With 30 minutes remaining in their college careers, faced with a scoreless first half and the prospect of ending the season with five consecutive losses for the first time in over a decade, the senior members of the Rice football team rallied their teammates as they have done so many other times in their careers, leading the Owls to 27-7 win over Charlotte on Senior Day at Rice Stadium.
The Owls fashioned a dominating third quarter in which they held Charlotte to 29 yards on just seven plays while scoring on each of their first five possession of the second half to record the 30th win since 2012, matching the 1949 senior class for the most wins over four years in Rice history. It also snapped a four-game losing streak for Rice (5-7, 3-5).
Senior Luke Turner led the Owls resurgent second half, rushing for 49 of his season-high 54 yards and throwing his first touchdown pass since 2013 to lead the Owls to their eight consecutive Senior Day win.
"Luke Turner coming in and running our Owl package, that was big for us," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "We grinded it out and scored 27 second half points. Driphus' leg was really sore. We thought we could exploit the way they were trying to play the run game. Luke did a fantastic job."
"In the first half, offense didn't show up and do a whole lot; we were out of rhythm," Turner said. "It was the last game, and I think some nerves starting getting to some older guys. The defense really helped us out in that first half. We came in (at halftime) and said, 'Guys, we just gotta play.' We ended up playing really well in the second half and produced 27 points and got the win."
After the Owls honored 18 seniors in pregame ceremonies, the two teams battled to a scoreless draw in the first half. The teams entered the locker room at the half dead even in total yards (175) while Charlotte held a 41-38 advantage in plays.
Austin Walter provided a quick spark to the second half, returning the second half kickoff for 30 yards. Six plays later, Jackson found Nate German deep down the middle on a 34-yard pass play to set the Owls up the 49er three. Three carries by Turner netted just one yard and freshman Hayden Tobola came on to connect on a 19-yard field goal to break the scoring ice.
The Owls defense forced a quick three and out, and Turner took the helm for most of an 11-play, 66-yard scoring march that ended when he hit fellow tight end Cole Hunt on a jump pass for a four-yard touchdown. The scoring pass was the fifth of Turner's career, but his first since he threw a pair of scores in the Owls' 42-24 win over Marshall in the 2013 C-USA Championship game.
The second of his two tosses that day was to then-freshman tight end Connor Cella for his first career score and his last as an Owl was Hunt's first career score.
Redshirt freshman Preston Gordon's tackle for loss force a punt on Charlotte's next possession and Turner and Jackson combined to lead the Rice on another 66-yard scoring march, with Jackson covering the final three yards.
After another ineffective series, Charlotte gambled on a fake punt, but a pair of seniors, Chandler Watkins and Garrett Fuhrman foiled the effort, setting up a second Tobola field goal from 23 yards to increase the margin to 20-0.
A fourth consecutive punt by Charlotte set the stage for the Owls' final scoring drive of the year, a six play, 59-yard effort that saw Jowan Davis carry the ball five times for 54 yards, the final 11 on his first touchdown of the year.
Charlotte ended the Owls bid for their first shutout in 250 games, dating back to a 38-0 blanking of UNLV in the opener of the 1995 season when Trent Bostick broke several tackles on his way to a 56 yard score. Prior to the scoring drive, the Owls defense had held Charlotte to just 35 yards 14 second half plays.
"I'm really proud of this football team -- the way the defense played the entire game well," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "I was really pleased with how the defense came out in the second half and dominated.
The win was also the 53rd of Bailiff's career at Rice, moving him into sole possession of third on the Rice coaching list.
The accomplishments of his senior class which includes three bowl berths, two bowl championships, the school's first outright conference title since 1957 and the most wins in two, three and four-year periods are something that Bailiff hopes will challenge the next generation of Owls.
"We have a lot to build on -- it's what we'll talk to the juniors about, and we'll go back to work Monday and get this football team better," he stated.