Gerald J Ford Stadium may have run out of beer throughout Tuesday’s game, but it didn’t run out of feistiness from the Texas State Bobcats. Texas State finished the season 7-5, their best finish since 2014, and made their first bowl game in school history (Bobcats were not selected to a bowl game in 2014). Meanwhile, despite changes on the offensive side, Rice snuck into a six-win season to reach their six-win season. Tuesday was the fifth meeting between the two schools (the first since 1987). This matchup also marked the first time in First Responder Bowl history that the two featured teams were from the state of Texas. Overall, the chippiness and physicality showcased felt like a Texas-sized showdown.
“I don’t think our guys had any jitters; I think we were just too amped up, maybe,” Texas State head coach GJ Kinne said. “I told the guys [the] message. I was like go into a bowl game; that’s great. But winning a bowl game, that’s what matters.”
Texas State wasted no time out of the gate. First-Team All-American Ismail Mahdi started with a 26-yard gashing run on the first play, setting the tone for the Bobcats’ opening drive. Six plays later, Jahmyl Jeter hit up the seam from 29 yards and a touchdown, his longest season run for Texas State, putting them up 7-0. After both teams punted, Rice started their second drive with good field position due to kick catch interference. It was a mixture of run and pass for Rice, aided by another Bobcat personal foul penalty. The Owl’s drive concluded with Luke McCaffery’s 7-yard swing catch caught behind the line of scrimmage and ran into the end zone.
Texas State’s next possession was the TJ Finley show. Finley completed five passes aided by a terrific catch by Joey Hobert for 21 yards. After Ashtyn Hawkins ran to the Rice 3-yard line, it was three straight runs for Jeter, punching it in for his second touchdown for the opening quarter. It was a first quarter dominated by Texas State outgaining Rice 168-42.
On Rice’s first offensive play of the second, Brian Holloway ran in front of AJ Padgett’s pass to Boden Groen and took it for a 36-yard pick-six. Tuesday was Padgett’s fourth game starting for Rice after quarterback JT Daniels, season starting quarterback for the Owls, medically retired from football due to multiple concussions suffered. After the Bobcats went three-and-out, Rice went down the field in 11 plays and 77 yards. Texas State bailed out Rice with multiple third-down defensive penalties (25 yards total on the drive on two Texas State penalties). Rice scored on a Dean Connors run to cut the deficit back to 7 halfway in the second quarter for the Owls.
After another three-and-out by Texas State, Rice used the ground game attack to punch it in. On three rushes, the Owls drove down the field aided by two carries for 55 yards by Connors. It was the 28-yard rush by Connors that tied the game up. Texas State took the final minutes of the second and marched the field, but the drive stalled in the red zone as seconds wound down. The Bobcats had -1 total yards on their first two possessions of the second quarter but totaled 51 yards on the Mason Shipley 31-yard field goal drive at halftime to put Texas State up 24-21 at the break.
To start the second half, Texas State pooch-kicked the ball and recovered the kick on a muffed return, beginning with a short field. Following the recovery, Texas State scored in 10 plays and 30 yards, capped off with lineman Nate Jones’ first career touchdown (listed as 6 feet and 5 inches, weighing in at 320 pounds). The touchdown extended the Bobcats’ lead to 10 at 31-21.
“I’ve been waiting forever. We practice it every week,” Nate Jones said after the game. “They told me that I had about a 50% chance of getting called. We get down to the first end zone, I say hey let’s run it, they don’t run it. Then they call it, and I just go nuts.”
“I was going crazy on the sideline,” MVP Linebacker Brian Holloway said about the Nash Jones touchdown. “I hope there’s a video of me; it was executed perfectly. I was so hyped. I saw TJ stop, and I was like, what is he doing? I see Nash catches it; it was beautiful.”
On the ensuing possession, Padgett threw another pass intended for Groen but wound up in the hands of Holloway, who took it for his second pick-six of the night, extending the lead to 38-21. Holloway became the first Texas State Bobcat in program history with two interceptions in a game, let alone two pick-sixes, and considering it was at SMU, the place Holloway transferred from to Texas State, it was almost a Cinderella story.
“I mean to [win MVP] at SMU, the school I transferred from, it’s just the ultimate full circle story,” Holloway said. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am. For my teammates and our coaches and giving me the opportunity to have this conversation, [I’m] very grateful and a loss of words.”
“Just knowing the story of [Brian] playing [at SMU] and to come back here [and] he gets two interceptions [and] two [touchdowns], I was going absolutely crazy on the sidelines,” Nash Jones said when watching Brian’s performance Tuesday. After Nash talked, both he and Brian shook hands.
The intensity grew higher to begin the fourth quarter. Yellow laundry consistently hit the field, along with an ejection of corner Joshua Eaton of Texas State (who had two unsportsmanlike penalties against him). The 129 penalty yards by Texas State shattered the First Responder Bowl record for most penalty yardage in a game (Illinois had 68 in 2014 vs. Louisiana Tech, which was the previous high). The Bobcats proceeded to pick off Padgett one more time (by Shawn Holton), and then later in the fourth, Kaleb Ford-Dement intercepted a pass off of inserted quarterback Shawqi Itraish. Texas State added another touchdown by Jeter on another turnover, equaling seven Rice turnovers on the day (four in the fourth quarter). Bobcat nation stormed the field as Texas State did what they sought: a bowl win in their inaugural appearance, 45-21.
“We didn’t perform real well today,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “Some of it is because of Texas State and the plays they made, but there’s a lot of plays that we’re very capable of making that we did not make today.” Bloomgren did provide praise to the defense, which had to overcome seven turnovers. “We always live for the sudden change situations; you just never know what could happen,” Defensive lineman De’Braylon Carroll said when having to take the field after circumstances like turnovers. “Back against the wall [or] everything’s going good, we have to respond the same way.”
As for Texas State and the fans, Tuesday is a night that cements itself into Bobcat history. With many memories, but certain ones stick out for a few players.
“After the game, I saw my family, and I got to hug my dad. He’s been my biggest supporter from day one. When I was a butthole in high school, he was there to chastise me and get me right, put me on the straight and narrow. He’s the one to help give me god and put me on the right path,” Nash Jones said. “To see my dad after taking the bowl win and do history here to see everything that culminated just to see him and fall into his arms, I’ll never forget that.”
“Going out there and playing one more game with my brothers and knowing it’s my last game, it’s a different feeling. Especially when you look into the eyes of those other seniors, and we’re telling each other, we’re doing this for you,” Holloway said. “You don’t know it feels until it’s you [and] you’re the one that is playing your last college football game.”
Sometimes they say you always remember your first and your last, and for Brian Holloway, he will remember his last in Bobcat Maroon.