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Air Force game page

Rice 33, Air Force 14
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Owls overcome early fumbles, loss of McHargue with nearly-perfect second half surge; frosh Jackson comes off bench to lead the way

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Senior defensive end Jared Williams is in the right place at the right time as he punches the ball from the grasp of Falcon ball carrier in first quarter action (PTH photo)

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Turner Petersen  bursts through the line en route to 45-yard fourth-quarter jaunt (PTH photo)

FORT WORTH (Dec. 30) -- When fans and bands of both teams gathered in Fort Worth’s Sundance Square for an outdoor pep rally Thursday night, a foggy mist had settled over the grey streets, and the thermometer was plummeting.

The Air Force cheerleading squad was dressed only in its skimpies, as if to send a message, and the Academy lad who took the mike emphasized it directly. "Now we get to play in Air Force weather," he said.

But when the orb rose Saturday morning, skies were clear and calm, and the sunlight broke beaming down as the temperature began its steady climb. It was, in the words of the immortal J. Fred Duckett, "a bee-yootiful day for out-door football."

That bit of climate change, it turned out, not only proved to be an omen, but also aptly described the course of this game, one in which the Rice Owls pulled away in the end after foundering early, uncharacteristically coughing up three lost fumbles in the first half and losing veteran quarterback Taylor McHargue to a concussion, to boot.

Such turn of events allowed the Air Force Academy Falcons to take a 14-7 lead into the halftime locker room, then only to fall prey to a stingy Rice defense and an Owl offensive unit led by the precision passing of redshirt frosh quarterback Driphus Jackson, suddenly thrust into the limelight by way of TMac's injury.

Before it was all over, the Owls had outscored the Cadets 26-0 in the second half, and during that time had allowed the Falcons only 58 yards' total offense and but two first downs.

One could easily chalk the Owls’ big turnaround to the the oft-analyzed ‘halftime adjustments,’ and there indeed were adjustments made in the Rice locker room.

"We came out in the second half and made a couple adjustments – and they were more importantly some attitude adjustments," a satisfied Rice head coach David Bailiff told press afterwards, " not so much from coaching but from the team leaders. We came out more determined to play the second half stronger."

Senior DL Jared Williams said he thought as the second half went in this game, so went the entire second half of Rice's season. . "I think the second half is how we responded all season," he said. "The second half was a new game for us. We came to the locker room; noone was panicking, we just had to reload. The second half was a new game, you know, zero-zero. We came out, executed and got the job done."

Owls started out heading in wrong direction

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Two Owl defenders team to bring down Falcon receiver (PTH photo)

But Rice’s opening possession of the game was not particularly a thing of beauty. Taking the opening kickoff, and facing second and six, Charles Ross gave ground and was nailed for a loss of eight by the Falcons'  Austin Niklas, who would up being the leading tackler for the game.

Then on third and long, Air Force blitzed and caught Taylor McHargue in the pocket for a sack and a loss of six more. So it was three plays, a negative ten yards total offense. Just a bit inauspicious.

That first possession communicated Air Force’s defensive game plan quite clearly: attempt to offset their size disadvantage by flooding the box, blitzing the linebackers with the corners sealing the outside. -- and harass the Rice quarterback so much that he’d not have time to pick and choose among his receivers.

What the hell, the strategy continued, for fun why not just put him out of the game altogether?

So every time Taylor McHargue tucked it under to run, a host of Zoomies came at him quite unabashedly helmet first, like so many Stinger missiles – if one doubts, go watch the TV re-run.

In Rice’s second possession, facing third and four from his own 28, TMac took two direct blows helmet to helmet as he was pushed out of bounds rushing for nine yards and a first down. He shrugged that one off, but the next one, with the score tied at 7-7 and the Owls having third and short from their own 43, did him in for the day.

There, TMac was close to the line to gain and he made a dive for it, which presented an irresistable opportunity for one Stefan Batts, who dived in and stuck the meat of his helmet up under the front edge of TMac’s, thus causing his head to whipsaw. The thud could be heard all around the stadium, and it was as cheap as a two-dollar you-know-what.

"I mean you pretty much knew it was a concussion," Coach Bailiff said afterwards. "That blow on that option play when he took a head shot – you pretty much knew when you saw him on the field that he had a concussion, just from the look in his eyes. You want to try and notify the parents first; you try and keep it confidential but everybody knew once he came back out in street clothes."

