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Rice defense steps up, ends Louisiana’s 15-game win streak in 33-21 fashion

Owls hold Ragin’ Cajuns to 175 yards while TJ McMahon delivers 303 yards and three touchdown dimes.

Rice v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Last time the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns traveled to the state of Texas, the date was Sept. 4, 2021. They fell 38-18 in Austin to Texas that afternoon, but that dejected feeling would become foreign for the next 378 days.

But in Louisiana’s first trip to the Lone Star State since, the Ragin’ Cajuns suffered a fate which they had not witnessed in over a calendar year — a loss. The Rice Owls sucked the life out of the Ragin’ Cajun offense and slid past the reigning Sun Belt champions in a 33-21 decision, officially concluding the longest win streak in the FBS at 15 games.

“That’s a quality football team on the other sideline,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “They had the nation’s longest winning streak. They lost to Texas in the opener last year and hadn’t lost since. There’s a lot of things that happened in my life since that day. That’s a big time win for our program.”

The story of the night was the emergence of the Rice defense, and the 21 points allowed was certainly deceiving. Seven of those points stemmed from a 54-yard pick-six return by cornerback Caleb Anderson in the first quarter. An additional seven came in part thanks to favorable field position following an interception by defensive end Nijel McGriff, who set Louisiana up 17 yards away from the end zone. Essentially, Rice’s defense only allowed one full scoring drive the entire game, but that drive didn’t come to fruition until under 10 minutes remained in the contest.

Overall, the Owl defense allowed just 175 yards to the Ragin’ Cajuns, marking Louisiana’s lowest output since September 2011. Under first-year head coach Michael Desormeaux, the team entered the contest averaging 430 yards through two games, but the Owls smothered any sliver of momentum Louisiana attempted to generate.

“They came out a little sluggish and we came out full speed,” Dunbar. “We didn’t take our foot off the gas pedal the whole time.”

Rice stifled 3-of-11 third down opportunities and both fourth down attempts from the Ragin’ Cajuns, limiting quarterbacks Chandler Fields and Ben Wooldridge to a collective 13 completions on 28 passes — thanks to a handful of pressures by defensive end Ikenna Enechukwu and great coverage by cornerback Jordan Dunbar.

“I felt like our guys were in the backfield all night long,” Bloomgren said. “I felt like I was always seeing (defensive tackle) Blake Boenisch, Ikenna, (defensive tackle) Izeya Floyd all night long in their backfield — making plays, pulling the runner back. I thought our linebackers closed on some stuff great. It was just fun to be a part of.”

Perhaps the only greater statement win of the Bloomgren era was Dec. 5, 2020 when it intercepted AP-ranked No. 15 Marshall five times in a 20-0 shutout win. But this time, Rice faced a Louisiana team on a 7-game stretch without committing a turnover. While free safety George Nyakwol an interception within five minutes of kickoff, the Owls defense found a more sustainable way to shut down Louisiana by recording stop after stop.

“It was real energizing for all of us once we got those stops,” cornerback Jordan Dunbar said. “After the first one, they just kept piling on. As Coach (Brian) Smith was telling us, keep that foot on the gas pedal. We had so much energy. On the d-line, linebackers, secondary, everything was working well together.”

Quarterback TJ McMahon made his second collegiate start Saturday, filling in for Wiley Green who suffered in an injury in the opener at USC. Last week, McMahon shined with 274 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. This time, the quarterback faced initial adversity by tossing three interceptions in the first half. But he responded with poise. Coming out of the break down 14-13, McMahon connected on 10 of his 12 second half attempts for 148 yards and two touchdowns.

“TJ’s a really interesting personality,” Bloomgren said. “He’s got a lot of confidence and it oozes from him to the rest of our team. Nobody on our team ever lost hope or doubted for a second. We wanted him to play better and we encouraged him. What you saw in the second half was an outstanding performance by TJ.”

McMahon demonstrated fantastic rapport with his roommate wide receiver Luke McCaffrey. They both shared the quarterback room last fall, but McCaffrey transitioned to wide receiver this offseason. Still, the McMahon to McCaffrey connection looked like it had been in force for years. With McMahon in the pocket, McCaffrey enjoyed his best showing as in his new position, securing 10 receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns — a toe-tapping sideline catch in the second quarter and a snag in the middle of the end zone in the fourth to hand Rice a 27-14 lead.

“The kid’s just a hard worker and he wants everything to be dialed in — so attention-to-detail,” McMahon said. “As soon as he turned to receiver, he was talking to all the quarterbacks and said, ‘Hey what can we throw? I want to be dialed in. I want to make a difference here.’ He and I were on the same schedule going into the offseason and even in the summertime. We are roommates so we’re just talking about when we’re gonna throw, watch film together — building that connection and chemistry.”

When Louisiana running back Chris Smith shed several tacklers to give the Ragin’ Cajuns their first points of the second half, Rice’s offense needed a response to keep the game in control. The Owls did just that, starting off with an explosive 32-yard pass to Kobie Campbell and finishing by exhausting time and pounding the rock. When running back Ari Broussard punched the ball into the end zone, Rice enjoyed a two-score lead with under three minutes remaining.

On that drive Campbell became one of four Owls to record a catch longer than 20 yards Saturday night, attaining Bloomgren’s preseason goal of producing more explosive plays.

“I think we knew this was our deepest team we had, also our most explosive team,” Bloomgren said. “When you got the line that can protect, the backs that will protect, TJ that delivers that ball, that’s just a recipe for success. We’ve worked a long time to get this number of healthy guys who could run and catch the ball at the receiver position, and gosh, we’re there.”

By ending Louisiana’s 15-game streak, Rice notched its first FBS non-conference win since 2015 when it knocked off Army. At 2-1, it is also the first time the Owls have locked up a .500 or better non-conference record since that season. After back-to-back promising victories at home, Bloomgren believes this win can blossom into something special for the bowl-hopeful Owls.

“There’s a lot of people in this program that have worked really hard for a long time to get a ‘W’ like this,” Bloomgren said. “I really do believe this is just the beginning.”