Nov. 25, 2012
Faced with the need to answer a late UTEP score and preserve their hopes of returning to a bowl game for the first time in four years, the Rice Owls turned to an unlikely option, as Jeremy Eddington stunned UTEP with a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to seal Rice's 33-24 win at the Sun Bowl on Saturday night.
The win was the Owls fourth in a row and fifth in the last six to close their regular season at 6-6 and clinch a spot in one of bowl games that partner with Conference USA. The bowl game will be the Owls third in the last seven years after a drought that lasted from 1961 to 2006. It the second time the Owls have earned three postseason berths in a similar time frame. They played in the Cotton, Sugar and Bluebonnet Bowls over a five-year stretch form 195-1961.
Rice had not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since before any of the current squad had been born, a period of 320 games since Antonio Brinkley returned one against Baylor at Rice Stadium in 1984. The streak far out-distanced any other school as the longest in the nation, and Brinkley spoke to the team earlier this year in an attempt break the skein. It fell to Eddington to remove Rice from the mantle as he darted up the sideline in front of the UTEP bench and retiring head coach Mike Price. Price, who ended a 31-year coaching career on Saturday night, was in only his fourth year at Weber State when the Owls' kickoff drought began.
Rice stormed to a 17-14 halftime lead thanks to the powerful running of Charles Ross and the passing combination of Taylor McHargue and Vance McDonald. Ross topped 100 yards in the first half and would finish with a career-high 154 yards and a pair of touchdowns. McHargue and McDonald combined on three key third down completions to keep Rice scoring drives alive during the first half.
McDonald continued to celebrate his return from injury by catching a career-high nine for 99 yards. The senior who was invited to the Senior Bowl on Wednesday, has caught 16 for 184 yards in the last two contests.
After halftime, UTEP retook the lead in the third quarter, but Eddington returned the ensuing kickoff 56 yards to set up a Chris Boswell 51-yard field goal to cut the lead to one. It was Boswell's sixth field goal this year from 50 yards or more and his fourth consecutive successful kick from that distance.
UTEP seemed to be ready to answer right back after Nathan Jeffery busted off a 37-yard run to the Rice 37, but the Owls held and Hosam Shahin's tackle for loss on third down force a punt which was downed at the Rice five yard line.
From there the Owls mounted a methodical 20-play, 95-yard drive to retake the lead on Ross' second touchdown of the night. After missing a try for two, the Owls led 26-21 and after stopping the next Miner series, seemed on the verge of taking control of the game. However Dennis Parks muffed the UTEP punt to give the Miners new life at the Rice 46.
But after gaining 25 yards on two plays to move to the Owls' 21, UTEP could move no further and settled for a field goal to cut the lead to two.
The Owls tenuous 26-24 lead was hardly comforting in a venue that has seen a series of shootout between the two schools since they began meeting on the football field in 1996. But even the series history would be considered recent compared to the drought among Owls' kick returners.
Eddington finished with 210 yards on four kick returns, the second-best total in school history added 59 yards on the ground and caught one pass for a total of 279 all-purpose yards which was just 16 yards shy of Trevor Cobb's school mark of 295 set vs. Iowa State in 1991.
The win was Rice's 19 in its last 28 November games since 2006. In each of the Owls three bowl seasons, they ran off an unbeaten final month to earn the chance to play an additional game.
Final determination of the Owls bowl destination and their opponent will be made in the coming days.