Needless to say, being momentariy unconsckious, Taylor lost the ball on that play as well. Air Force recovered at the Rice 35 and took advantage of the cheap shot and the short field in going ahead, 14-7 on Houstonian Wes Cobb’s one yard plunge.

Earlier in the second quarter the Cadets had another short field presented to them when TMac was stripped of the ball at the Rice 44. But the Owl defenders sent the Falcons backwards, and on fourth down and 11, AFA attempted a fake punt, but junior linebacker Michael Kutzler surged in for the kill after a three yard gain, resulting in a turover on downs.

Rice had first taken a 7-0 lead on TMac’s 16-yard scoring strike to Jordan Taylor, capping a five-play, 57-yard drive – this, after the Rice defense had three-and-outed Air Force on its first two possessions.

First Rice TD set up by turnover, 57-yard drive

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Jordan Taylor hauls in the first of his three touchdown receptions on the day (PTH photo)

That first Rice TD was set up by a fumble recovery engaged on account of a bit of three-part harmony by the Rice defense. On first and ten from the Rice 45, the Falcons’ Jon Lee was gripped in a wrestling hold by Paul Porras, whereupon a diving Jared Williams was able to punch the ball from the runner’s grasp (see photo). Gabe Baker was there to nab the ball at the Rice 43 and the Flock was in business.

On the Air Force side, turned out that starting QB Connor Dietz wasn’t exactly at the top of his game either physically or mentally, so with nine minutes to go in the half and the Owls holding that 7-0 lead, AF head coach Troy Calhoun pulled Dietz and sent in his backup, Kale Pearson.

Pearson’s first chance came after Chris Boswell’s miss of a 52-yard field goal attempt which, if made, would have put the Owls up by ten. Well, then again, he didn’t exactly miss it, he booted it squarely through the uprights, but Coach Calhoun thought it’d be "neat" – his favorite expression – if he could ice the veteran Owl kicker with a just-before-the-boot timeout call. Only the timeout call was made quite clearly after the ball was snapped. Still, it was one of those tell-the-refs-ahead-of-time things, so the striped shirt guys  blew the play dead.

And sure enough, on the second try, the Boz uncharacteristically sliced his effort wide of the uprights. You should’ve heard the hoots and hollers on the Air Force sideline; Coach Calhoun was pumping his fist in glee. But check the replay – Rice got the shaft on that one.

Under new field generalship, immediately the Falcons drove to paydirt, eclipsing 66 yards in ten plays, the last nine of them covered by backup QB Pearson who managed to reach the pylon after faking the inside and outside options.

Next came Rice’s ill-fated drive in which TMac’s day was finished, so that after outplaying the Cadets to a considerable degree, the Owls had to take a one-touchdown deficit into the halftime locker room.

It could have been tied, had not rookie quarterback Driphus Jackson made an errant pitch on the option to Turner Petersen at the Air Force four yard line with 12 seconds to go in the half – this after the little-tested backup had moved the Owls 61 yards in just over two minutes of play clock remaining. Key plays on this drive were Driphus’ 15-yard scramble on second and 20, followed by by a 23-yard strike to Jordan Taylor which carried to the Air Force 22.

As the final second-quarter seconds ticked down, Rice eschewed the sure field goal for one last try for the goal line. Driphus optioned right, but appeared to hurry the pitch just a bit, and the ball slipped just beyond the reach of option back Turner Petersen’s grasp, whereupon it was recovered by Air Force’s Chris Miller

It marked the third time in Rice’s last four possessions of the half in which the ball had been coughed up.

Coach Bailiff took it philsophically, which is easy to do when you wind up winning by three TDs. "The first half we all that opportunity offensively and we kept turning the ball over, or we get a stupid penalty -- even right there before the half where we thought we’d come out with at least a field goal. But we didn’t do that."

Teammates gave him needed confidence, Driphus said

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Charles Ross twists for additional yardage in first-quarter action (PTH photo)

Fortunately, the redshirt freshman did not let that faux pas stick in his craw. "These guys kept me up," Driphus said of the talking-to he got from his teammates in the halftime locker room. "I didn’t get too down, because I understood that, playing quarterback you’ve got to have a short memory."

Driphus was able to shrug off that miscue quite readily, as the second half stats clearly show.

