It’s been a long time since the Rice Owls were a part of the postseason. The Owls (5-7, 3-5 C-USA) finally snapped their conference’s longest bowl drought at eight years, earning a bid to the LendingTree Bowl as the lone 5-7 team in this year’s slate.
Rice is set to battle former C-USA rival Southern Miss in Mobile, AL this Saturday. Here are several notes on the matchup and the state of the Owls as they prepare for their first bowl game under fifth-year head coach Mike Bloomgren:
Bowling once again
The wait is over. Rice features one of the more veteran rosters in college football, laden with grad students and sixth-year seniors. But not a single one of them had gone bowling in an Owl uniform before. Rice is back in bowl season for the first time since winning the 2014 Hawaii Bowl over Fresno State, and everyone associated with the Owls is elated that the bowl-less drought has finally been shattered.
“It means everything for our program,” Bloomgren said. “I’m so happy for our kids to get this reward.”
Practicing in December is a foreign concept for members of the Rice roster, but the players earned the opportunity to hone their skills in a warm Houston climate as they prepare for the LendingTree Bowl. The practices have been especially spirited, as members of the roster are seeing a preseason goal finally come to fruition.
“We worked so hard in the offseason just to get to this point,” strong safety Gabe Taylor said. “Everybody’s enjoying life, enjoying this moment. It’s our first time playing in December for a lot of players, and a lot of sixth-year seniors like (free safety) George Nyakwol, (defensive end) Trey Schuman, TC (outside linebacker Treshawn Chamberlain) —so we’re not taking this for granted. Every play, every moment, every second we have with each other, we cherish the moment.”
Bowl preparation marks one of the most critical times of the football season, but that time of year also coincides with the most grueling period of the academic calendar — finals week. But Rice’s success in the classroom is a reason the team is bowling in the first place. Only 80 teams qualified for the 82 available bowl slots. New Mexico State, one FBS win away from bowl eligibility, received a waiver due to a canceled game against San Jose State to become team No. 81. The final spot would go to the 5-7 team with the highest academic progress rating (APR), which turned out to be Rice which had an APR of 994 out of 1,000.
The Owl players were well-aware of this metric heading into the final week of the regular season and monitored it following a heartbreaking 21-17 loss to North Texas.
“After the game, I saw everybody crying,” Taylor said. “I’m like, ‘We don’t have a bowl game.’ All of a sudden, teams were losing — we needed Miami to lose, we needed Vanderbilt to lose. We were the highest ranking in APR, so we had a chance.”
Bowl eligibility at 5-7 was not the original goal for Rice. The Owls started the season strong and obtained their fifth win with three games remaining on the schedule. Despite missing out on three opportunities to clinch a sixth win and lock up a surefire bowl berth, Bloomgren and the Owls are ecstatic about the chance to finally participate in a high-stakes postseason contest, rather than watch another season evaporate after Game 12 in November.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Man, you wanted to get in by winning six.’ No, I wanted to get in by winning 12,” Bloomgren said. “Let’s be clear. We had 12 opportunities to play, and we wanted to win them all. That’s how this thing works. We’re all competitors. By whatever means we could get into a bowl game, that was a great next step for our program. It’s something that was important to us was getting into a bowl game and winning it. It was the first thing on our goal board last year and this year, and now we have the opportunity to do.”
Bloomgren believes defeating Southern Miss in Mobile not only solidifies the accomplishments of the 2022 team, but can also serve as a springboard to better position the program in the future. The fifth-year head coach set new career-highs in the wins department in both 2021 and 2022, so it’s clear Rice is heading in a positive direction.
“Did we meet all of our goals this year? Of course not,” Bloomgren said. “But we made progress, we’re still getting better, and we’re gonna continue to have even higher expectations in the future,” Bloomgren said. “If you can continue taking positive steps and keep growing your program, we should all be excited about that growth.”
Bowl games often pair two opponents in the country that are rather unfamiliar with each other. That could not be further from the case in the LendingTree Bowl.
Rice and Southern Miss shared C-USA membership from 2005-21 and squared off 12 times as conference rivals, including nine consecutive years from 2014 through 2021 before the Golden Eagles departed to the Sun Belt over the summer.
