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Rice 35, Lousiana Tech 31

Cedric Patterson III hauls in 22-yard toss from Luke McCaffrey to put Owls on top, 14-10, second quarter (David Speed Elder photo)

AW, MAN....MISSED HIM!   Rice scatback Cam Montgomery crosses the pay station as LATech's Ben Bell reacts (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Nov. 28) – With all the sturm und drang occurring week by week during this underachieving football season, it was an unexpected and gratifying turnabout to see our Owls tuck away the season neatly in coming back from a 10-point deficit late in the fourth quarter to wrest away victory from a Louisiana Tech team which here Saturday appeared to have it safely in their hands.

JT McMahon rose off the bench to lead Owls to comeback win (David Speed Elder photo)
With the litany of quarterbacks that the current coaching regime has gone through in the past four years, not to mention more than a handful this year, glory be that it was a young lad off the end of the bench, not so great in stature and girth, but with the heart of a lion, who came in and took a seemingly untenable situation and turned it into an inspiring victory.

When was the last time the Owls were able to overcome a 10 point deficit within the last six minutes of a game? Not in recent history, that’s for sure.

But led by the heroics of back-bencher T.J. McMahon, they did so this time, (a) making a key defensive stop which prevented the Bulldogs from walking away with an easy victory; (b) moving 92 yards in five plays to cut a two-score deficit to a mere three-point reach; (c) making the big play on defense, not once, but twice, and then applying the coup de grace with a minute to go. The final score: Rice 35, Louisiana Tech 31.

As the university administration in recent days began to make clear the impending return of Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren and presumably the bulk of his current staff for the coming season, the victory might just have added at least a slight spring in the step of many who are involved with the program, greatly or minimally, and for better or for worse.

Even the deeply depressed naysayers certainly couldn’t have but taken at least a bit of heart in the heart of our young men who put in such an effort. Here we speak of those who’ve been pleading for regime change: not out of any particular enmity, but – one should concede – out of concern and affection for the image of the Institute and the viability of the football program as Rice athletics prepares to move into somewhat more rarified conference territory.

Perhaps, who knows, the win might’ve heartened even the 26 players or more) who are graduating and are now, some with eligibility left, will be taking the next step, which for some shall involve the transfer portal.

Undoubtedly, there will be many a new face to greet Rice fans as the Flock takes the field next September in its opener against USC.

But at the same time, those Saturday late-game heroics year were engineered in great measure by guys who will once again be donning the Blue and Gray in the coming season. Hooray for that.

So let’s just take a quick look at how this wild win turned out to be fashioned.

A slow start, as usual

The game began uneventfully and typically for the Owls, with Louisiana Tech moving to a 10-0 lead on their first two possessions. When freshman quarterback JD Head connected with Tre Harris for a 44 yard touchdown strike, the Owls’ chances looked as dreary as the overcast, drizzling sky above.

But next possession, on Rice’s second play from scrimmage, Cameron Montgomery took advantage of a stout line surge, shook off two would- be tacklers, headed for the sideline and sprinted all the way 71 yards for the touchdown, putting the Owls back in the ball game, the team heartbeat restored.

Next it was the defense’s turn to rise up, as Naeem Smith played centerfield to intercept a JD Head pass at the Owl 37. With Luke McCaffrey at the helm, the Rice offense moved resolutely down the field, Luke picking up 16 on a nifty run- pass option and then hitting Cedric Patterson in the end zone for the score from 22 yards out. Rice 14, La Tech 10.

After a couple of exchanges of possession, it looked as if the Owls were to have a chance to tack on to the score once they had rebuffed a fake field-goal attack courtesy an alert Chike Anikbogu. After picking up a Rice fumble at the Rice 36, the Bulldogs had failed to advance thanks to continued hard pass rushes by Desmond Baker and an athletic quarterback sack by Sean Fresch.

So setting up for the field goal attempt at th Rice 26, the Louisiana Tech holder flipped the ball to his kicker, Cesar Barajas, who looped wide, but the left side of the Rice defense was ready, and the trick play went nowhere.

As the second quarter clock ticked down, again behind Luke McCaffrey, the Owls moved resolutely down the field, getting a nine-yard first down run by Ari Broussard, and 10 yards more via the reception of August Pitre III.

That set up the Flock at the Louisiana Tech 40 with just over two minutes left to play. At that point, however, the decision was made to let the air out of the ball and be content with a 14-10 halftime lead. Not much killer instinct displayed in that move. But of course there’s always those fabulous halftime adjustments the Rice brain trust seems to come up with, right?

A slow third-quarter start, also as usual

Rice was to receive the second half kick off, and while Luke McCaffrey continued to show adeptness afoot, his passing game fizzled, bottoming out with a looping backwards pass intended for the slot man and the flat on third and long. After a review, the lateral was detected by the officials and LaTech was awarded the ball having fallen on the pill at the Rice 19 yard line. It took the Bulldogs six plays to reach the end zone, but that they did, and the Owls found themselves trailing 17-14, midway in the third quarter.