"In the second half, the game clock really slowed down for me," he said. "I kind of settled myself down, and I was able to get all the moving parts together; these guys made it easy; I just got the ball to them and they made the plays."

In so doing, he guided the Rice offense on five scoring jaunts in the second half – and thanks to the dinner-table setting done by the Owl defense, it could’ve been even more.

First, there was a small matter of evening the score. It didn’t take long, but there was a collective pause in the breaths of the Owl faithful when on the second half’s opening possession, AF's Pearson hit his receiver Don Strickland for 29 yards to the Rice 44.

Oh, boy, the thought went down. After all this, are we about to find ourselves down 21-7? And with an untested backup quarterback to boot?

Answer: uh-uh. No way. From that point on, the Rice defense completely shut down its opponent, allowing only one more first down and a couple of dozen yards total offense the remainder of the game. On the contest, Rice outgained the Academy 503 to 214. It was the Air Force’s lowest total yardage output of the season, and Rice’s yardage advantage was the most lopsided since....well, go look it up.

Meanwhile, Driphus Jackson captained the ship like he’d been doing it for years.

His tying drive took the Owls 87 yards in 13 plays, most of it covered by two sweet DJ passes downfield, one going for 25 yards to Vance McDonald, and the other for 22 to Jordan Taylor.

Then on second and eight at the Air Force 22, Driphus let go a fade pattern to Jordan, and the Denison sophomore used his 6-5 frame to outreach his 5-8 Air Force defender and haul in the toss for the score.

The Rice defense saw to it that the Air Force did nothing more on offense the rest of the day – and we do mean nothing, noth-ing. Meanwhile, the Rice offensive machine continued to click.

Six straight DJ completions on go-ahead drive

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Donte Moore gets pass from Driphus Jackson and picks up important first down (PTH photo)

The go-ahead drive was a sight to behold.

After losing five on first and ten from the Rice 26, with the aplomb of  a Fran Tarkenton, Driphus Jackson threw six consecutive pass completions, hitting Jordan Taylor three times, Dante Moore once, and Sam McGuffie twice. Sam’s second reception was of the circus variety as he dived to make an over-the-shoulder catch at the Air Force four yard line; the play carried for 28 yards.

That’s where the third quarter ended, but two plays later, Charles Ross scored easily from two yards out, and the Owls had themselves a 21-14 lead seconds deep into the fourth, one that they would not relinquish.

On Air Force’s next possession, they went nowhere, thanks to Paul Porras, who surged in to tackle running back Ty McArthur for a loss of two, followed by a deft breakup of a Pearson short pass by Julius White on third and eight.

Rice set up with good field position on their own 45, and right out of the box, Turner Petersen set out on a 48-yard jaunt that is bound to go viral on YouTube. TPete burst through the line and then took on one Air Force secondary man after another, tossing them around like so many rag dolls, until a couple of them managed to grab his jersey and force him out of bounds at the Falcon seven yard line.

The burly Rice junior walked through the play, post-game. "It was one of our base plays that we run," he said. "They ran a big ol' twist up front with the nose guard, he disappeared to the back side which kind of made my job pretty easy. Slid right behind Nate’s block; offensive line got to the second level -- I don’t think I got touched until the safety," he added.

"Probably the cat’s out of the bag," he quipped, "that I’m not going to outrun the corner. So somebody got on my back, I guess they slipped off or something, and I just worked it on down the sideline trying to get as far as I could."

A false start penalty set the Owls back to the 12, however, and from there, after Driphus misfired on a couple of quick passes to Sam McGuffie, it was an easy decision to go for the chip shot field goal and turn it into a two-score deficit for the Zoomies.

Air Force again went nowhere on its next possession, stalling after but a single first down, thanks to big hits by Cody Bauer and Phillip Gaines.

Time to let some air out of the tires

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MOB showed up looking for a party; found one (PTH photo)

With just under ten minutes to go in the game at that point, Rice coaches were content to slow things up and keep it on the ground as much as possible. Turner Petersen once more carried the mail for a couple of first downs.

But then on third and nine from the Air Force 44 yard line, Driphus hit Sam McGuffie another time, this one carrying for 35 yards to the Cadet nine.

Three straight running plays garnered six yards to the three, but from there the Owls took an intentional delay of game penalty to give Chris Boswell a better look at the goalposts, and of course he converted to make it 27-14.

