Southern Miss was in strong control of the LendingTree Bowl. And then they weren’t. And then they remembered the guy wearing the #3 jersey and rode his back the rest of the way as Southern Miss “Gores” Rice, 38-24.
Frank Gore, Jr. had the game of the day. It may turn out to be the game of the bowl season. He rushed for 329 yards on 21 carries to go with two touchdowns. He was also two of three passing for 19 yards and a touchdown. The rushing yards set a school single-game record. It is also an FBS bowl record.
Rice came in at 5-7 and was granted a waiver to play based on their academics/APR when there were not enough qualified teams to fill all the spots. Southern Miss was looking just to get to a winning record, coming in at 6-6.
Fast Start For Southern Miss
It was a game of streaks, that ended with Gore streaking for the final touchdown of the game. Gore’s performance overshadowed what was a breakout game for Rice’s freshman quarterback A.J. Padgett.
Southern Miss jumped into the lead on the first drive of the game. Quarterback Trey Lowe III took the Eagles 75 yards downfield in six plays. He connected with Jakarius Caston on a 19-yard touchdown play to go up 7-0. Lowe was three of four for 65 yards on the drive.
Southern Miss’ defensive pressure was in Padgett’s face all night. It caused Rice to be playing behind the chains much of the night. In the second quarter, the Owls had to punt from deep in their own end zone. One play later, Gore ran 64 yards along the right sideline for a touchdown and the 14-0 Southern Miss lead.
The two teams traded field goals to make it 17-3 at the half.
Owls Fly High
And then the offensive fireworks started. Just not the ones anyone expected. It was Padgett who put on a clinic. He threw three touchdown passes in the third quarter to put Rice in the lead.
On Rice’s initial drive of the second half, the first-year freshman quarterback hit Isaiah Esdale streaking between two defensive backs into the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown pass. The South Miss lead was down to 17-10.
On the next series, Lowe went back to pass. The pocket collapsed around him, and he tried to hand the ball off to Gore but fumbled it. Rice recovered at the Southern Miss 32-yard line. On the next play, Padgett found a wide-open Esdale on the left side of the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown pass and the game was all of a sudden tied at 17-17.
Southern Miss could not answer the offense put out there by Rice. The Golden Eagles went three-and-out and had to punt the ball away. Rice had to start at its own 13-yard line. Not a problem for Padgett’s offense. Cameron Montgomery ripped off a 57-yard run to the Southern Miss 30-yard line. Three plays later, Padgett fired off his third touchdown pass of the quarter to a wide-open Bradley Rozner on the right side of the end zone. The Owls had scored 21 unanswered points and had a 24-17 lead.
The problem for Rice was that the defense had no answer for stopping Gore. It’s hard to imagine any defense would have on this night. From the Rice 39-yard line, Gore zig-zagged his way for 25 yards. Four plays later he was throwing the ball, 18 yards to Tiaquelin Mims for a touchdown and the 24-24 tie.
A couple of possessions later, Southern Miss put its definitive stamp on the game. The Golden Eagles started their drive at the Rice two-yard line. Gore got them out of a hole with a 59-yard run. Lowe had a touchdown pass taken off the board with an offensive pass interference call. It mattered not. He connected with Jason Brownlee on a 26-yard score when the receiver made a diving one-armed catch in the end zone. It capped a 98-yard drive and put the Eagles out front for good.
Rice had one more shot. They drove the length of the field. On fourth and goal from the five-yard line, Padgett’s pass into the end zone was batted down.
The teams exchanged possessions one more time before Gore ran off a 56-yard touchdown to put the game away for good, 38-24.
Padgett, under duress the entire game, finished 19-37 for 295 yards and three touchdowns in what was only his third career start. Rice managed to put up 425 yards of offense, which would have been enough to turn more than a game or two in their favor this season.
Lowe finished the game seven of 16 for 170 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t need any more than that because Gore plays for his team. Gore was a thousand-yard rusher coming into the game, averaging just over five yards per carry. His average Saturday was a mere 15.7 yards per carry.