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Rice 42, La Tech 41 (OT)

The King and his Court, post La Tech victory (courtesy Rice Sports information)

RUSTON, La (Oct. 23) – As the clock ticked down to signal the end of the first quarter here Saturday, even the most Pollyanna of Owl fans surely must have been wishing for a bridge from which to jump.

After Rice’s three-quarters-long collapse at Florida Atlantic the Saturday before, the Institute Men came out making even that abortive effort look good by comparison.  The Owls trailed 10-0, but a more representative score at that point would have been more like 21-0, as a lowly La Tech team wasn’t exactly taking advantages of the South Main Boys' ample gifts.

A defense that allowed the Louisianans’ running efforts to cut through them like warm butter, a cough-up of a sure TD fumbled away at the Bulldog one yard line – one of three fumble turnovers in the Owls’ first five possessions, and an offense that misfired seemingly every play, racking up negative-yardage possessions one after the other – all of it formed a hole that seemed impossible to climb out of to save a season.

After a blah second quarter in which the Flock defense began to show signs of life, in the waning seconds before halftime, the Owls managed to get on the scoreboard via a picture-perfect, 32-yard TD pass from TJ McMahon to Luke McCaffrey, and the thought occurred, 'hey, we’re still in this thing.'

But come to think of it, this operation hasn't been known for its momentous half-time adjustments.  On second thought, maybe this was just the way things were going to be for the rest of the season.  Bowl game? Phhht....

But something did happen in that halftime locker room.

“There were just so many things in the first half that were just like ‘we’re really close.’ And that was really the message at halftime," Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said.  "It was like, ‘hey, guys…we have endured their best shot.  We have to go out and play our kind of football for 30 minutes, and we’ll find a way to win this thing.’”

And that’s precisely what happened – well, with one overtime period added in for good measure. 

TJ:  'We calmed ourselves'

“With our backs against the wall, things started clicking,” quarterback TJ McMahon said. “We calmed ourselves and we got focused.”

Focused they did get, the Owl offense driving for touchdowns each and every time they got their hands on the ball the second half, save for one glaring one, with the Owls closing in on the lead.  Enter the gendarmerie.

“On that drive (early in the fourth quarter), we had a fourth and one at midfield that we converted,” Coach Bloom  pointed out, “and there was a call by the officials that was inaccurate, and it cost us that drive.”

In fact, it almost cost the Owls the game when La Tech’s third-string quarterback came in at the eleventh hour to replace Bulldog signal callers who were ahead of him on the depth chart, both kiboshed by injury. With seconds remaining on the scoreboard clock, and the Owls nursing a 35-27 lead, the Bulldogs’ Cyrus Allen caught a 19-yard touchdown pass from true freshman Landry Lyddy, who then promptly threw a perfect pass to his Tre Harris to complete the two-point conversion that took the game to overtime.

And in that first overtime period, after the Owls’ Juma Otoviano romped for 19 yards on second down from the 23; then scored easily the next play to put the Owls up by seven, that same La Tech frosh QB hit a perfectly timed pass to Tre Harris again  for six points.

It was at that juncture that La Tech coach Sonny Cumbie, to his credit, decided to go for two and either win or lose right then and there.  The decision worked out well for the Owls, as Lyddy’s corner toss sailed several feet over the outstretched hands of his receiver, and the game belonged to the Institute.

Actually the second half started on a huge down note, after the Owl defense three and outed the Bulldogs on their opening possession, Izeya Floyd clamping down on the second-string La Tech QB Matthew Downing for no gain on third and four.

But the almost-always reliable punt return man Sean Fresch (who had a great game otherwise) coughed up the pill at the Rice 28, and La Tech pushed it across to extend their lead to 17-7 with less than two minutes gone in the third.

That’s when the procession of Owl touchdowns-on-every-possession began.

Cam gets things cranked up

Cam Montgomery got the Flock off to a roaring start with a 45-yard jaunt down the home sideline to put the Owls on the lip of cup, where, two plays later, TJ McMahon hit Bradley Rozner open in the end zone.

Still, though, the Rice defense continued have trouble stopping the enemy offense.  On the ensuing kickoff, La Tech’s “Smoke” Harris zig-zagged 65 yards to the Rice 33, setting the table for a 32-yard TD pass from Downing to “Tre” Harris (was that actually one guy with two different jerseys?) once again relegating the South Main boys to a 10-point deficit.

But there was no stopping  TJ & Company from there on out. Next possession, the boys drove 89 yards in seven plays, capped off by a nine-yard TD pass from TJ to, who else, Luke McCaffrey.

La Tech responded with a 41-yard Jacob Barnes field goal to extend the home team’s lead to 27-21 on the last play of the third quarter – Tech having called timeout with one second left to preserve a decided favorable wind advantage – but thereupon the worm turned again.

The Rice defense held for a three-and-out, next go-round, and after Sean Fresch safely tucked in a fair catch at the Rice 36, on the first play, TJ McMahon found a seam, burst into the clear and dashed 64 yards for the score, giving the Owls their first lead of the day, at 28-27.

Once again the Bulldogs were three-and-outed on their ensuing possession, and that set up another long, this time time-consuming, drive that featured the hoofing it of Juma Otaviano and the pass-catching and running of Luke McCaffery, who, after he pulled in TJ’s pass for 20 yards to the La Tech 29, set up in the Wild Owl formation and ran consecutively for 17 yards and then 12 more for the score to give the Owls what appeared to be insurance points, what with the lead being extended to eight at 35-27 with just under four minutes remaining in the game.

From there, La Tech moved the ball ponderously down the field as the clock ticked, until, with 48 seconds remaining, they faced third and seven at the Rice 39.  Second-string QB Matthew Downing dropped back to pass, the Rice defense blitzed, and had him dead to rights – only an Owl defender tripped, or was tripped, and crashed headlong into the QB's lower leg – a total inadvertence the put him out of the game and brought on his understudy.

It was "penalty by result" -- a roughing-the-passer call that preserved the La Tech drive.

Frosh's miracle heaves almost stole back game for LaTech

You know the rest of the story, as three miracle heaves by  Lyddy tied the score and then brought the Bulldogs seemingly even in overtime, whereupon their go-for-broke two-point try failed.

“We didn’t want to end with another loss,” said running back Juma Otoviano at game’s end. “Today, we did what we had to do to win.”

Aside from TJ and Luke, Juma was the head mail-toter in the second half for the Owls, winding up with 55 key yards on ten carries.

As for the aforementioned, T.J. McMahon was 16 out of 27 for 208 yards on the day to go along with his 64-yard rushing touchdown, while Luke McCaffrey hauled in 10 passes for 171 yards in addition to his 34 yards on the ground via the Wild Owl.

In retrospect, had La Tech’s overtime two-point try been successful, there’d have been much wailing and gnashing of teeth among Owl faithful, having suffered a loss to one of the lowest-ranked teams in FBS -- one that was down to its third-string quarterback, no less.   But it wasn’t.

“Winning sometimes covers up too many scars and too many blemishes, but we’re not going to let it," Coach Bloom insisted. “We’re going to learn from the film and we’re going to watch it with a critical eye and we’re going to try to become a much better version of ourselves before we play Charlotte next Saturday.”