As he looked into the eyes of his starting quarterback, Rice coach David Bailiff knew Taylor McHargue's day was done before McHargue wobbled to the sideline after taking a big hit on a second-quarter run in Saturday's Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.
McHargue's concussion thrust the Rice offense, already in comeback mode, into the hands of Driphus Jackson, a redshirt freshman from Cedar Hill, who immediately capped his first possession with a lost fumble at the Air Force 5-yard line.
But a strange thing happened in the second half to a quarterback whom Bailiff described as playing with "high anxiety" during big games earlier this season. Jackson relaxed, started shredding the Air Force secondary with his precise passing and led the Owls on five second-half scoring drives.
Rice rolled past Air Force 33-14 at Amon G. Carter Stadium to secure the school's second bowl victory in the past 59 seasons and the Owls' first postseason triumph outside of Houston since the 1954 Cotton Bowl.
Jackson, who struggled in a 35-14 loss to Houston on Sept. 29 when he started for an injured McHargue, stepped comfortably into the limelight in emergency duty Saturday. He completed 15 of 21 passes for a game-high 264 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. Both scoring strikes went to receiver Jordan Taylor, who had nine catches for 153 yards and three TDs. Jackson added 32 rushing yards and, on six second-half possessions, led the Owls to three touchdowns and two field goals during a 26-0 salvo after intermission.
"In the Houston game, ... he was skittish in the pocket and quick to run. But today, he played like a seasoned veteran," Bailiff said. "You could tell in his body language. He had a swagger. We didn't have to dilute the offense."
Instead, Jackson elevated the Owls' attack to a higher level than McHargue was able to achieve in a first half marked by three lost fumbles -- two by McHargue, one by Jackson -- and a 14-7 deficit. But Jackson said teammates built up his confidence at halftime despite the lost fumble and he reached a new comfort level in the third quarter.
"In the second half, the game kind of slowed down for me," Jackson said. "I settled myself down and I was able to get all the moving parts together. ... They gave me the keys and let me go."
That resulted in second-half scoring drives of 87, 74, 49, 63 and 36 yards. In seven Jackson-led possessions, Rice racked up 388 yards and never punted.
On the Owls' 87-yard drive to the tying touchdown, Jackson's 25-yard completion to Vance McDonald converted a third-and-8 to move the ball into scoring territory. On the go-ahead scoring drive, Jackson hit six consecutive passes, covering 75 yards, before Charles Ross' 2-yard scoring run put the Owls ahead to stay, 21-14, with 14:25 to play.
"Driphus came in and performed as if he were our starter," said Rice running back Turner Petersen, who ground out a game-high 81 yards. "He put up some big numbers for us."
The Rice defense made it stand up by pitching a second-half shutout and limiting the Falcons to 53 total yards on 23 plays after intermission (2.3 per snap). Although media voters selected Taylor as Rice's Most Outstanding Player, based on his Armed Forces Bowl-record 153 receiving yards and three touchdown catches (tying another bowl record), there was no question about who emerged Saturday as the Owls' most pivotal performer.
Until Jackson stabilized the offense in the second half, Rice (7-6) was on the ropes and in danger of falling to Air Force (6-7). Falcons linebacker Alex Means said Jackson's elusiveness and accuracy proved pivotal in turning the momentum.
"He evaded our pass rush and stepped up in the pocket and made some pretty good throws," Means said. "His receivers made some big plays for him. I'd say he played a pretty good game."
Good enough to allow Rice to post its ninth winning record in the past 50 seasons, and eighth since 1992. The triumph was the fifth in a row to close the season after a 1-5 start.
"It's pretty surreal," Taylor said of the Owls' turnaround. "This is my first bowl game to play in, or win. It's an awesome feeling. It really is."
It became reality because Jackson stepped up in an emergency situation with the breakthrough performance of his college career.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760