At that point, 4:26 remained on the clock and confidence was high that the Cadets didn’t have the offensive explosiveness to drive for two TDs within such time.

But Owl corner Paul Porras quickly put the icing on the cake when , next Falcon possession, he dived in front of his receiver, Marcus Hendricks, to make the interception at the Air Force 36. Turn out the lights; the party’s over.

Rice ran into the line three times for short yardage, but the Owls faced fourth and eight with 1:45 left to go in the game. A little bit too close in for the punt, it was, and a little iffy distance even for a Chris Boswell field goal and risk the block. So the thing was simply to try and make the first down and retain possession.

Driphus did just that, dropping back to find Jordan Taylor open at the Air Force five, where he hauled in the pass, sidestepped a defender, and waltzed in for the touchdown to make it 33-14.

And no, it was not trying to run up the score.

That made it nine catches for 153 yards for the big wide receiver, not to mention three TDs scored – his first three of the season. Jordan was seen visibly drooping his right shoulder several times during the game, and the folklore spread through the stands that he was playing in pain after a shoulder separation. It was a fun story, but not quite true, Coach Bailiff said.

"The shoulder’s not separated; it’s a mild sprain," DB said. "You saw him get those stingers where his arm went dead...and he had a great game, but it’s not like, ‘he did all that with one arm.’ That’s not quite how it went down," Coach Bailiff insisted with a grin.

Meanwhile, for Driphus, the stat line went 15 out of 21 passing for 264 yards and two TDs, both to Jordan Taylor. Of his young charge, who was, in fact, rather highly touted coming out of high school, the Rice head man remarked, "He had a swagger, he had a confidence."

"We didn’t have to dilute the offense at all with him," DB observed. "We were able to use our entire playbook. He was ready to go at game speed. I thought today he played like a seasoned veteran. It looked like he started a bunch of ball games."

In fact, largely due to Driphus’ performance, the Owls set a team record for total offense in a bowl game with 508 yards, eclipsing the 455 yards the Owls had in the 2008 Texas Bowl.

The Rice defense shut down an Air Force running game that had entered the contest as the second-ranked rushing offense in the country at 328 yards per game. They limited the Falcons to just 166 yards on the ground and only 25 in the second half. Do the math; that’s less than half their average rushing output.

Anyway, there’s just a wee bit more narrative left on this one, bear with us.

James Ferrimond came in to try the PAT, but the kick  sailed low into the line, as if it mattered at that point.

Special teamer Zach Patt forced and recovered a fumble by Air Force’s Anthony LaCoste on the ensuing kickoff, which simply allowed the Owls to take a knee a couple of times to end the contest.

Big bad running back Turner Petersen was philosophical after the game. "We’ve had our ups and downs this year," he said, "but to cap it off with the start we had, and finish with five straight, it means the world."

"This makes it all worth it, all the hard times we’d been through together. This is a great group of guys – and you can see it by the way that we all pulled together out there on the field."

Next stop:  College Station.  All aboard.

--P.T.H.

Rice-Air Force Owlook
Frigid weather promises to be lark for Cadets, unfamiliar experience for Owls

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UP FOR GRABS -- The Armed Forces Bowl trophy is made of molten metal derived from U.S. military hardware serving on the Middle Eastern Front; no truth to the rumor that a little kryptonite is mixed in for good measure (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Dec. 25) – Three bowl games in seven years? This is getting to be a regular habit.

Yes, indeed, the Rice Owls have gotten themselves into a bowl contest, and they've done it the hard way, winning five out of their last six, the last four games in a row, to emerge, phoenix-like, in Fort Worth's Armed Forces Bowl, where Rice meets the Air Force Academy in the new and improved Amon Carter Stadium, 10:45 Saturday morning, come rain, snow or shine.

Owlook
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The Cadets will face the Owls in what promises to be mild spring weather for the Coloradans – temperature in the low 30s, lots of sunshine. The Flock, on the other hand, will be playing in their first outdoor bowl game since, let’s see....the 1961 Bluebonnet Bowl. (The ‘06 New Orleans Bowl and the ‘08 Texas Bowl were both played with the stadium lids shut.)

The weather will be a distraction for the Owls, and they hardly need any such thing, as the Rice defense’s ability to concentrate on the intricacies of the triple option will likely determine the outcome of this game.

