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Rice 2023 First Responder Bowl notebook and storylines

The Owls aim for their first bowl win since 2014, led by quarterback AJ Padgett and WR Luke McCaffrey.

Rice v Houston Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Rice Owls are going bowling for the second consecutive season.

Rice finished the regular season 6-6 to earn an invite to the First Responder Bowl on Dec. 26, where it will face Texas State at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas. The Owls and Bobcats, despite sharing the same state, are rather unfamiliar opponents. The two teams haven’t squared off since 1987, and this will be the first time they take the field together as FBS opponents.

Bowl events are in full swing right now for Rice and Texas State. The Owls participated in a trading card event Thursday night, attended the Spurs vs. Mavericks game Friday night, and have several Christmas activities planned on Dec. 25, all before the game kicks off Tuesday.

Here are several storylines and notes from a Rice perspective heading into the Owls’ second bowl appearance under head coach Mike Bloomgren:

Bowling on their own terms

NCAA Football: Rice at Southern California
Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren led the Owls to six wins for the first time in his 6-year tenure. It’s the third-straight season Bloomgren improved in win percentage.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For some teams, bowl season is a staple of every season. And for programs where bowl eligibility is more of a rarity, there is an effort to make it a constant. Rice is one of those programs. After failing to qualify for a bowl every season from 2015 through 2021, the Owls are now in bowl season in back-to-back seasons. The only other times Rice played in consecutive bowl games throughout its century-old history are 1960-61 and 2012-14.

This is one of the more fruitful times in program history in the 21st century, but bowl eligibility wasn’t always a given for Rice this year. The Owls were situated at 4-6 with two weeks remaining in the season, requiring consecutive wins over Charlotte and Florida Atlantic to earn the right to play December football. Down starting quarterback JT Daniels, Rice regrouped and won both games, edging Florida Atlantic 24-21 at home to ensue a celebration.

“Watch the video after we beat FAU and see how excited our team was to get another opportunity to play together,” Bloomgren said. “These (bowl games) are everything... It is special to be around these guys this time of year.”

Something is different about this year’s bowl game than last year’s. In 2022, Rice landed in bowl season with a 5-7 record due to a lack of eligible 6-6 qualifiers — thanks to having the highest Academic Progress Rate (APR) among the 5-7 teams. The Owls fell 38-24 to Southern Miss in the LendingTree Bowl to finish the season 5-8. But in 2023, Rice made it on its own terms, reaching the 6-win threshold for the first time since 2014 — a goal the Owls waited nearly a decade to attain.

“That was our goal,” McCaffrey said. “We don’t ever want to have to rely on luck or anything other than our play on the field to earn stuff. To do that this year has been pretty cool, pretty special, especially with this unit.”

This time by upending Texas State in Dallas, Rice can clinch its first winning record since that 2014 season. The veteran Owls are proud of the road it took to accomplish the coveted 6-win mark and now, they want to provide the veterans and freshmen alike with a piece of hardware to cement a new program standard.

“Everybody who came before us that didn’t make a bowl helped set that standard,” McCaffrey said. “A lot of people put a lot of effort, a lot of work into this program. To see that pan out over a long span of time has been cool. To do it with the group of guys we have is more special — guys who are in their last year of eligibility like Juma (Otoviano) and guys who are true freshmen like Landon Ransom — it’s cool to see all of us bond, put in work together and go from there.”

Transitioning from JT to AJ

NCAA Football: LendingTree Bowl-Rice vs Southern Mississippi
Rice QB AJ Padgett threw three touchdown passes in the third quarter of the 2022 LendingTree Bowl vs. Southern Miss. He will start his second-straight bowl game.
Robert McDuffie-USA TODAY Sports

When the Owls run out of the tunnel Tuesday, their starting quarterback will be in attendance but not wearing pads. JT Daniels was a prized addition from the transfer portal last December and started nine games for Rice this season. The former 5-star recruit with stops at USC, Georgia, and West Virginia was in the midst of a highly-successful campaign with 2,443 passing yards and 21 passing touchdowns when he suffered an unfortunate concussion vs. SMU.

After missing the Owls’ final three regular season contests, Daniels announced his medical retirement from the game of football. However, his presence is still strongly felt at practices. Daniels possesses an interest in pursuing coaching and has been mentoring the quarterbacks at practices — especially AJ Padgett, who started the last three outings for Rice and will retain his starting duties vs. Texas State.

