The Rice Owls made a massive splash in the transfer portal in the 2021 offseason by landing Luke McCaffrey, a young quarterback withe plenty of upside coming from Nebraska and another member of an accomplished football family. Once the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback recruit in the state of Colorado, McCaffrey was expected to provide dynamic playmaking abilities as the team’s chief signal caller.
But that wasn’t the route McCaffrey took at Rice. In fact, he learned how to run routes. McCaffrey transitioned to wide receiver prior to the 2022 season and was a natural at the position, looking like a spitting image of his father Ed who caught passes for Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos teams. In the second year operating in the position, he elevated himself to another level as one of the top receivers in the American Athletic Conference.
On Saturday, the fifth-year junior opted to celebrate senior day and was recognized during the pregame ceremonies. But after the emotional moment subsided, McCaffrey led one final mission at Rice Stadium — bowl eligibility. Rice attained bowl eligibility last year due to a lack of 6-win teams available. But the Owls hadn’t clinched bowl eligibility with that coveted sixth win since the 2014 season, four years before head coach Mike Bloomgren arrived on campus. With McCaffrey as the star of the show Saturday, Rice finally shed all those years of shortcomings with one monumental victory. Rice edged Florida Atlantic 24-21 and an emotional celebration officially commenced on the field.
“You talk about the scene?” Bloomgren said. “I’m wet from getting doused with the Gatorade bucket. I’m sticky from hugging all those players and people throwing champagne at me from the second floor of this building. There’s a lot of jubilation and there should be from these guys.”
Rice operated without starting quarterback JT Daniels for the third-straight contest, but McCaffrey ensured the aerial game would remain lethal with backup AJ Padgett at the helm. McCaffrey reset his career-high with 12 receptions on senior day, accumulating 141 yards on a go-ahead third quarter touchdown in the victory. He converted eight first downs on the afternoon as a receiver and two as a rusher, notably moving the sticks when Rice was clinging onto a 3-point advantage in the fourth quarter.
“We talk about Luke McCaffrey so much and we don’t talk about him enough,” Bloomgren said. “The impact he has on his team and the player that he is — I feel so blessed to be able to work with him. I don’t know that he has an easy catch. He certainly doesn’t have an easy touchdown catch on the year. Everyone is contested, his helmet’s coming off, someone’s poking him in the eye — it’s crazy. Whether he was running the ball today or catching it, he was exceptional.”
Despite the close nature of the score, Rice’s offense was the more dominant unit throughout. The Owls out-gained Florida Atlantic, 465-279, and held a considerable advantage in the first down department at 32 to 14. Both facets of the offense clicked as Padgett totaled 255 passing yards and delivered a pair of touchdowns to tight end Boden Groen on corner routes, while the team accrued a collective 255 rushing yards. Dean Connors and sixth-year senior Juma Otoviano split duties in the backfield, posting 75 and 71 yards respectively. They helped Rice exhaust 39 minutes and 40 seconds of possession, including 9 minutes and 22 seconds of a tight-knit fourth quarter.
“Offensively, it felt like we met a lot of meat on the bone but Dean and I are always talking we’re a one-two punch, and once we get the ball in our hands, nobody’s gonna be able to stop us,” Otoviano said. “It got to a point in the game where I kept telling coach, ‘Keep running the ball. Keep running the ball. Just let me and Dean eat.’ Whoever’s touching the ball, just run me and Dean.’ That’s our mantra That’s what we believe in every single day in the run game and that’s what we’re gonna be.”
When Florida Atlantic scored, it was rapid and efficient. On the opening snap of the game, Florida Atlantic running back Kobe Lewis bounced the ball out to the left sideline and sprinted down the field for a 75-yard touchdown. The Owls’ other two touchdowns transpired in similar fashion, piecing together a 4-play, 61-yard drive in 1:28 and a 6-play, 75-yard drive in 2:35 of game time. But Florida Atlantic was stonewalled on its other possessions, failing to cross midfield and picking up just 68 yards on its seven non-scoring drives.
“We were talking from the beginning of the week — we’re gonna get a shutout, we’re gonna get a shutout,” defensive end Coleman Coco said. “It’s tough to give up a touchdown on the first play of the game, but you kind of just had to pretend that it didn’t happen and go play football because we had trust in our offense. We knew those guys were gonna go score the football. At the end of the day, it was a great defensive performance. We had our ups and downs. It showed the true toughness that we’ve got.”
Several factors contributing to the close nature of the game despite Rice’s box score dominance included red zone woes. In the first half, Rice was stifled on a 4th and 1 and also tossed an interception inside the FAU 20-yard line. After Rice hoarded six minutes and 20 seconds of possession in the late fourth quarter, Florida Atlantic produced a fourth down stop trailing 24-21 with 1:17 remaining. Florida Atlantic target the nation’s receptions leader LaJohntay Wester on four consecutive dropbacks, but all four attempts fell incomplete with a tenacious Rice secondary providing disruption. The final pass was broken up by Rice strong safety Gabe Taylor, who officially clinched bowl eligibility for the Owls.
“I have so much respect for LaJohntay Wester and what he’s done this season and how Tom (Herman) and his staff have done such a great job of getting him the football,” Bloomgren said. “For them to go to him four times in a row on that last drive and not to catch any of them is such a testament to our defense, to our belief, and to the way these guys fight.”
Obtaining that sixth win was a journey years in the making for Bloomgren and the Owls. Rice made tangible progress at 5-8 last year, but the program upgraded conferences this offseason and sharpened its schedule after departing Conference USA for the American Athletic Conference. But that didn’t prevent Bloomgren and his players from accomplishing the mission they sought for years, and now, the team waits on their postseason destination to be revealed.
“I go back to when I took this job,” said Bloomgren, who served as Stanford’s offensive coordinator prior to becoming Rice’s head coach. “We played Rice the year before in Sydney, Australia. I don’t want to take anything away from that team but there were a lot of people in the national media and coaches that told me not to take this job because they could never go to a bowl again. I was just so defiant and so stubborn. I got a good group of kids that really wanted to fight, and here we are. We have a staff that just believes and the patience of (former athletic director) Dr. Joe Karlgaard was awesome to give us a chance to keep fighting.”