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Rice stuns Houston in 43-41 double overtime thriller to win first Bayou Bucket since 2010

The Owls stave off a Houston rally to pull off the signature win of the Mike Bloomgren era.

Maria Lysaker/Rice Athletics

Thirteen years. Seven tries. One trophy.

A long period of time has passed since the Bayou Bucket last graced the campus of Rice University. The roughly 50-year old rivalry trophy between the two crosstown rivals was perched on Houston’s trophy shelf for more than a decade, with no signs of mobilizing 4.5 miles through the nation’s fourth-largest city. At least until Saturday night at Rice Stadium.

When Rice safety Jonathan Jean broke up Donovan Smith’s pass to Matthew Golden on the game-tying two-point try in double overtime, the Bayou Bucket finally reappeared in a swarm of blue rather than marinating in its typical hue of red. The talons of the Owls finally snatched their coveted prize.

“That’s a game you're gonna have scheduled on your calendar every single year because that’s the team across town,” Rice wide receiver Luke McCaffrey said. “You battle for everything. You battle for popularity throughout the city. You battle for recruits. You battle for the right to claim this city within this state. It means a lot. It’s a special one.”

What started out as a 28-0 lead quickly morphed into a deficit for the home underdogs, but the resilient Rice (1-1) finally defeated Houston (1-1), 43-41, in one of the most exhilarating matchups of the young 2023 season.

“I can’t remember a time I’ve been more proud of a group of men in the locker room, to continue to fight in overtime the way they do, for the game to come down to absolutely one play on the 2-point conversion in the second overtime,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “To win the Bucket for the first time in 13 years and get it back today was one of our goals for this season. To beat a Big 12 team is a big deal for our program.”

It was a process three years in the making for Bloomgren and his squad. The neighboring rivals clashed at Rice Stadium in 2021 where Houston decisively thrashed the Owls in 44-7 fashion. The following year, the series traveled to the Cougars’ den at TDECU Stadium where Rice watched its fourth quarter lead vanish. The 34-27 contest came down to one final pass from the 9-yard line, but Houston recorded the game-sealing deflection in the end zone. And this year, the Owls advanced yet another stage in this rivalry to snap Houston’s 7-game Bayou Bucket streak — the longest streak by either team in series history.

“Those steps, as long as they’re going the right direction, is all we’re about as a program,” Bloomgren said. “Those incremental steps have been there. That’s what you say when you’re taking over a program. You’re gonna go from losing big to losing small to winning small to winning big. That’s the natural transition of a championship program. The reality is I’m just proud of these guys for taking those steps each year.”

Rice came out firing on all cylinders, executing to a level which the program hadn’t witnessed in ages. The Owls established a commanding 28-0 advantage by the 8:32 mark of the second quarter, securing their first 28+ point lead against any FBS opponent since a Nov. 19, 2016 matchup against UTEP. And of all possible opponents to inflict that sizable lead upon, a Big 12 program happened to be on the receiving end.

“Maybe it’s a trap game. Maybe it’s a trophy game. Maybe it’s a rivalry game. Maybe we were looking forward to Big 12 and TCU. Maybe we didn’t respect our opponent and they whipped our tail. At the end of the day it’s on me,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We couldn’t have started slower. I explained the importance of starting fast all week. They did. We didn’t. Everything I’m saying, I’m responsible for it and I will assume responsibility.”

Rice QB JT Daniels tied his career-high with 401 passing yards in the win. It was the sixth-best single-game passing performance in Owls history.
Maria Lysaker/Rice Athletics

The chief architect of that early four-touchdown margin was quarterback JT Daniels. In his second game with the Owls since transferring from West Virginia, the journeyman quarterback delivered one of the most prolific performances of his college career. He tied his career-high with 401 passing yards to register the sixth-best single-game performance in Rice history. Daniels delivered three first half touchdown passes as well, connecting twice with McCaffrey and once with Braylen Walker.

“This is just the start of what he can do,” Bloomgren said of Daniels. “He played good today but he didn’t play his best game. We’re gonna see better and that’s exciting. I thought he was protected very good for the most part against some very exotic defenses. I thought (offensive coordinator) Coach Tuiasosopo put a great plan together and called a great game, so there’s a lot of exciting things going on on that side of the ball in the first 24 to 26 minutes.”

Daniels’ first touchdown to McCaffrey was a routine checkdown which broke a 0-0 tie, but the star QB-WR duo’s second end zone link quickly found itself etched into highlight reels. The sixth-year quarterback launched a 32-yard bomb down the left sideline and McCaffrey dove past his defender, scooped the ball with his left hand, and emerged from the end zone helmet-less, corralling Rice’s third touchdown of a perfect first quarter.

“That was just how we drew it up,” McCaffrey said. “Tui drew that play up exactly like that where (Daniels) was gonna put it long and I’d reach one hand out earlier in the week, so it was cool to see that come into fruition. I’m so thankful JT’s in this program. I’m so thankful for the demeanor he brings every single play and the ability to put that ball where we need it.”

The Owls’ defense played a significant role in building the authoritative advantage as well. Cornerback Tre’shon Devones set the tone immediately by intercepting Donovan Smith on Houston’s first possession. Following the early momentum swinging turnover, the Cougars’ next four drives resulted in two punts and a pair of critical failed fourth down conversions in Rice territory.

“I’ll stand next to (defensive coordinator Brian) Smith on the sideline and he’ll be calling out the play before it happens,” Rice defensive end Coleman Coco said, commending the early defensive gameplan. “The dude’s a genius. It’s unbelievable to see what he does. He’s always in the lab and these coaches, I can’t say enough about how football-starved they are and how they mentally and physically get us ready to play in games like this.”

