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2023 SERVPRO First Responder Bowl Preview: Texas State Bobcats vs. Rice Owls

Two Texas opponents that never met at the FBS level square off in the Lone Star State.

NCAA Football: LendingTree Bowl-Rice vs Southern Mississippi Robert McDuffie-USA TODAY Sports

Game notes

  • Time and date: Tuesday, December 26 at 5:30 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: Gerald J. Ford Stadium — Dallas, TX
  • Spread: Texas State (-3.5)
  • Over/under: 59.5
  • All-time series: Series tied, 2-2
  • Last meeting: Rice 38, Texas State 28 — September 26, 1987
  • Current streak: Rice, 1 (1987)
  • Texas State last bowl: N/A
  • Rice last bowl: 2022 LendingTree Bowl, 38-24 loss to Southern Miss
  • 2022 First Responder Bowl matchup: Memphis 38, Utah State 10

Setting the scene

‘Twas the day after Christmas and all through down yonder, were three college bowl games including the First Responder.

The First Responder Bowl is the second of Tuesday’s three-game bowl slate. And for the first time ever, the Dallas-based bowl game will feature not one, but two teams from the state of Texas. However, Rice and Texas State aren’t established rivals and they don’t share much history.

The Owls and Bobcats have never squared off at the FBS level, and their last meeting was in the 1987 when the teams were in separate subdivisions. Rice and Texas State only combine for one bowl appearance since 2015, so the hunger to win this game is through the roof for both Lone Star State programs alike.


Texas State Bobcats outlook

NCAA Football: Texas State at Baylor
Texas State RB Ismail Mahdi earned First Team All-Sun Belt honors as an all-purpose player and Second Team All-Sun Belt honors as a return specialist.
Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to bowl season, Texas State!

Texas State (7-5, 4-4 Sun Belt) is set to play its first-ever bowl game. The Bobcats joined the FBS in 2012, and took a while for the Bobcats to adjust to the highest level of college football. This marks their first winning season since 2014, and they suffered records of 4-8 or worse each of the past eight seasons.

But Texas State finally hit its stride under first-year head coach GJ Kinne, who built a team primarily comprised of transfers to usher in a new era of Bobcat football. The new on-field personnel, combined with Kinne’s offensive strategy, clicked to an extraordinary degree and the result was seven regular season wins for Texas State. By triumphing in the First Responder Bowl, 2023 will officially be the Bobcats’ standalone winningest season of all-time.

Where Texas State succeeds most is on the offensive side. Kinne served as a co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for UCF and he implemented some of Gus Malzahn’s high-tempo, no-huddle concepts into the offense in San Marcos. Texas State is 17th in scoring offense (36.0 points per game) and 10th in total offense (471 yards per game) — eclipsing the 40-point barrier in five of its 12 contests.

The focal point of the offense is running back Ismail Mahdi, who can be found at 15th on the nation’s rushing leaderboard at 1,209 yards. Mahdi averaged over 6.0 yards per carry in the regular season and completely took over several games with his legs — notably in late September and early October. Madhi is a capable pass catcher as well, in addition to serving as an All-Sun Belt return specialist. The versatility in the star’s game earned him an All-American nod as an all-purpose player by several selectors including the FWAA.

When the ball isn’t in Mahdi’s hands, it’s quarterback TJ Finley guiding the Texas State offense. The former LSU and Auburn gunslinger is no stranger to the postseason — starting the 2021 Birmingham Bowl for Auburn. But his Texas State tenure was his most prosperous yet, firing for over 3,200 yards and topping the 300 in five of his last eight games, all with a 24-to-8 touchdown to interception ratio.

Finley is equipped with a talented receiving trio of Joey Hobert, Ashtyn Hawkins, and Kole Wilson. Respectively, they have 71, 52, and 61 receptions for 847, 819, and 697 yards, combining for 19 touchdowns in aggregate in the best offense that has ever graced the Texas State campus. With talented skill position players, Texas State attacks in a multitude of fashions, but there is one significant limit to the offense — turnovers. The Bobcats are a -8 in the turnover battle this year and fumbled more times than anybody in the regular season excluding Nebraska.

But as potent as Texas State’s offense was, questions remain on defense. When the Bobcats scored at least 35 points this year, they were 6-0. Scoring under 35 was the danger zone for Kinne’s team, and they finished 1-5 in such contests. The Bobcats are 118th in scoring defense, notably struggling at containing the air with 258 passing yards let up per game — ranked 120th nationally.

A 77-34 loss to Arkansas State was certainly the lowest point of the season, but Texas State withstood some other brutal defensive performances thanks to the offense’s success — winning games despite allowing 44, 36, 34, and 31 points — and the team didn’t hold a single team below 20 points this year. However, there are several individual standouts on this defense, including two which drew Second Team All-Sun Belt selections.