It was at that point that Rice had Coach Mike Bloomberg decided to bench Luke McCaffrey and give JT McMahon a shot.  "I thought at that time that JT gave us the best chance to win the game," he said.

Immediately the little-heralded reserve quarterback stared down a heavy rush and completed one pass after another, hitting Jordan Myers for 12 yards and a first down at the Rice 41, then Kobe Campbell for 14 yards more to the Tech 40, and after that connecting on a well-thrown sideline pitch to August Pitre III which gave the locals a first and goal at the seven.

One play later, Cameron Montgomery found another big gash in the line and whizzed into the end zone, and the Owls had regained the lead with four minutes left in the third quarter.

Nonetheless, it took the the La Tech frosh QB two big plays to put the Bulldogs back on top once more, connecting with Kyle Maxwell for 32 yards to the Rice 19, and then, after having been tossed for a loss by Josh Pearcy, scoring from 22 yards out on an improvised quarterback draw.

Things appeared to go from bad to worse moments later, when, on their next possession, the Bulldogs scored again, propelled by a 33 yard halfback pass to Smoke Harris deep into Rice territory. Two plays later, the score stood 31-21, Tech, a couple of minutes deep into the final period.

The ensuing two Rice possessions yielded zero results, as the Owls went three-and-out on the first, and then on the next came a weird 30 yard penalty when the officials detected a face mask, and then assessed an unnecessary roughness penalty on an over enthusiastic Owl defender. Just like that, instead of on their own 20, the Bulldogs were now at midfield, ahead by10, and with the clock ticking.

Defense made the plays it had to make

Once again the Owl defense rose up, however, as Elijah Garcia and Izeya Floyd teamed to nail the Louisiana Tech quarterback for a loss of nine. Now in possession, the Owls started once again to move the ball behind TJ McMahon‘s passing and Cameron Montgomery‘s running. But a holding penalty stalled the drive, and on fourth and 11 at the Owls' own 29 yard line, TJ‘s pass went awry and was picked off by Tech’s BJ Williams at midfield.

At that point under eight minutes remained in the game, the table was set for another short-field scoring drive for the Bulldogs, and local fans began to trickle out of the stadium.

“Being down kind of gets the juices flowing for me, though,” Rice’s star of the game quipped afterwards.

Indeed, that’s when the young Rice transfer quarterback really showed his mettle, staring down onrushing Bulldog defenders and completing four straight downfield passes that took the Owls – count ‘em – 92 yards downfield.

“I knew our defense would get a stop, and we would get the ball -- and I knew we had playmakers all around on our offense and I knew how fast we could score, “ TJ went on. “We’ve lost some close ones, so we wanted to send those super seniors out the right way.”

So now it was 31-28 with four minutes left in the game, and a breath of hope was detectable.

Amazingly, the visitors in turn immediately coughed up the pill, as Terrence Ellis nabbed a poorly thrown JD Head pass at the Louisiana Tech 27 yard line with 3:24 remaining in the game.

This time, though, a couple of incompletions, abetted by an alert Bulldog defense, left the Owls with fourth and six at the 23. On fourth down, TJ kept the ball and was hit near the line to gain, appearing to roll on top of a La Tech defender. The refs gave him some of that roll, but the spot turned up about six inches too short, and the ball went over.

Oh damn. Obviously, that was the Flock’s big chance to turn the game around and pull out a victory, and it just wasn’t going to happen.

But thankfully, Louisiana Tech suddenly decided to try and kill the clock, rushing their top back, Marcus Williams Jr., thrice into the line, failing to pick up a first down in the effort.

So from fourth and one at the visitors’ 27, Tech played it safe and punted – and Sean Fresch took advantage of it big-time, hauling in the ball just outside the Rice 30 yard line and storming 48 yards right back to the Louisiana Tech 18.

At that point, 1:19 remained on the scoreboard.

On first down, a pass that likely would’ve been caught by August Pitre III was interfered with, but the Owls picked up the interference call, and that put them at the three yard line, first and goal.

Two plays later, throwing desperately as he fell backwards into a heavy rush, TJ connected on a bullet to Cedric Patterson two yards deep in the end zone, giving the Feathered Flock the lead that this time they would keep.

“We did what we needed to do,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “We kept telling them, ‘This is far from over, we've got so much time left, we can get it done.’

“That’s what I wanted to see, and I wanted it so bad for our seniors,” he continued. “They’ve meant so much to this program. To do this in the fourth quarter with a very motivated team on the other sideline speaks volumes.”

“It really makes the whole rest of the year worthwhile when you get those victory locker rooms.”