FORT WORTH, Texas – Kale Pearson gave the Air Force offense a quick boost in the Armed Forces Bowl, leading the Falcons to two touchdowns in less than 4 minutes.
Only problem was that is all they got.
Freshman quarterback Driphus Jackson, thrust into action when Rice's starter sustained a concussion, threw for 264 yards and two touchdowns to Jordan Taylor and the Owls beat Air Force 33-14 on Saturday.
"We really struggled. We had a good second quarter," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "But there's no way you win this game playing well in one quarter."
Or half of one.
The Falcons (6-7) gained 101 yards on the first two drives Pearson was in the game. But, aside from that, they had only 113 yards to finish with a season-low 214.
Air Force has made a school-record six consecutive bowl appearances under Calhoun, but is 2-4 in those games (1-3 in the Armed Forces Bowl). The Falcons lost four of its last five games to finish this season.
"It's now the way we wanted to end," Calhoun said. "We have to increase our size. I thought there were times today where there was one block against the one defender, and that play happened on both sides. ... The mass difference, I think that's one that really, really we've got to come up with a way to change that part, the way we operate."
Rice (7-6), which had to win four in a row just to get bowl eligible, has won both of its bowl games under sixth-year coach David Bailiff. Before their 2008 Texas Bowl victory, the Owls had lost their only four bowl games since winning the 1954 Cotton Bowl.
"This football team has overcome a lot of adversity and really played well down the stretch," Bailiff said. "We had a very motivational talk with our team just before the winning streak, and our coaching staff and players worked hard and kept improving every game."
And this is a Rice team with only seven seniors, three of them tight ends.
The Owls were 1-5 after a loss at Memphis on Oct. 6, and their only loss was 28-24 to Conference USA champion Tulsa.
"We had our ups and downs. To cap it after the start we had, it means the world," said running back Turner Petersen (nine carries for 81 yards).
Pearson came on with about 9 minutes left in the first half, right after Rice's Chris Boswell was wide right on a 52-yard field goal attempt. He had made a kick that was nullified because Air Force called timeout.
Air Force then went 66 yards in 10 plays. Pearson had a 15-yard pass and ended the drive with a wide sweeping 9-yard run to get into the front corner of the end zone to tie the game at 7 with 6:14 left in the first half.
After Rice starting quarterback Taylor McHargue sustained a concussion and fumbled on helmet-to-helmet collision, the Falcons went 35 yards in nine plays for a 14-7 lead. Mike DeWitt converted fourth-and-1 with a 2-yard run, and Wes Cobb scored on a 1-yard run with 2:36 left.
"I just tried to run the offense," Pearson said.
Since the Falcons' last game, senior quarterback Connor Dietz has graduated from the academy and been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force.
Dietz ran six times for 11 yards and completed only 1 of 3 passes.
Pearson wasn't must better, 2-of-8 passing for 44 yards with six carries for 11 yards. But he was on the field for both of Air Force's scoring drives.
Jackson's first series, after Air Force's second TD, ended with a bad pitch near the goal line only 2 seconds before halftime. It was the third lost fumble by Rice in the second quarter.
"We didn't make a lot of adjustments at halftime," said Taylor, who had nine catches for 153 yards and three TDs, including a 16-yarder from McHargue in the first quarter. "The coaches just told us to execute and protect the football better than we did in the first half."
Jackson, who finished 15-of-21 passing, had consecutive completions of 25 and 22 yards before a 2-yard keeper and then a 22-yard TD to Taylor on Rice's opening drive of the second half.
The Owls went ahead to stay, 21-14, when Jackson hit six passes in a row to set up Charles Ross' 2-yard TD run.
"As soon as the starter went out, we knew there were adjustments we had to make," Calhoun said. "We put an enormous amount of strain on our defense. Any time you make only 12 first downs, you're going to tax your defense."