Dec. 30, 2008
HOUSTON (AP) - Rice ended more than 50 years of postseason frustration with a near-perfect performance in the Texas Bowl.
Just a 15-minute drive from their campus, the Owls (10-3) won a bowl game for the first time since the 1954 Cotton Bowl and reached 10 victories for the first time since 1949.
The program has come a long way since going 1-10 in 2005 and the players hope they've set a higher standard for the future.
"When you sit down and look back and see how everything has unfolded, it's a special opportunity and just what we've been able to accomplish," Clement said. "It really sets this program in the right direction. Hopefully, those guys that are younger than us have seen what it takes to win and what it takes to be successful and hopefully they can get that going."
Clement went 30-for-44 for 307 yards and was the game's Most Valuable Player. Dillard caught his nation-leading 20th touchdown of the season. He finished his Rice career with 60 career TD catches, an NCAA record by 10, and also tied former Memphis running back DeAngelo Williams' Conference USA record for career touchdowns.
"I was just surprised at how well we were executing," Dillard said. "With everything that happened, it was just a team effort and we really stepped out on the field and played as one."
The performance by Rice's defense may have been just as remarkable.
The Owls were giving up 467 yards and 35 points per game, but shut out the high-scoring Broncos for more than three quarters before Tim Hiller threw a 2-yard TD pass to Kirk Elsworth with 6:33 left in the game.
Western Michigan, ranked 24th in total offense coming in, gained only 278 yards and went 3-for-14 on third down. Hiller, who led the Mid-American Conference in yards passing, went 19-for-42 for 198 yards with two interceptions.
"We just needed time to grow," senior linebacker Brian Raines said. "We had a chance to get a few people back and had the chance to work and have some chemistry going into this game."
The Broncos (9-4) dropped to 0-4 in bowls and missed a chance for their first 10-win season.
Hiller broke down in tears at the post-game press conference and coach Bill Cubit embraced him. Cubit then revealed that Hiller played the last three games with a torn left knee ligament.
Jamarko Simmons caught a 9-yard pass on the Broncos' first play from scrimmage, setting a school record with his 99th reception of the season. But Juan Nunez dropped a touchdown pass behind the Rice defense and John Potter missed a 51-yard field-goal try, setting the tone for the Broncos' night.
Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas was called for pass interference to set up Clement's 26-yard touchdown run with 5:21 left in the first quarter. It was Clement's 12th rushing TD of the season.
The Owls' 102nd ranked rush defense stuffed Brandon West on a third-and-1 from the Western 39, Clement threw a 29-yard pass to James Casey and Clark Fangmeier kicked a 30-yard field goal to put the Owls up 10-0.
Corbin Smiter couldn't handle a third-down pass from Clement early in the second quarter, but Broncos safety Mario Armstrong was flagged for a high hit that knocked off Smiter's helmet. A pass interference call on cornerback Londen Fryar gave the Owls a first down at the 2 and Toren Dixon caught a TD pass from Clement with 6:53 left in the first half to make it 17-0.
Rice safety Andrew Sendejo leaped for an interception on the Broncos' next drive. The Owls led Conference USA in turnover margin during the regular season (plus-13). Under heavy pressure, Clement threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Casey with 1:15 remaining in the half for a 24-0 lead.
The Broncos had 90 yards and six first downs in the opening half. Hiller went 10-for-22 for 69 yards and was intercepted by Rice's Chris Jones on the last play before the break.
"I think sometimes, it's just not your day, it's not your time," Hiller said. "We didn't play well and they took advantage of everything."
Western Michigan receivers dropped third-down passes on the first two series of the second half, dropping the Broncos to 1-for-9 on third downs for the game.
Rice converted a fourth down from the Broncos 25. Then, Clement passed to Dillard, who threw back to a wide-open Clement for a touchdown and a 31-0 lead.
It was Dillard's first career completion and the 51st touchdown produced by the duo, but the first with the roles reversed.
Dillard caught an 18-yard pass from Clement in the fourth quarter to give Rice a 38-0 lead. The Owls had never scored more than 28 points in eight previous bowls.
The Broncos drove for one more score in the final minute, with Hiller finding Schneider Julien open in the end zone with 25 seconds left.
Before the game, Western Michigan announced that Cubit agreed to a new five-year contract.