One is middle linebacker Brian Holloway, one of the few starters who was a member of the 2022 Bobcats. Holloway shined with team-highs in tackles (98) and tackles for loss (16) while forcing three fumbles as the unit’s premier run stopper. The other is defensive end Ben Bell, who registered eight sacks and 13 tackles for loss as the best pass rusher on the Bobcats. Applying pressure is one thing Texas State does extraordinarily well, sitting in the top 10 of the FBS in sacks per game at 3.0.


Rice Owls outlook

NCAA Football: Tulane at Rice
Rice WR Luke McCaffrey is tied for 7th in the FBS in receiving touchdowns with 12 and sits 37 yards away from his first 1,000-yard season.
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to bowl season, Rice!

Rice (6-6, 4-4 AAC) snapped an 8-year drought of missing bowl games last season. But this year, it’s different. The 2022 Owls qualified for bowl eligibility at 5-7 due to a lack of available teams. This time, Rice made the postseason on its own terms for the first time since 2014. Now, with a win in Dallas, the program can secure its first winning season in nine years.

Head coach Mike Bloomgren continues to incrementally improve the Owls, increasing his win total for the third-straight season. His team gained valuable bowl experience last December, falling to Southern Miss 38-24 in the LendingTree Bowl on the first Saturday of bowl season. This is only the third time Rice has participated in consecutive bowls in its entire program history, also attaining the feat in two other stretches — 1960-61 and 2012-14.

The Owls were 4-6 with two weeks remaining in the regular season, but they staved off Charlotte and Florida Atlantic to hit the magic number of six wins. Most impressively, they did this without quarterback JT Daniels, who suffered a concussion on Nov. 4 vs. SMU and missed the final three games of the year. Daniels since medically retired from football, opening an opportunity for redshirt freshman AJ Padgett to start the First Responder Bowl.

Padgett is no rookie to this stage. In fact, he started Rice’s bowl game last year, throwing for 295 yards and three touchdowns — all in the third quarter — without an interception. That was only his second collegiate start and Tuesday marks his sixth. Padgett gained significantly more experience since that fateful Saturday night in Mobile, AL, and he threw for 636 yards, seven touchdowns, and three interceptions this season, winning two of his three starts.

The young quarterback is supported by a stellar cast of skill position players, headlined by First Team All-AAC wide receiver Luke McCaffrey. McCaffrey will suit up for his final collegiate game, hoping to put the final stamp on a roller coaster college career which featured a sudden position change from quarterback to wide receiver. But in just two years playing the position, McCaffrey is already an elite receiver as evidenced by his 66 receptions, 963 yards, and 12 touchdowns (tied for seventh in FBS) on the season.

Other skill position standouts include speedy running back Dean Connors, who averages 6.7 yards per carry as the team’s leading rusher. Connors is also a frequent option through the air, ranking second on the Owls in receptions behind McCaffrey. Tight end Boden Groen and receivers Rawson MacNeill and Landon Ransom-Goelz are the other targets Padgett will frequent in an offense which has become increasingly more reliant on the passing game this season.

Rice’s offense didn’t replicate the explosiveness or tempo of Texas State, although the Owls averaged 30 points per game in the regular season for the first time since 2013. However, Rice was much more adept defensively, sitting in the middle of the pack in the FBS in terms of scoring defense and total defense.

What’s especially impressive is Rice — on both sides — doesn’t have a single player who started a game this year in the transfer portal. And while the Owls are shorthanded at quarterback due to Daniels’ retirement, the defense is fully loaded for bowl season.

The pass defense is the greatest quality of Rice on this side of the ball, and that’s anchored by free safety Gabe Taylor. Taylor is the Owls’ do-everything man from the back end, generating the third-most tackles on the team, tying for the lead in interceptions, and breaking up eight passes during the year.

Rice didn’t feature one of the stronger pass rushes this year, but the Owls still exhibit some pieces in their front capable of getting to the quarterback. One is outside linebacker Josh Pearcy, who totaled seven tackles for loss and another is sack leader Coleman Coco, who led Rice in sacks during the regular season with four. Rice was completely spurned of an All-AAC selection on defense, but the unit held firm at times — limiting four of eight AAC opponents to 21 or fewer points this year.


Prediction

Every bowl game is an absolute must-watch for college football fans, but for the pickier selectors, the First Responder Bowl should definitely be circled.

Rice and Texas State aren’t regulars to bowl season. Both teams just hit the 6-win threshold for the first time since 2014. The lack of bowl trips means an extremely fervent and memorable celebration is coming to Gerald J. Ford Stadium on Tuesday night. Also, it’s a showdown in Texas between two Texas teams, so the crowd in Dallas should be fired up for this matchup. Lastly, these teams are exciting, especially on the offensive end.

Points won’t be at a premium in a game that features of the talent of playmakers Ismail Mahdi and Luke McCaffrey. The quarterbacks are fearless, not afraid to take shots, and both offenses exhibit good balance through the ground and air. Stops might not be as common in this one, and it’s shaping up to be a close fight.

In the end, Texas State claims the trophy due to its ability to emerge in shootout-style games throughout all of Sun Belt play.

Prediction: Texas State 38, Rice 35