Among the many reasons Rice is competing in its first bowl game since 2008, football coach David Bailiff points to a junior-college transfer who made an immediate impact and a clutch kicker with long-range capabilities.
Together, they stand as the team's Keller Connection heading into Saturday's matchup in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl between Rice (6-6) and Air Force (6-6) at TCU's Amon G. Carter Stadium (10:45 a.m., ESPN).
At last count, center Nate Richards, from Keller High School, and kicker Chris Boswell, from Keller Fossil Ridge, are projecting a combined rooting section of roughly 60 fans to watch them play their first college football game in Tarrant County.
"The more, the better," said Boswell, who booted a game-winning, 45-yard field goal as time expired in the Owls' 25-24 victory over Kansas on Sept. 8 and became the sixth player in NCAA history to hit three field goals from 50-plus yards in the same game during a 36-14 victory over SMU on Nov. 17.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Boswell's range and accuracy (21-of-26 on field-goal attempts this season) have earned him the nickname "Automatic," said tight end Vance McDonald.
"He's made some serious game-changers for us," McDonald said.
Likewise, quarterback Taylor McHargue said Richards has been a force in the trenches since arriving in January from Trinity Valley Community College, where Richards (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) earned junior-college All-America honors in 2011 after beginning his college career at Central Arkansas.
"He's solidified the offensive line," McHargue said. "That was a question mark for us last spring, but Nate came in ...and it was almost a seamless transition."
Richards' emergence has been noteworthy because he is the first junior-college signee Rice has been able to admit in Bailiff's six seasons at the school. Under Rice's stringent academic guidelines, junior-college transfers must meet the same requirements as incoming freshmen. Bailiff said Richards, a junior, was the first JC player he found with college board scores that were "through the roof" and fit a position of need.
"With his level of maturity and intelligence, he became a leader in the offensive line almost immediately. And you don't see that very often, a junior-college transfer making the kind of impact he's made," Bailiff said. "He wants to be great at this game. He sets the protections, and he learned them in a very limited time and just continues to improve."
Richards said he never gave up hope that his college career would blossom, even while redshirting (2009 season) and receiving limited playing time (four games in 2010) at Central Arkansas.
"I always believed I was able to play. So I just kept looking and kept trying to fight to get to a spot that I could succeed at," Richards said.
He's found that at Rice. So has Boswell, who has become a security blanket for the Owls. The junior made the watch list for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation's top kicker, and is considered one of the Owls' top prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft.
"We have the utmost confidence in him," McHargue said. "Any time you get past the 50, it feels like you're in range."
Boswell would like to cap his homecoming at the Armed Forces Bowl with a game-winning field goal in front of family and friends.
"That's every kicker's dream, no matter who you are," Boswell said. "I've had one chance [in college] against Kansas, and I put it through. I'm always ready. To me, every kick is the same. I go to my kicking net on the sideline and I just keep kicking it until I feel right. And then, I just do what I know how to do."
Both teams held their final practices Thursday, with Rice working out at TCU's indoor practice facility and Air Force prepping outdoors at Kennedale High School. Because of the wintry conditions this week, the Falcons' practice was the only outdoor session for either team after arriving in Fort Worth.
Bowl officials still have about 2,000 tickets available for Saturday's game. Prices range from $20 to $150 and can be purchased online at www.ArmedForcesBowl.com or by calling the bowl office at 817-810-0012. Tickets may be purchased at the stadium gates Saturday.
Both teams visited Cook Children's Medical Center after practice Thursday and took part in team dinners at Reata, followed by comedy shows at Four Day Weekend in Sundance Square.
Bowl officials will have a pep rally for the teams at 6 tonight at the Flying Saucer in Sundance Square.
Of the 18 Texans on the Air Force bowl roster, 14 are either starters or second-teamers on the Falcons' depth chart.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760