As we try and figure out this one, let us first forget, and that is to say absolutely abjure, the results of the Rice-SMU, SMU-Fresno, and Fresno-Air Force games. Those three results give the Owls an 88-point bulge over the Cadets – but that's just downright silly, isn't it.

Perhaps the better barometer of this potential outcome would be the 2009 Rice-Navy game in Houston, wherein the Owls had the better athletes, but were absolutely made to look like village idiots over the Navy triple option, to the tune of a 63-14 loss.

Now that’s a result that the Owls need to be thinking about as they enter this field of friendly strife.

Air Force features a similar option attack, and it ranks a mere second in the nation in rushing offense at just at 329 yards per game. The Cadet offense is led by senior quarterback Connor Dietz, and junior running back Cody Getz, who between them have rushed for right at 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns. Getz has rushed for more than 100 yards six times this season.

"Cody is a great, great story," Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun said said of his five-foot-seven running back in a December news conference. "He’s guy that has not played a whole lot, at least here at the academy until his senior year. He's only 162 pounds and probably the tiniest back in the country. But has good feet and he cuts well, loves to play, and he'll be one of those guys I think that will be a lot of fun to watch on December 29."

Dietz and Getz are the tandem that the Owls will be focusing on stopping, but the Falcons are relatively deep in running backs, with Jon Lee (543 yards, 4 TDs), Wes Cobb (491 yards, 8 TDs), and Ty MacArthur (419 yards, 2 TDs) leading the way.

"It is challenging because of what they do offensively," said Rice coach David Bailiff. "It takes such great discipline to get somebody on the dime to get the quarterback to pitch – and you can't get distracted. And if you don't use all the clues that are available, all of a sudden they launch one over your head on a play action post."

Passing? Well, the passing game is another story for the Cadets. They rank 118th among Division Teams in total passing offense. Quarterback Dietz has attempted only 108 passes in 12 games -- a statistic that would make Ken Hatfield’s heart go pitter-pat – but he’s completed them 62 percent of the time, for 1,127 yards and eight touchdowns, while sustaining only three interceptions.

The big weapon for the AFA passing game, for sure, is that play-action long bomb. They’ve completed more than a few of them this season – Owl secondary defenders take note. Drew Coleman (326 yards, 3 TDs) and Don Strickland (232 yards, 2 TDs) lead Cadet receivers with an average of over 17 yards per grab.

"They make you stay focused every snap," Coach Bailiff said of this passing paucity. "At the same time, you can't just blitz it, because if you do, usually they hit their head on a goal post going the other way."

The Falcons scoring defense points allowed is 28.7 per game, which is just about even with their offensive production.

Austin Niklas leads the defensive side for the Falcons, with 114 tackles on the season, six for loss. He’s closely followed by Alex Means (89 tackles, 11 TFL, two picks) and Steffon Batts (71 tackles, two interceptions.)

AFA has also gotten a lot of production out of frosh DL Alex Hansen, who picked up an Academy freshman record against Hawaii – sorry, no apostrophe in our spelling; so sue us – with four TFLs against the Rainbows.

The Cadets’ win over Hawaii also highlighted another interesting stat. It was during this stretch of the season that the Air Force ran the ball on 91 straight plays. From the fourth quarter of their game with San Diego State Nov. 10, through the entire Hawaii game Nov. 16, until the second quarter of the Fresno State game Nov. 24, the Falcons didn’t try to pass the ball a single time. They ran the ball 68 times for 338 yards in their 21-7 win over Hawaii.

This game marks the sixth straight year in which the Air Force has played in a bowl, so Saturday’s game is frankly no big deal to the Cadets.

The Falcons started strongly on the season, winning five of their first eight, including a 4-1 start in Mountain West play.

But then they went on to drop three out of their last four, capping it with the season-culminating 48-15 blowout loss at Fresno. And Fresno.....well, never mind.

The airmen have had a month to rest now, and the weather forecast promises that they will be playing Saturday in their own element – frigid weather, game conditions that    the Owls have not seen in a long time.

Air Force is just 1-5 on the road this season, having lost their last three by a minimum of 19 points apiece. But their first two road games of the season were lost by a total of nine points – and that includes a narrow, 31-25 defeat at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines in the Big House.

See, that’s what happens when you don’t confront the Air Force option with assignment football. Ask the Michiganders. They were lucky to escape with a win.

--P.T.H.

 

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