Bloomgren has spent a week of game prep on Southern Miss every year at the helm, including one since the hiring of second-year head coach Will Hall. Bloomgren’s Owls emerged 24-19 over Hall’s Golden Eagles in that 2021 matchup, but there are enough substantial changes between the rosters to throw away that result heading into Saturday.
“I talked about how our personnel has gotten better — they’re better versions of themselves,” Bloomgren said. “Well, the same is gonna be true for USM when you look at their offensive guys — Frank Gore coming back and being nothing short of dominant when he can get going in games. Seeing that, that’s been exciting for them to see because Will Hall and their DC — I think they’re really good coaches, so seeing the progress they made doesn’t surprise me.”
Gore is an intriguing talent for Bloomgren and the Rice coaching staff. The son of an all-time NFL great, Gore is adept in a multitude of areas. He surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing mark thanks to a 199-yard explosion in the final week of the regular season, but he also produced 219 receiving yards and 172 passing yards in an incredibly versatile campaign.
“If you think back to the LA Tech game in 2021, they played wildcat the entire game and Frank Gore threw three touchdown passes,” Bloomgren said. “And one of them was an absolute dime, and that’s when you realize how much talent this guy has. He’s not a one-trick pony, it’s not like he can just be a downhill runner. This kid can do a lot of things in the game of football.”
The biggest difference between 2021 Southern Miss and 2022 Southern Miss comes down to defensive personnel. The Golden Eagles are expected to start four defensive starters that came from the transfer portal over the offseason, forcing the Owls to scout new contributors in certain areas. But with a litany of All-C-USA defenders on the roster, Bloomgren believes Southern Miss defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong does an excellent job of getting the most out of his players with a well-thought-out scheme.
“Where they’re very different is on defense from a personnel standpoint — not that different scheme wise,” Bloomgren said. “They’re still doing a very good job making everything difficult, bringing corner CATs on base downs as well as third downs, swinging in safeties in different blitz patterns. They’re doing a great job scheme-wise still, but the people doing it on defense — there’s a lot of junior college transfers, there’s a lot of people from different places that we haven’t played against before.”
Rice may have won the last two meetings with Southern Miss, but this is a different Golden Eagles team than those of the past two seasons. Southern Miss qualified for bowl eligibility for the first time since 2019, and in the process, it defeated a currently-ranked, New Year’s Six bound Tulane squad — on the road. The capability of taking down such a formidable opponent makes the favored Golden Eagles a dangerous matchup in the LendingTree Bowl.
“These guys went toe-to-toe with Tulane and found a way to win,” Bloomgren said. “And actually, when you watch the film, they could have won by more. It’s a talented group. We know they’re athletic. When you ask what scares me most, I would say our ability to handle the movement up front when their defense is on the field — our offensive line, our blocking unit being able to handle their movement and know the answers that we’ve got to get to versus different looks.”
From scout to starter
Quarterback injuries have been an unfortunate theme of Rice throughout the Bloomgren era. TJ McMahon started nine consecutive games this season and posted the most passing yards the program had seen since 2015. However, an injury in a November loss to WKU held him out for the remainder of the regular season. McMahon has not practiced in preparation for the LendingTree Bowl, and Bloomgren confirmed the unlikely availability of Wiley Green — Rice’s Week 1 starter — after sustaining an injury in the UTSA game, one week after McMahon went down.
That leaves a young quarterback depth chart for the LendingTree Bowl, consisting of starter AJ Padgett, backup Shawqi Itraish, and third-string Christian Edgar — a true freshman who has yet to take a collegiate snap. Padgett also holds true freshman status, and he never made an appearance until the second-to-last game of the regular season against UTSA. Entering the week as the scout team quarterback, Padgett checked in and completed 7-of-18 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown.
