The Rice Owls saw their hopes of extending Conference USA's longest active bowl streak come to an end as UTSA used a pair of second quarter turnovers to spark a 21-point explosion and hold on for a 34-24 win at the Alamodome in San Antonio on Saturday night.
The win was the Roadrunners (3-8, 3-4) first against Rice in four tries and also their first win at home in 2015, The loss was the Owls (4-7, 2-5) fourth straight and guaranteed they will finish with a losing record for the first time since 2011.
"My heart goes out to those seniors who have worked so hard to try and go to a fourth consecutive bowl game," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "We know now that we're not going to be able to do that. I'm sick to my stomach for them because more than anything we wanted to get this senior class out with a four-bowl-game legacy."
Rice started fast, taking an early 10-0 thanks to true freshman Hayden Tobola's career-long, 45-yard field goal on the Owls' first possession and a 58-yard touchdown pass from Driphus Jackson to Nate German.
After being held in check on their first series, the Roadrunners responded on their second series with a 71-yard drive to cut the margin to 10-7.
Jackson promptly moved the Owls to the UTSA 31, sparked by a 26-yar completion to Samuel Stewart, but two plays later, he saw his streak of 145 attempts without an interception end at the UTSA 11.
"Dennis [Parks] just lost it in the lights", Bailiff explained. "He just couldn't find it. We came here yesterday to work in an indoor stadium, but you could just see that he couldn't see where the ball was. That was [a play] where we thought he was about to go up and make a big play, and then you could see that he just lost it."
UTSA took its first lead of the day eight plays later, 14-10, but Jackson and the Owls had a swift response of their own, moving 75 yards in eight plays to reach the end zone on a 26 yard toss to Zach Wright.
But that lead proved short-lived, as Jarveon Williams darted 78 yards on the first play from scrimmage. The Owls had held Williams to just 10 yards on his first nine carries, but he finished the night with 163 yards while becoming the first UTSA player to top 1,000 yards.
A sack and fumble gave UTSA the ball right back and four plays later they extended the lead to 28-17.
After giving up 167 yards in the second quarter, the Rice defense roared out of the locker room in the third, stopping UTSA's first three possessions for a combined eight yards, thanks in large part to sacks by Preston Gordon, Brian Womac and Derek Brown.
Womac's sack set up a short field for Rice after a Stewart punt return to the UTSA 46. A pair of Jackson passes to Parker Smith, who would lead the Owls with seven catches in his first career start, set up a three-yard touchdown run by Darik Dillard, which allowed the San Antonio native to combine with his brother Jarett to set an NCAA record for combined career touchdowns. It was his 22nd career score and the 82nd of their combined careers, one more than the Rodgers brothers (Jacquizz and James) of Oregon State.
But the Owls could not close any further. UTSA drove 96 yards on its fourth possession to extend the lead to 34-24, but a missed extra point gave the Owls an opening.
On their next possession after the touchdown, Rice moved to the UTSA nine, thanks in large part to a 43-yard completion by Jackson to German, but UTSA stopped the Owls on fourth and one from the UTSA five.
Jackson finished with 359 yards through the air and added 36 on the ground to finish with a career-high 395 yards of total offense. German topped 100 yards receiving for the first time in his brief career at wide receiver, finishing with 138 on four catches.
The loss saw the Owls' dreams of extending a fourth consecutive season into December, but with one game left on the schedule (vs. Charlotte at Rice Stadium next Saturday), Bailiff said the week ahead will be about ending this year on a positive note.
"I've already told them how much I love them and I apologized to them that I couldn't get them to that fourth bowl game. Next week we play for our fifth win. Next week, that's what it's about now...to go out as winners"