Rice junior quarterback Driphus Jackson set a school bowl record by throwing for 318 yards and tied a second with three touchdown passes, while a rejuvenated Owls defense held Fresno State out of the end zone to lead them to a 30-6 win in the 13th Hawai'i Bowl at Honolulu's Aloha Stadium on Christmas Eve.
The victory marked a redemptive rebound for the Owls defense, who surrendered 76 points in their regular season finale at Louisiana Tech in late November. They bottled up the Mountain West's fourth-best offense, holding the Bulldogs to 158 yards and 22 points below their season averages. Fresno State ran only two plays inside the red zone for -3 yards and was held to -4 yards on seven plays inside the Owls' 25. It marked the first time in the history of the Hawai'i Bowl that a team was held without a touchdown and was the first time Rice had held a foe out of the end zone since the Memphis game in 2011.
"That (the loss to Louisiana Tech) just wasn't the way we wanted to go out," senior safety Julius White said. "We didn't play like ourselves then but we came out today with a chip on our shoulder and played like we had something to prove."
The win allowed the Owls (8-5) to reach eight wins in a season for just the ninth time in school history. It also guaranteed Conference USA a winning record in bowl season. Conference teams have posted a 3-1 mark with Tech set to face Illinois on Friday.
Jackson made an immediate statement in the opening quarter, leading the Owls to a 16-3 lead that proved to be all they would need to grab their third bowl title in four opportunities under head coach David Bailiff.
"Driphus (Jackson) did an incredible job not only managing the game but at times taking it over," Bailiff said. "We made some big plays when we needed to and ran the ball late in the game. At times we played smothering defense and gang tackled. That was a good football team we played and we held them for most of the game."
"Coming into the game we knew that they were going to be really aggressive on defense and I knew that was something I had to take advantage of," said Jackson, who became the first Rice quarterback to lead his team to two bowl victories. "They do a lot of rotating in their coverages so I had to be really on point in reading that. But I give our receivers a lot of credit for adjusting to the balls."
Jackson and the Owls started quickly, marching down the field for an opening field goal, but then saw Fresno State answer with a field goal of its own thanks to a pair of penalties by the defense.
But he had a quick answer for the Bulldogs hopes, combining on a 53-yard pass play to Dennis Parks which set up a 14-yard touchdown toss to Jordan Taylor. Rice got the ball right back on the Bulldogs first play after the score as J.T. Blasingame picked up his first career interception and Jackson wasted no time, hitting Mario Hull on a 69-yard scoring play which was the longest touchdown pass in Rice Bowl history.
The 16-point first quarter was the most productive opening bowl quarter in school history and the most points in any bowl game quarter since the Owls scored 21 in the second quarter of their first-ever bowl appearance, the 1938 Cotton Bowl.
Fresno State tallied a second field goal in the second quarter to cut the margin to 16-6 at halftime and after the teams traded punts to open the third quarter, the Bulldogs' Marteze Waller broke off a 41-yard gain to the Rice 24 to put them on the doorstep of more points. But the drive stalled and on fourth down Brian Nordstrom broke through to block the field goal attempt.
Nordstrom and the rest of the Rice defense consistently rose to meet each challenge fashioned by Fresno State, thanks in large part to 12 tackles for loss and a stout effort on fourth down as the Owls stopped the Bulldogs four times on fourth down to run their season total to 15 stops in 20 chances (25%).
Nordstrom's blocked field goal seemed to inspire the Rice offense, which had lost its momentum after the momentous opening effort.
Jackson was 4-4 on the drive which ended when he hit Parks up the sideline and the junior from San Antonio applied a stiff arm on his final pursuer to free him on a 40-yard touchdown and push him over 100 yards receiving for the first time in his career. His 109 yards on the day marked just the third time in school history a receiver has topped 100 yards in a bowl game (Jordan Taylor, 153 vs. Air Force; James Casey, 112 vs. Western Michigan). Darik Dillard set up his own one-yard TD run in the fourth quarter after taking a screen pass from Jackson and rambling 58 yards to the Fresno State one. The TD was Dillard's 11th on the ground this season and was his 16th career touchdown.
The bowl victory was head coach David Bailiff's third in four tries with Rice, matching Jess Neely for the most career bowl victories by an Owls head coach, and was the eighth of the year. This is the ninth time in school history the Owls have won eight or more games in a season and they have now won the most games in two (18) and three (25) seasons in school history.
Jackson finished the day completing 15-of-24 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns and added 41 on the ground to finish with a career-best 359 yards of total offense while being named Rice's team MVP.