With a week of starter reps in practice under his belt, he demonstrated marked improvement in the regular season finale at North Texas with a stat-line of 13-of-22 for 229 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
“It was a really good game for him to play against North Texas because (North Texas defensive coordinator) Phil Bennett is doing such a good job of staying simplistic on first and second down, and there wasn’t a whole lot of checks and things he had to do, but Phil Bennett’s defense might have been perfect for their team and their success,” Bloomgren said. “But this gameplan where there’s something different seemingly every snap from this defensive coordinator, I’m so glad we get these extra practices for AJ to have time on task and get more comfortable with this defense we’re playing.”
Bloomgren understands Padgett’s first action at the collegiate level was under difficult circumstances, but he believes the freshman has already developed significantly after substantial exposure to in-game situations.
“I can tell you the growth has been significant,” Bloomgren said. “If you remember when he came in the game against UTSA, he showed he was gonna be fearless, he showed he was gonna put his foot in the ground and rip balls. But there was a lot of error. There were a lot of things he wasn’t quite ready for when you’re preparing to be the backup or in that case, the third team quarterback that week. It’s tough. You don’t get reps. You’ve got to do everything through the classroom, and when you don’t have college football reps to fall back to in the first place, it’s even tougher.”
Now better-acquainted to the collegiate game, Padgett is spending this extended practice time looking for further improvement as he prepares to make his second start.
“I think we saw with him having a good week of practice and what we was able to do in the North Texas game, I was really, really pleased with his development,” Bloomgren said. “We came out the Wednesday after North Texas and last Wednesday, so you talk about having days off and letting a little rust accrue on this offense. He didn't look really good, but the good thing is he walked off the field and he was like, ‘That was a bad day. It’s gonna be better tomorrow.’ Then Thursday was better, then Friday was better... Right now, I can tell the investment he’s making in the gameplan, I can tell what he’s trying to do for this offense, and it’s showing up not he field.”
Other injury updates
Until TJ McMahon suffered an injury in the WKU game, one element that significantly improved Rice’s element was the presence of a capable passing game. It had been eight years since a quarterback posted back-to-back 300-yard showings in a season, but McMahon achieved this feat with the help of the Owls’ deepest receiving corps in years.
One member of the group is McMahon’s roommate Luke McCaffrey, who transitioned from quarterback to wide receiver over the offseason. McCaffrey proved to be an explosive player, hauling in 656 receiving yards and six touchdowns this season, with three 100-yard performances along the way. The former quarterback has not caught a pass since Nov. 3, however, as an injury held him out of Rice’s final stretch of the season. But the accomplished receiver is slated to make a triumphant return in Mobile.
“He had a great week of rehab last week,” Bloomgren said. “It was one of those things where early on, we expected him to play against Western Kentucky. We tried him early on against UTSA. He got one play against Western Kentucky and didn’t look explosive. UTSA, it wasn’t worth trying and the same was true with North Texas when we decided to shut him down. We are very optimistic that Luke will be available for this game.”
Rice also experienced a litany of injuries throughout the secondary during the final quarter of the regular season. Starting cornerback and kick returner Sean Fresch, who broke up five passes and registered 21 tackles this season, will not play in the LendingTree Bowl. Bloomgren stated the expected starters at cornerback are Jordan Dunbar, who returned for the regular season finale after missing the penultimate game vs. UTSA, and Miles McCord, who picked off a pass in the win over Southern Miss last season. Rice doesn’t rotate its cornerbacks as often as most teams, but Tre’shon Devones should experience ample playing time as the top reserve corner on the depth chart.
Additionally, running back Ari Broussard could be slated for a long-awaited return. The team’s No. 1 running back to begin the season hasn’t fielded a handoff since Oct. 22, but he has been practicing for the LendingTree Bowl. Broussard was among the nation’s scoring leaders through six games when he posted nine touchdowns and proved to be a dominant goal line back.
“The last third of every practice has been playing tackle football and getting these young guys better,” Bloomgren said. “The first day when we tackled for 11-on-11 work, Ari jumped in there because it had been so long since he had been hit that we wanted to see him run. He jumped in and did a few good things.”
Rice and Southern Miss kick off the 2022 LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, AL at 5:45 p.m. ET / 4:45 p.m. CT on Saturday, Dec. 17. The game is viewable on ESPN.