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Clutch defensive playmaking wins Houston a back-and-forth Bayou Bucket battle over Rice, 34-27

D’Anthony Jones’ strip sack in the final minutes proves to be the difference between the cross-town rivals.

NCAA Football: Rice at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Rice Owls took the shortest drive in FBS college football Saturday, making the roughly 5-mile trek across town to TDECU Stadium. The Owls, fresh off a stunning victory over Louisiana, had their eyes on one prize — the Bayou Bucket.

The rivalry trophy which originated in 1974 has been a possession of the Houston Cougars for over a decade. Although a feisty Rice squad remained within striking distance throughout the game, the Cougars emerged in a back-and-forth contest, 34-27, by means of its heralded defensive line.

In the final four minutes of the game, Houston defensive end D’Anthony Jones proved to be the separation between the rivalry. The senior defensive end recorded back-to-back clutch sacks, stripping the ball loose on consecutive plays. The first fumble Jones pried out was recovered by Rice offensive tackle Clay Servin. The second rolled into the hands of defensive end Nelson Ceaser who ran nine yards unobstructed to the end zone for the winning touchdown to break a late tie.

“He got off the rock and made a great play. All I did was finish it,” Ceaser said. “We knew we needed to step up defensively and make a play.”

Rice still was gifted with 3:34 of clock to respond to Ceaser’s late scoop-and-score, but the Owls were plagued by their second turnover of the contest. Quarterback TJ McMahon’s pass deflected off the hands of his target Isaiah Esdale and landed into the gloves of Houston free safety Thabo Mwaniki, who was backed off in deep zone coverage. Mwaniki’s first interception since 2020 appeared to put the closing touches on a crunch-time defensive oriented win for the Cougars, but it wasn’t over yet.

“We know we’re capable of playing to that level (defensively), but not that level, but higher,” Ceaser. “We just knew we were slacking. We thought we were better than we were. We ended up getting humbled the last two weeks so we knew what we needed to do.”

After stopping the Houston offense after the interception, the Owls took over on their own 6-yard line with 24 seconds left in the game. Thanks to a 51-yard Hail Mary launch from McMahon to Brad Rozner, Rice found itself situated nine yards from the end zone with one second left — with full intention of going for two in the event of a touchdown, per head coach Mike Bloomgren. But the potential 94-yard scoring drive could not come to fruition, as Houston nickelback Jayce Rogers batted McMahon’s final pass in the end zone, officially commencing the Cougars’ postgame celebration with the Bayou Bucket.

“They put a lot into this game,” Bloomgren said of his team. “When you sell out for something and it doesn’t go the way you want to, it hurts. The gap that we’ve closed or the fact that we were able to stand toe-to-toe with them and have a chance to tie or win the game... that’s pretty cool. I’m very proud of these guys.”

The 2022 edition of the Bayou Bucket featured six lead changes. Rice and Houston traded punch for punch throughout the contest with Rice holding an advantage as late as under six minutes remaining in the final frame — thanks to a pair of second half Christian VanSickle field goals, including a career-high kick from 43 yards out.

“The way these kids fought and the way these kids stuck together when things were getting tough out there — gotta love it,” Bloomgren said. “We’re gonna find a way to win these kinds of games.”

Rice entered the contest as considerable underdogs, but the Owls were able to utilize a potent defense to create favorable opportunities for their improved offensive attack. In the second quarter, inside linebacker Myron Morrison snagged an interception at midfield off a deflection and Rice’s offense capitalized with the first of two Ari Broussard rushing touchdowns. Later, on the first play of the fourth quarter, Houston gambled on a 4th and 1 right before midfield. But inside linebacker Aidan Siano met running back Ta’Zhawn Henry at the line of scrimmage, providing the Owls a field goal opportunity to secure a 27-24 fourth quarter lead.

“Everybody was juiced,” McMahon said on the defense’s impact plays. “Offense was so happy. Defense was so happy. We talk about our slogan ‘mudita,’ happiness for other people. Everybody was ecstatic for each other because they got us the ball back. Offense, it’s our job to get the ball and score, and the defense loves when we score because it makes their job easier.”

Henry was Houston’s most effective offensive player throughout the contest. With the team’s leading rusher Brandon Campbell sidelined due to an ankle injury, Henry handled the majority of reps. The senior halfback registered 112 yards, marking his second-highest output as a Cougar, and he created an impactful sequence in the late third quarter to climb Houston out of a deficit — rushing for 28 yards on 2nd and 29 and then waltzing into the end zone from four yards out on the ensuing play.

For Rice’s offense, it was converted quarterback Luke McCaffrey who proved to be the explosive playmaker Houston struggled to contain. The newly transitioned wide receiver recorded his second consecutive 100-yard outing with a personal-best 121 yards on seven catches. In the early third quarter, McCaffrey burned Houston coverage for a 52-yard touchdown reception. That marked Rice’s third end zone appearance of the game, far exceeding its offensive performance from its 44-7 loss to Houston last September.

“When we got down a little bit in the beginning of the game by a touchdown, last year’s team would have folded,” McMahon said. “This year the bond is so strong with everybody on this team. We all care about each other so much and willing to go so far for each other. We’ve made a lot of sacrifices and we work so hard to attain a goal so I think that’s the biggest thing.”

McCaffrey’s touchdown was made possible by a perfectly placed deep ball by McMahon, which served as an immediate response to Clayton Tune’s similarly structured 40-yard bomb to reigning First Team All-AAC receiver Tank Dell. In the battle of star receivers, Dell — seven days after suffering an injury against Kansas — answered McCaffrey’s fireworks with a season-high 134 yards on seven receptions.

“He’s really, really explosive, has a knack for getting open, and his routes are just — I wouldn’t want to be across trying to cover him,” Tune said of Dell. “He’s really quick and good in and out of his cuts and just a smart, savvy football player. I think a combination of all those things is what makes him so good.”

While Houston out-gained Rice in yardage and won the turnover battle, penalties proved to be somewhat of an equalizer Saturday night. In a trend that carried over from last week’s brutal loss to Kansas, Houston committed 10 penalties for 110 yards, oftentimes stalling promising offensive possessions, while Rice was flagged just three times from kickoff to final whistle.

“We’ve obviously played a lot of good teams. I’m not knocking any teams. They’ve done a lot of good things and they’ve made it to where it’s really hard on us, but not only are they making it hard on us, we’re making it hard on ourselves,” Tune said. “We need to continue to harp on being disciplined and doing our jobs and not shoot ourselves in the foot.”

Both rivals’ 2022 non-conference records were etched in stone at 2-2 following the thrilling finish at TDECU Stadium. Neither team will travel far for their next contest, as Rice hosts UAB next Saturday to launch C-USA play, while Houston kicks off against Tulane in a Friday night AAC opener.