"I'm proud of these kids, we didn't play our best game as a football team," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "We figured out a way to win. These seniors have been a resilient bunch and they figure out ways to win. When you win games like this it's because of your seniors. They know we wanted to get to six today and become bowl eligible. But we want to win some more football games."
Homecoming 2014 featured special recognitions of the Owls 2013-14 C-USA Championship squads, the 2014 Class of Honor Jerseys, two-time Super Bowl champion Darryl Grant and the 1994 Southwest Conference Champion football team and all were treated to another dominant afternoon the Rice defense.
The Owls (6-3/4-1) ground out 420 yards of total offense, but once again turned to their defense to cement the win, which was their 11th in their last 12 at Rice Stadium (seven of the last eight in C-USA) and their 14th consecutive home win in November.
Brian Nordstrom's sack and forced fumble of backup UTSA quarterback Austin Robinson at the Rice 11 with just under a minute left in the game quelled the Roadrunners' hopes for an improbable late rally. The junior who was named to the Ted Hendricks Award Watch List on Friday, finished with a career-high seven tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss (2.5 sacks). He raised his season TFL total to 17.5, which ranks third in school history.
As a team, the Owls were credited with four sacks to more within one of their school record of 33 set in 2006.
"I'm unbelievably proud of how our defense performed," Bailiff noted. "They had a magnificent first half. We bent a little in the second half but you just think someone's going to step up and make a play and that's what Brian Nordstrom did with the sack and forced fumble."
Most of the afternoon, the defense effectively bottled up the UTSA attack, while the offense sputtered after an impressive opening drive that covered 80 yards on 13 plays. After taking the opening kickoff, Driphus Jackson engineered an efficient drive down the field before covering the final nine yards himself to give the Owls points on their opening possession for the fourth consecutive game.
For the remainder of the half, the Owls dominated time of possession, but an interception and a missed field goal allowed the Roadrunners to stay within striking distance.
UTSA found its footing just before halftime driving to the Rice six. But with seven seconds left, UTSA elected to run the ball with Robinson, who was met by James Radcliffe and Gabe Baker at the three. Robinson continued to try to drive into the end zone as the clock wound down and the Roadrunners were unable to call time out and set up a field goal.
After missing a field goal on their first possession in the second half, the Owls extended their lead to 17-0 late in the third when Jackson found Mario Hull in the corner of the end zone.
Leading 17-0 heading into the 4th quarter, the Owls were looking to extend their second half shutout streak to seven quarters and register their first shutout since the opening game of the 1995 season, but Robinson ended those hopes with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Bias with 9:36 left in the game.
Looking to run out the clock, the Owls were stopped on 4th down at the UTSA 26 with 3:57 left, but the two teams traded punts before the Roadrunners looked to launch one final challenge with 1:51 left. They moved from their own 29 to the Rice 11 in less than a minute, before Nordstrom put an end to the threat by stripping the ball from Robinson.
Nordstrom's 2.5 sacks on the day give him 7.5 this season, matching fellow defensive end Zach Patt for the team lead and the sixth-best total in school history. Patt chipped in one sack after his five sack outburst at FIU one week earlier and added a pair of quarterback hurries.
Jackson passed for 213 yards and a touchdown and added 48 yards on a career-high 15 carries on the ground. Jowan Davis ran for 121 yards while Jordan Taylor matched his career-high with nine catches for 92 yards.
The win sends the Owls into a rematch of the 2013 C-USA Championship game when they travel to Huntington, W.V. to face a Marshall Thundering Herd squad that took an 8-0 record and a #22 national ranking into a Saturday night game at Southern Miss.
Bailiff noted that despite the number of milestone's his team reached on Saturday, now is not the time to rest on any laurels.
"We're going to enjoy Homecoming and then get back to Marshall tomorrow," Bailiff stated. "We'll celebrate some of these accolades at the banquet."