Mario Hull saved his finest performance as a Rice Owl for his final game at Rice Stadium, catching six passes for a career-high 150 yards and a touchdown to lead Rice to a 31-13 win over UTEP on Friday night.
With the win, the Owls reached the seven-win plateau for the third consecutive year for the first time in school history. Rice (7-5) assured itself of earning a third straight bowl berth for the first time and extended its home winning streak in November to 15 consecutive games.
They will close out the regular season next Saturday at Louisiana Tech, and pending the outcome of the Bulldogs game at ODU on Saturday, that matchup could be for a berth in the C-USA Championship game at Marshall.
"We're really, really excited to get our seventh victory of the year," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "We knew going into it what they (UTEP) did defensively was really going to be hard on us, just with all of the blitzing that they do. We were going to need to take some shots down the field, and it would be a hard time establishing the running game, but we really thought we could get the option (play) out on them better than we actually did. We didn't ever establish a consistent running game. We picked it up here and there. Like I said, UTEP's defense played well."
Hull posted the Owls' top receiving game of the year and the most receiving yards since Jordan Taylor finished with 185 yards against UTEP last season. It was a final game to savor for the senior from Altair, Texas who has battled back from injuries after earning Freshman All-American honors in 2011.
"I'm really pleased with Mario Hull," Bailiff said. "You talk about a senior that had a career night. He had 150 yards receiving. The really tried to keep coverage tight on Jordan with two on him all night, which was freeing Mario up."
Driphus Jackson, who threw for 227 yards on just nine completions to move his season total to 2,187 while adding 53 on the ground, knew going into the game that for Rice to win, one or more of his receivers would need to come up big.
"We knew going into this game that we'd have to throw the ball around a little bit, and we were going to take advantages of the mismatches outside," Jackson said. "What we didn't know is that they weren't going to give a lot of attention to his (Hull's) side of the ball, considering Jordan plays on the field with him. The adjustment we had at halftime was what we needed going forward - separating those two and making them guard Jordan (Taylor). Mario's been hurt. He's had the highs of highs and the lows of lows, and for him to have the performance he had today, he just showed what kind of man that he is."
While Hull sparked the Owls' offensive efforts, the Rice defense rose to the challenge presented by the UTEP's rushing attack, holding the nation's 24th ranked unit to just 53 yards on the night, including a -5 yards in the second half. The Owls throttled UTEP's Aaron Jones, who came in as C-USA's second-leading rusher at 118 yards per game, to just 23. Jones raced to 186 yards against the Owls last season at Rice Stadium.
After pregame ceremonies to honor Hull and his 18 fellow seniors, the Owls started sluggishly, failing to register a first down and gaining only five yards on nine plays while UTEP ground out 45 yards on the ground and held on to the ball for nearly 10 minutes.
Hull provided the first of many sparks early in the second quarter, latching on to a 12-yard pass from Driphus Jackson to give the Owls their initial first down of the night. Rice drove to the UTEP 11 before stalling, but James Hairston booted a 32-yard field goal to give Rice a 3-0 lead.
UTEP answered with a field goal of its own, but Rice responded with a 10-play drive to take the lead for good just before halftime. Darik Dillard darted in for the first of his two scores on the ground to put Rice up 10-3 heading to the locker room. Rice stormed out of the locker room in the second half to extend the lead to 17-3 thanks to Hull.
He caught passes for 28 and 38 yards on the drive, then watched teammate Jordan Taylor make a circus catch for a 24-yard touchdown.
The Miners road the passing of quarterback Jameill Showers to cut the lead to17-13 late in the third, before Hull answered with a career-best, 55-yard reception to set up a second run by Dillard to push the lead back to 24-13.
In the final quarter, the Owls turned the tables on UTEP, which came into the game leading the conference in time of possession, holding the ball for nearly 11 minutes. Hull finally found the end zone with just under six minutes left, gathering in a five-yard pass from Driphus Jackson to push the final margin to 31-13.
The defending C-USA Champions will huddle in front of televisions on Saturday to see if Old Dominion can defeat Louisiana Tech on Saturday and set of a winner-take-all matchup between the Bulldogs and Owls next Saturday in Ruston.
But on Friday, it was time to bask in the accomplishment of a senior class who has left a definitive mark on Rice Football.
"This senior class has been absolutely amazing." Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "To win seven games - the most in a three-year stretch; they have accomplished quite a bit, but we're still not done," he added.