But toward the end of the first half, all momentum evaporated from a Rice team operating with its most comfortable lead in ages. The Owls threw an end zone interception to Houston cornerback Isaiah Hamilton in the waning seconds before halftime, depriving themselves of a potential 35-7 lead. Then Hamilton’s ballhawking ways struck again, and the Cougar cornerback forced an opportune fumble toward the end of the third quarter, providing the sought-after spark Houston’s offense needed.

“One thing I’ve maybe done in the past is when we’ve had a big lead like that, I’ve tightened up. It’s in my West Coast David Shaw/Jon Gruden trained way of just running the football, and we made a commitment to not do that for our team,” Bloomgren said. “The turnovers are really the only way they could have come back in that game. Unfortunately we gave them an opportunity there.”

Houston’s odds of retaining the Bayou Bucket appeared slim when the fourth quarter rolled around. The Cougars entered the final stanza trailing 28-7, but Holgorsen’s squad wasn’t ready to mail in the defeat. Smith pioneered the Cougars back into the contest, possession by possession, to piece together a 28-0 scoring run. The Texas Tech transfer quarterback totaled 260 passing yards, 60 rushing yards, and accounted for five total touchdowns on the night (two passing, three rushing). But Smith made his biggest imprint on a QB sneak with 15 seconds remaining in regulation, utilizing his 6’5”, 241 pound frame to power into the end zone on a second effort.

“I’m glad we rebounded and made a game of it, but the first seven possessions were 100 percent unacceptable,” Holgorsen said. “We’re not gonna lay down. This group didn’t do it last year. I was proud of how they reacted after halftime. I was proud for two quarters. But I just don’t understand how you get it into overtime and not have the will to win.”

In overtime, Smith and the Cougars possessed the ball and the touchdown barrage prolonged for the visitors. The quarterback completed his second end zone delivery of the night to wide receiver Matthew Golden on a corner route, suddenly transforming the 28-0 deficit into a 35-28 score in favor of Houston. While Holgorsen was proud of the team’s willpower to claim 35 unanswered points after staring down a daunting deficit, he didn’t mince words at the frustration of the end result.

“I sensed it Wednesday that it meant more to them than it did to us,” Holgorsen said. “I tried to get our guys’ attention Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. First half was just unacceptable. Our kids responded at halftime which I’m proud of. To go out there and come back from 28 points, to go up 35-28 in overtime... How we didn’t have the will to win in overtime, I can’t explain. Not being able to finish that really hurts me.”

Rice RB Daelen Alexander rushed for three touchdowns on five carries in the Bayou Bucket rivalry.
Maria Lysaker/Rice Athletics

Watching that unprecedented lead dissolve entirely didn’t faze Bloomgren’s Owls. Rice truly ignited its offense for the first time since the second quarter, relying on the run game to carve up Houston’s front. Upon reaching the 3-yard line, the Owls fed true freshman running back Daelen Alexander who powered his way in for the tying score. Thanks to his ability to thrive in short-yardage situations, Alexander also had his number called in the second overtime period. The youngster attained a personal hat trick with his third touchdown of night, with all three coming out of a tight I formation. Seconds later, Alexander ran in the ensuing 2-point attempt to catapult the Owls to a 43-35 lead.

“Three touchdowns and a two point conversion? We’re instantly making this young man famous,” Bloomgren said of Alexander. “That kid earned the right. What we say is this program is a meritocracy and everything is earned in this program. He was the best runner in camp in short-yardage and goal line. He comes out there today and not just efficient, but great as a runner.”

Smith once again answered for the Cougars, matching Alexander’s total with his third rushing touchdown of the night — on a broken play which started with a fumbled snap. But Houston couldn’t extend the contest to a third overtime, as Smith’s end zone connection to Golden was disrupted by Rice safety Jonathan Jean.

“They lined up in the formation and we cod-act them,” Bloomgren said. “What we thought is if we (used our timeout) late enough, they’d use up what we thought was their number one call for that 2-point play. It looked like it was gonna be quarterback plunge. So they came back, we came prepared, we had a better call for the plunge, and we were also very in tune they might do something different. So they did. They threw the ball out there. I saw the ball in the air — seemed like it stayed there for a minute — but it was good when it hit the ground.”

When that ball collided with the blue turf in the end zone, a raucous celebration commenced at Rice Stadium. In recognition of the monumental rivalry victory and the Owls’ first win over a Big 12 team since 2013, a rare field storm was observed at the 70-year old venue. The student section and fans climbed out of the stands and congregated to midfield to commemorate the long-awaited arrival of the Bayou Bucket.

“To see the faces on everybody, to know we haven’t beat this team in over 12 years and last year, how I was on the sideline and see how they felt after they lost that game when people said we should have won it...” Devones said. “When the fans rans on the field, just seeing people’s faces that I’ve been in school with for four years — that was probably some of the biggest smiles I’ve seen on my teammates faces. I really find joy in seeing my teammates happy.”

With dancing, music, and an elated assembly of football players, coaches, and staffers alike, the locker room celebration was the liveliest of scenes, capping an unforgettable night for the program in its debut season in the American Athletic Conference.

“Even the quietest guys were jumping around and screaming,” Devones said. “I think I’ve seen new personalities from people I’ve never seen before. You’ve got guys that have only said two or three words since I’ve been here and now they’re just jumping around, screaming, and some of them have some good dance moves. It was the kind of environment you’ll never forget.”