Two touchdown passes in a span of 19 seconds were all Driphus Jackson needed to give Rice the spark it needed in the Hawaii Bowl.
The defense took it from there.
Jackson had his best game of the year by passing for 318 yards and three touchdowns, and Rice set a Hawaii Bowl record by holding Fresno State without a touchdown Wednesday night in a 30-6 victory that completed a remarkable turnaround for the Owls.
Rice (8-5) started the season at 0-3 and ended it with its second bowl victory in the last three years.
“It seemed like every time we needed a big play, Driphus made one,” Rice coach David Bailiff said. “It was probably our best defensive effort of the year. I thought our secondary was just outstanding. This really cements the legacy of the senior class — the winningest three years in school history.”
The Houston school with a reputation as the “Harvard of the Southwest” still won’t be mistaken for a football juggernaut. But the Owls are 25-15 over the last three seasons and set a school record with their third straight trip to a bowl. Better yet, they’re winning them.
This one wasn’t really close.
Even though Rice dominated early, it was tied at 3 early in the first quarter when Jackson was perfect on a fly route to Dennis Parks down the left sideline for a 53-yard gain that led to his 14-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Taylor.
Brian Burrell’s deep throw was intercepted on Fresno State’s next play from scrimmage, and Jackson then slightly underthrew a deep ball to Mario Hull, who came back for the catch and eluded two defenders to complete at 69-yard touchdown.
“We couldn’t ask for a better momentum shift,” Jackson said. “When you have two scores in 19 seconds, and then on the kickoff return we have a great hit, emotions are running high and we responded OK. I wish we could have scored more on the offensive side of the ball to counter what the defense was doing. But we got the win, and that’s all that matters.”
Fresno State (6-8), the only team with a losing record to play a bowl game this year, broke its Hawaii Bowl record for fewest points. Fresno State scored 10 points two years ago in a lopsided loss to SMU. It was the fewest points Fresno State scored all year.
The Bulldogs lost to Rice for the first time — they had a 6-0 edge from their old WAC days — and dropped their sixth consecutive bowl game.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to get over the hump,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said.
Rice piled up 463 yards and held Fresno State to 93 yards passing, well below the Bulldogs’ season average of 238 yards. Brian Burrell was 10 of 20 for 44 yards and didn’t complete a pass longer than 8 yards.
The Owls were coming a 76-31 loss to Louisiana Tech in which they gave up 677 yards in a game that decided the West division of Conference USA. They redeemed themselves against the Bulldogs.
“Defensively, everybody had kind of a chip on their shoulder,” safety Julius White said. “That was the way we wanted to go out in the regular season. We didn’t really play much like ourselves in that game, so we made this game something that we had to prove.”
The Bulldogs made enough defensive adjustments to hold Rice to one first down and 4 yards in the second quarter to at least stay in range.
Their offense, however, offered little in return.
Fresno State was helped by a defensive holding call on fourth-and-7 to reach the 26, but it could only manage another field goal by Koedy Kroenig from 40 yards. Late in the first half and trailing 16-6, Fresno State again went for it on fourth-and-1 from the 18. Burrell threw a quick sideline pass to Greg Watson, only for Bryce Callahan to break through a block and drop him for a 3-yard loss that kept Rice up by 10 at intermission.
Callahan later picked off Burrell’s deep throw, and that was the end of Burrell’s night. He was replaced by Zack Greenlee, who was equally ineffective.
One drive effectively sealed the game for the Owls. Jackson worked the sidelines beautifully to complete four straight passes and move them down the field on their second drive of the third quarter. On third-and-2, he found Parks down the sideline. Parks stiff-armed linebacker Donavon Lewis and raced into the end zone for a 40-yard touchdown pass and a 23-6 lead.
It was Parks’ first touchdown reception of the year, and he went over 100 yards receiving for the first time this season.