew that’s not the outcome we wanted nor what it should have been,” Rozner said. “We took that to heart this week, especially with it being a quick turnaround. We worked hard. We knew we had to bounce back.”