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Texas State wins first bowl ever, storms past Rice 45-21 in First Responder Bowl

Brian Holloway snags two pick-sixes as the Bobcats win the turnover battle 6-0 to fly past the Owls.

NCAA Football: First Responder Bowl-Texas State at Rice Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

History was already made Tuesday night in Dallas when the Texas State Bobcats fielded the opening kickoff.

For the first time since Texas State joined the FBS level in 2012, the program participated in a bowl game. But the Bobcats even furthered their history once the 2023 First Responder Bowl unfolded. Texas State dominated the turnover battle to fly past Rice, 45-21, securing its first postseason win ever. A triumphant field storm ensued at Gerald J. Ford Stadium, which set a season-record 26,542 spectators, who were all witnesses for the most important win in Texas State history.

“Going to a bowl game, that’s great, but winning a bowl game, that’s what matters,” Texas State head coach GJ Kinne said. “Everything’s better. Your ring’s bigger. You’ll remember it forever, and those guys went out there and performed.”

The Bobcats attained seven regular season victories primarily by means of their explosive offense. But in the First Responder Bowl, Texas State’s defense inflicted the most damage. Kinne’s team won the turnover battle 6-0, forced eight three-and-outs, and the ringleader of it all was middle linebacker Brian Holloway. The lone defensive All-Sun Belt selection on the roster picked off two passes and returned both for touchdowns — one for 36 yards in the second quarter and another for 48 yards in the third quarter. Holloway, a former SMU transfer, fittingly won MVP honors on his old stomping grounds after registering six tackles in addition to his two takeaways.

“The first pick six, I was thanking God for giving me a memorable play,” Holloway said. “The second one, I hit my knees in the end zone and gave it up to God. It’s unbelievable. I’m at a loss for words. I can’t even believe it. The preparation has definitely been there. We worked hard. We didn’t skip any steps. When you prepare the right way, things tend to usually go your way.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 26 SERVPRO First Responder Bowl - Texas State vs Rice
Texas State MLB Brian Holloway returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the Bobcats’ first-ever bowl win, landing MVP honors in the process.
Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rice tossed two additional interceptions, fumbled a kick return, muffed a punt on a night where it couldn’t generate any luck in the turnover department. The Owls — bereft of JT Daniels who medically retired from football — cycled through three quarterbacks in Dallas. Starter AJ Padgett completed 10-of-21 passes for one touchdown and three interceptions before Rice made a change, in desperate search of a spark. Chase Jenkins and Shawqi Itraish also saw reps under center for the Owls, but nothing worked. In aggregate, the team managed 112 passing yards on 26 attempts — completing only 13 passes to the offense and five to the defense.

“It’s the toughest position to play in sports,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “I’m sure there were times the protection could have been better. There were times the first read was there and we just needed to give the ball to one of our best players to give him a chance, and we weren’t able to do that. Things snowballed a little bit today. I don’t know if we were able to go to the next play as well as I wish we would once we got shook.”

In addition to the havoc caused by the defense and special teams, Texas State received tremendous production from the running backs. All-Sun Belt selection Ismail Mahdi added to his 1,200-yard season, rushing for 122 yards to spearhead the victory. His second fiddle Jahmyl Jeter reveled in the spotlight as well, rushing for 36 yards and three touchdowns in the Bobcats’ historic win.

Two Holloway pick-sixes and three Jeter rushing touchdowns were certainly notable, but the touchdown that captured the hearts of Texas State fans was scored by an unsuspecting individual. In the early third quarter, the Bobcats established a 10-point advantage on a trick play. Texas State sent the entire offense to the right except for left tackle Nash Jones, who reported as an eligible receiver. Quarterback TJ Finley lobbed a cross-field lateral to the 6’5”, 320 pound lineman who strolled into the end zone for a 3-yard score.

Headsets didn’t work for either coaching staff — which altered the play-calling aspects of the game — but Jones’ touchdown was a call Kinne had in his back pocket all season long, and he finally cashed in at the perfect moment.

“I’ve been waiting forever,” Jones said about his first career touchdown. “We practice it every week, and I say, ‘Hey coach, we can run it now!’ and they don’t call it. They told me it had about a 50 percent chance of getting called. We get down to the first end zone and I’m like, ‘Hey, let’s run it!’ and we don’t run it. Then they do call it and we go nuts. I’m glad they called it.”

SERVPRO First Responder Bowl - Texas State v Rice
Texas State OT Nash Jones celebrates his first career touchdown on a trick play in the third quarter.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Entering Tuesday night, Rice lost 42 consecutive games when trailing by at least 14 points. The Owls trailed 21-7 in the second quarter, yet demonstrated tremendous resolve to close the quarter. Wide receiver Luke McCaffrey — participating in his final collegiate game — sparked the Owls’ scoring effort in the early going, but in the second quarter, running back Dean Connors came alive to knot the game at 21 apiece. Connors scored from 3 and 28 yards out in a 64-yard performance complemented by two touchdowns.

“We settled in, we were able to get the personnel going, and the communication and how it would go without the headsets. We seemed to figure that out and got into a groove,” Bloomgren said. “In the second quarter, you saw flashes of what I thought we were capable of to make it a 21-21 game. We’re like, ‘Okay, we’re in a great spot.’ But that didn’t turn out to be because of the opening kickoff in the second half.”

Bloomgren alluded to a turnover which completely swung the momentum for the remainder of the contest.

Texas State sunk a chip shot field goal on the final play of the first half to make it 24-21. That kick completed a perfect season for Mason Shipley who drained 15-of-15 field goal attempts this year. After Shipley recaptured the lead for the Bobcats, everything went in their favor for the final 30 minutes of action. While Rice was scheduled to receive the ball, a short pooch kick caused confusion among the Owls, and Texas State came out of the pile with the pigskin. A touchdown resulted from that key turnover, and the Bobcats finished the game on a 24-0 run.

“We’re always gonna be aggressive,” Kinne said. “We’re in a bowl game and we’re trying to get that eighth win. Onside kicks, the touchdown to Nash — that’s one thing about us... We’re gonna go out there and be aggressive and we’re gonna go out there and play our brand of football.”

SERVPRO First Responder Bowl - Texas State v Rice
Texas State head coach GJ Kinne celebrates with the First Responder Bowl trophy, which will be the first bowl trophy to inhabit San Marcos.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Rice remains in search of its first winning season since 2014, finishing 6-7 after dropping its bowl game for the second consecutive year. Still, the Owls remain optimistic about the future, especially after improving their win total in each of the last three seasons under Bloomgren.

“We think we can go to bowl games every year,” Bloomgren said. “Beyond that, we want to compete and win conference championships. This is a really good football team coming back. We’re excited about some of the pieces we added. I think the future’s really bright for this team.”

For Texas State, history was made in a multitude of fashions in Dallas. The Bobcats played their first bowl game, won their first bowl game, and secured their winningest season since joining the FBS with an 8-5 record. Kinne is only one year into his tenure in San Marcos, but Texas State is already attaining goals the program could only dream of in years prior.

“I feel like when I took the job, everyone talked about the sleeping giant. It’s awake,” Kinne said. “We came out there and the way we played, getting to eight wins, getting a bowl victory in Texas versus an in-state opponent — I think this is just the beginning.”