Rice saw its hopes to add one final chapter to a championship season come to an abrupt end as Mississippi State spotted the Owls an early lead, then scored 44 consecutive points to capture the 55th AutoZone Liberty Bowl 44-7 in Memphis on Tuesday.
Dak Prescott, who sparked the Bulldogs (7-6) to bowl eligibility with a dramatic return to the lineup against arch rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, threw for 283 yards and three scores and added 78 yards and two more touchdowns on the ground to earn MVP honors. He teamed with wide receiver Jameon Lewis for most of the damage through the air, as Lewis set a school record with 220 receiving yards on nine receptions.
"We knew coming into this game, that we were going to have to play our best to win it, obviously, we didn't," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "Hats off to Dan Mullen and the job his staff did with his football team, they did a fabulous job getting their team ready to play. This one falls on me, we were not ready to play and that's the head coach's responsibility. We didn't play well offensively or defensively, but I'm also extremely proud of this football team and this season -- to win 10 games, have a 100% graduation rate and win Conference USA."
The Owls (10-4) were looking to win 11 games for the first time in school history and the used a familiar script to take an early 7-0 lead.
Phillip Gaines recovered a fumble on MSU's first possession, and nine plays later, Charles Ross bulled over from a yard out to give Rice a 7-0 lead. It marked the 13th time in 14 games this year that the Owls had scored first, and it was Ross' 36th career touchdown, moving him into third place on the Rice career list. Ross also became the first Owl to score in consecutive bowl games.
Prescott's first TD pass knotted the game at 7-7 after one quarter and then led the Bulldogs to 20 points in the second stanza. He was masterful on third down, converting a series of third and long challenges to keep scoring drives alive.
"Third down was a problem," Bailiff said. "We'd get them in third and long, the screen-play, the missed sack was on third and long when Prescott scrambled. We defended the initial play, but what we didn't defend was when the plays broke down and it turned into yard-ball. You've still got to know where the receivers are, you still have to hold contain, you have to keep your fundamentals and we did not do that."
While Prescott was frustrating the Rice defense, the Bulldog defenders clamped down on the Owls offense.
Rice gained 82 yards on 19 plays in the first quarter, but could gain only an addition 63 the remainder of the game. Ross ran for 22 yards in the first quarter, but gained only six the rest of the way to close out his career with 2,689, second best in school history. He was selected by the media as the Owls Offensive Player of the Game, while linebacker James Radcliffe, who forced the fumble that set up the Owls opening score, was tabbed as the Owls Defensive Player of the Game.
The outcome was not what Bailiff and the Owls had hoped would cap a championship season, but he also said the result should not define the 2013 Owls.
"We were dreaming big all year. We came here wanting to win the Liberty Bowl, that was the only goal we did not achieve this season, but these young men absolutely played with their hearts and souls and tried to play for each other, we just did not play the way we wanted. I would not trade these young men or this experience for the world. I love this football team, Rice and the City of Houston, we will build on this season and the best is yet to come."
The disappointment in the result paled in comparison to the reality that as Bailiff addressed the team in the locker room after the game, he was saying goodbye to a group of players who matched the greatest two-year record in school history.
"You know what, 19 of them I've been with for five years," Bailiff said. "There were a lot of tears in that locker room, not from the loss, but from young men who have invested so much and done everything that we have asked them to do since I have gotten here. It's tough. It's hard. We have 23 seniors that are never going to put on their Rice Owl football jersey again. There are tears in that locker room when the journey is over. You have these young men and they become your family, it's like you have a 105 sons."