By Chuck Pool (cpool@Rice.edu) -
The future of Rice Football presented their outgoing seniors with the perfect going away present , packaging their most effective four quarters of the year into a 44-24 victory over UTEP on Senior Day at Rice Stadium on Saturday.
The win extended the Owls (3-8/2-6) winning streak on Senior Day to nine years and also allowed head coach David Bailiff to move past Ken Hatfield for second on the Rice coaching chart with his 56th win.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Jackson Tyner stepped into the void created by an injury to Tyler Stehling on the game's first series, weathered a potentially confidence crushing sack and fumble on his second snap and then expertly lead an balanced Owl attack that totaled 246 yards passing and 236 yards on the ground on their way to their highest point total against a C-USA foe since a 52-14 win over Louisiana Tech in 2013.
"It was really our most complete game this year," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "Senior Day is always an emotional day. A lot of those guys have worn the blue jersey at home for five years and the realization hits them as they are taking it off in the locker room right now that its going to be the last time they get to wear that jersey. (I'm) really proud of this senior bunch and really proud of how the rest of this football team sent them out today. They showed them they loved them and showed them they had a lot of respect for them."
Looking to build on the momentum of a comeback win spurred by a standout effort by their senior quarterback last week at Charlotte, the Owls were suddenly faced with chasing a Senior Day win without Stehling, who was injured on a short run to the UTEP 40 on the game's first possession.
Enter Tyner, whose primary playing time had been in the "Wild Owl" package this season, as fellow redshirt freshman J.T. Granato had not practiced all week due to an illness.
On his second snap from scrimmage, Tyner had the ball stripped from his hands by UTEP's Gene Hopkins and picked up by Skye Hopkins who was tackled at the Rice 25 by Jowan Davis. But the Rice defense, itself flush from a suffocating performance at Charlotte, held to force a field goal.
Tyner and the Owls responded with a seven-play, 75 yard drive which ended with Austin Walter's nine yard touchdown run. UTEP blocked the extra point, but the three-point margin was as close as the Miners would be the rest of the day
Tyner found his footing in the second quarter, igniting a 28-point explosion by hitting on 9-10 passes for 105 yards. A short run by Davis on the Owls' first possession of the second extended the lead to 13-3 and on the their next possession, Tyner and Temi Akala combined for 65 yards on two plays, with each completing a pass to the other.
Alaka made a spectacular adjustment on a 41-yard throw by Tyner, then took a pitch on a reverse and found Tyner alone for a 24-yard touchdown.
Back to back sacks by Brian Womac and Parker Hanusa on the following series forced another punt and after Darik Dillard carried the ball five times to put the Owls in the red zone and Tyner rewarded the senior for his efforts by connecting with him on a nine-yard touchdown.
It was Dillard's 26th career touchdown allowing him to tie Chase Clement for sixth on the Rice career list.
Tyner completed 18 of 25 passes for 196 yards and a pair of touchdowns in addition to his touchdown reception.
While Tyner stepped into Stehling's shoes and kept the Owls offense rolling, the linebackers Emmanuel Ellerbee and Alex Lyons spearheaded an effort that for the second straight week shackled one of the conference's top running backs. Ellerbee finished with 10 tackles, the sixth time this year he had reached double figures this season while Lyons added eight to increase his career total to 264.
Rice held UTEP to 63 yards on the ground, 115 under its average and bottled up the Miners Aaron Jones to just 75 yards on 14 carries, 44 of those yards coming after the outcome had been handily decided. Safety Destri White added to the defensive highlights by picking off a Ryan Metz pass and returning it 23 yards for a score to close out the second-quarter blitz.
Davis led the balanced ground attack, finishing with 84 yards to creep to 21 yards from joining Dillard in the 2,000 yard rushing club.
The Owls won for the 17th time in the last 19 home games in November or later and won the sixth straight over UTEP at Rice Stadium. They have now won two straight heading into the season finale at Stanford next Saturday. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. (central) with the game being broadcast by the PAC 12 Network.