Most Interesting Modern Group of Five Conference Champions: 2013 Rice

During the off-season, Forgotten Five has decided to do some research. We launched a multi-part series looking at some of the Group of Five’s most unique conference champions.

Teams such as Boise’s great teams, the 2004 and 2008 Utah teams, and Hawaii’s 2007 team receive so much attention as the Group of Five’s greatest teams in recent memory. Forgotten are the teams that had dream seasons or overcame odd circumstances but did not have a major bowl to show for it. This series tells their tales.

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?”

September 12 1962. JFK’s revered words ushered in a period of hope with the advent of America’s pursuit to the moon. Things were looking up for the country. On the other hand, Kennedy’s words may have ushered in a period of futility for the Rice Owls.

Over the next 44 years, the program would have one of the most desolate periods of any school in the country. From 1962-2005, the Owls had zero bowl appearances and one share of a conference title to their name. The conference title was a four-way split that only happened because Jackie Sherrill worked his magic and earned Texas A&M some recruiting violations. To make matters worse, they only notched two wins over their rival Texas in the period.

The Owls faced an uphill battle wherever they went. In the Southwest Conference, their rigid academic standards were no match for their colleagues, who committed every recruiting violation under the sun. After the SWC disbanded, they went to the WAC, where the geography did not work out, and continued to struggle in one the better non-AQ conferences.

After joining C-USA in 2005, things began to look up as they earned three bowl appearances in the next eight years, led by the dynamic tandem of Chase Clement and Jarret Dillard early on.

Rice was no longer a laughing stock, but they were no powerhouse either. They came into 2013, fresh off a 7-6 record and a win over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl, but few expected Rice to be anymore than a mid-tier bowl team.

Flying High

To open the season, the Owls were competitive against #7 Texas A&M in a game where Johnny Manziel famously missed the first half over an autograph controversy. The Owls were only down 28-21 at halftime before the Aggies pulled away for a 52-31 win.

The next week, the Owls gained a win over a Big 12 school in Kansas as Charles Ross led the way with 157 rushing yards and a score in a 23-14 win. A loss to crosstown rival, Houston followed as the Owls nearly erased an 18-point 4th quarter deficit in a 31-26 loss.

Going into conference play, the Owls found their groove winning five straight. The first two games required late-game heroics. In their first conference game, Rice won a battle of the Owls over FAU with the help of two touchdowns in the final five minutes in a 18-14 win. The next week, Rice blew a 24-13 4th quarter lead only to win in overtime over Tulsa on a walk-off 25-yard touchdown pass from Taylor McHargue to Darik Dillard.

The following weeks came a lot easier for the Owls as they made easy work of New Mexico State, UTSA, and UTEP. The momentum halted as Rice lost a Thursday night game to North Texas 28-16, despite the Mean Green only scoring two offensive touchdowns.

Introducing Luke Turner

Sitting at 6-3, Rice was very much in the C-USA West race, but needed a strong finish. That’s when the most unorthodox of heroes emerged in Wildcat QB Luke Turner. In the first nine games, he only totaled 19 yards on 11 carries, but he had a coming out party the next two weeks.

In a 52-14 win against Louisiana Tech, Turner quadrupled his rushing totals with a 76 yard performance on only nine carries, also adding a touchdown. The next week, under the Thursday night lights at Legion Field, Turner helped Rice continue their dream run with a one-yard run out of the Wildcat to win the game in overtime, 37-34, for the Owls.

The win over the Blazers set up a wild final week for C-USA’s West Division. Three teams remained alive for the division going into Thanksgiving week. Rice controlled their own destiny, but WAC castoff UTSA and Tulane, seeking their first conference title since the magical 1998 season, were ready to take advantage of a Rice slip-up.

Facing Tulane, the defense came up big, holding the Green Wave to 123 yards and six first downs in a 17-13 win as the Owls punched their ticket to their first Conference USA title game.

Going into the title game, the Owls looked like underdogs against an explosive Marshall offense, which came in averaging over 44 points per game, and boasted a 3,000 yard passer in Rakeem Cato, a 1,000 yard rusher in Essray Taliaferro, and a 1,000 yard receiver in Tommy Shuler.

However, the magic continued for Rice. On the wings of one of the most fascinating big game MVP performances ever, late-season hero Luke Turner did it all for the Owls, running for 49 yards on nine carries and completing both of his passes for 43 yards and two touchdowns.

Turner was truly a Swiss Army knife for the Owls, gaining 164 rushing yards and two touchdowns, completing 3 passes for 100 yards, and even punting six times for a 36 yard average by season’s end.

In the 41-24 win, the Owls clinched their first outright conference title since 1957 and a trip to the historic Liberty Bowl against Mississippi State.

Against the Bulldogs, the Owls came crashing down to reality in a 44-7 loss, but the result did not put a damper on the new heights the Owls reached. For the first time in 56 years, the Owls were conference champions, with a do-it-all back gaining cult status.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

So it may have taken a lot longer than a decade for Rice to get to the Moon, and the moon may have changed conference affiliations in that span, but in the end, JFK’s words were prophetic for the Owls.

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