“He’s done a good job mentoring AJ and mentoring Chase (Jenkins) and Shawqi (Itraish) as well,” McCaffrey said. “It’s been cool seeing him around here. That experience and that knowledge that can be passed down is honestly something that you can’t put a number on. It’s so invaluable and it’s awesome to see that whoever’s taking snaps at the quarterback position has those resources and has that extra set of eyes.”

Bloomgren confirmed Padgett is the No. 1 quarterback for the First Responder Bowl, although he didn’t rule out the possibility of utilizing other quarterbacks such as Jenkins. In four appearances this year, Padgett threw for 636 yards on a 63.5 percent completion clip, firing seven touchdowns and three interceptions along the way. With several weeks of starting experience in the book and several weeks to prepare for this game, he is quickly increasing his rapport with the other Owl receivers.

“He’s a stud. It’s so fun to work with him,” McCaffrey said. “He’s such a good energetic personality that he’s somebody that you get on the field and he’s fun to play with because you know he’s bringing his genuine best, and you know his best is pretty dang good. We’re excited to see how he’s grown in the last three to four weeks of the season to this time that we’ve had, so I can’t wait to see how he produces.”

Although Padgett only has five collegiate starts under his belt, Tuesday represents his second time starting a bowl game. Due to an onslaught of injuries to the quarterback room in 2022, Padgett rapidly rose from a fourth-string true freshman to Rice’s No. 1 option in the LendingTree Bowl.

“It’s a little bit surreal,” Padgett said. “I wouldn’t say I envisioned the way my career has gone so far — the way it’s gone coming here as a fourth-string and all of a sudden, the end of the season comes around and I’m starting in Rice’s first bowl game in nearly 10 years. That was a nearly surreal experience.”

The LendingTree Bowl was Padgett’s second career start, and he completed 19-of-37 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Padgett looked especially polished in the third quarter, scoring 21 unanswered points for the Owls in a span of roughly six minutes. That big game experience continues to be valuable for Padgett, who affirms he is even more prepared to thrive in the First Responder Bowl.

“Since I’ve been around that bowl atmosphere, I know what it takes and even being able to correct myself on some of the things I did last season,” Padgett said. “I’ll be even more ready for this season and I’m excited and so is everybody else.”

McCaffrey’s last stand

NCAA Football: Tulane at Rice
Rice WR Luke McCaffrey caught 12 touchdowns in the regular season, which is currently tied for seventh in the entire FBS.
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

One bittersweet topic is inevitable for every bowl game from the Rose to the Camellia, from the Pinstripe to the Fiesta: it’s the final collegiate game for many seniors. For its Nov. 25 finale against Florida Atlantic, Rice celebrated 17 seniors at its pregame ceremony. One of those seniors was the team’s only First Team All-AAC selection — wide receiver Luke McCaffrey.

McCaffrey registered team-highs across the board in receptions (68), receiving yards (963), and touchdowns (12) to attain the honor in Rice’s first year as an AAC member.

“It’s awesome, but that’s a team award,” McCaffrey said. “I think it just speaks on the collectiveness of our offensive unit as a team to go out there and have success on the field from JT (Daniels) to AJ (Padgett) having success in the pass game to our o-line doing their thing up front to our running backs and everything else making the offense click. I really think that’s a tribute to the whole team in general.”

McCaffrey entered the season with status as a fifth-year junior, launching his college career as a quarterback at Nebraska in 2019. He transferred to Rice prior to 2021 and transitioned from quarterback to receiver in 2022. After a meteoric rise in just his second season playing wide receiver, McCaffrey held discussions with Bloomgren and staff members and determined participating in senior day and testing out the waters of the NFL was the next step in his football career.

McCaffrey already has plenty of NFL ties. His father Ed played wide receiver for 13 seasons, winning a pair of Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos in the late-90s. Additionally, his older brother Christian is an MVP candidate this year, leading the NFL in rushing yards at 1,292 for the 1-seed San Francisco 49ers. Luke understands how valuable these family resources are when seeking advice or making monumental decisions, like participating in the NFL Draft process.

“It’s a blessing,” McCaffrey said. “There’s no better people to have in my corner. They’re my heroes. They’re my role models. To have them as a resource every step of the way is something I’ll never take for granted and never underestimate how much of a blessing that is.”

McCaffrey accepted an invite to the East-West Shrine Bowl on Feb. 1. But before the offseason arrives and he begins the NFL journey, the star receiver takes the field one more time in a Rice uniform.

“When you’re playing, all you can focus on is one play at a time,” McCaffrey said regarding his final game. “I’m just excited to appreciate the journey and appreciate every step with this great team that we’ve grown and we’ve built together.”