Stars Are Bright For Texas State in 45-21 win

Stars are bright for Texas State

The stars are bright for Texas State now that the Bobcats have won the first bowl game in program history, a 45-21 win over Rice in the First Responder Bowl.  It was the biggest victory in the program’s history since joining the FBS in 2012.  The win also secured Texas State Head Coach G.J. Kinne as one of the hottest coaching prospects in the nation.  But for now, the Bobcats and their fans are happy to bask in this historical moment.

Texas State (8-5) signed Kinne to a contract extension through 2028 in the days leading up to the bowl game.  In his first year at Texas State since leaving the University of the Incarnate Word, Kinne has already been in the rumor mill since the regular season ended.  The contract extension makes him one of highest highest-paid coaches in the Sun Belt with a base salary of about one million.  He brought TJ Finley in at quarterback, and the sophomore transfer from Auburn threw for 3,287 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first year with the Bobcats.  Texas State ranked no. 23 nationally in passing yards per game with Finley calling the plays.

Rice (6-7) scored back-to-back wins over Charlotte and Florida Atlantic to become bowl-eligible.  The Owls started the game with a backup quarterback and trailed 24-21 at halftime.  Sixth-year Head Coach Mike Bloomgren was without the services of quarterback JT Daniels but had his team ready for the upset.  But Rice could not overcome the combination of Finley and running back Ismail Mahdi.

Opening Game Jitters

The Bobcats opened the game with a heavy dose of running behind Mahdi.  We told you all about Mahdi in the bowl preview.  The stars are bright for Texas State whenever he touches the ball.  He rushed for 1,209 yards and 10 touchdowns heading into the First Responder Bowl.  As potent as Texas State is running the ball, the Bobcats entered the game ranked 23rd in the nation in passing offense for a reason.  Texas State fired up its offense and kicked off the First Responder Bowl with a 7-play, 75-yard drive bolstered by Mahdi and capped off with Jahmyl Jeter’s 29-yard touchdown run.  They went straight through the Rice defense behind the rushing duo of Mahdi and Jeter.  Everything seemed set for Texas State as far as the offense was concerned.

The Owls were in the capable hands of AJ Padgett.  The redshirt freshman quarterback was in the same position last year when he was called off the bench to start in the Lending Tree Bowl.  He was summoned again late this season when Daniels was injured.  Having started the final three games of the regular season, Padgett was up to the task.  He connected with Landon Ransom-Goelz on a 12-yard pass to kick-start the Rice offense.  Padgett put the finishing touch on the drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Luke McCaffrey that tied the game, 7-7.

Finley Catches Fire

Raise your hand if you had TJ Finley lighting it up on your betting slip.  He heated up fast, going 5-for-5 for 82 yards as Texas State marched down the field.  Jeter plunged into the end zone for another score and the Bobcats seemed to have the offense part figured out with a 14-7 lead.

Just when Padgett got Rice back on the field, Texas State linebacker Brian Holloway stepped in front of a pass and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown and a 21-7 Bobcats advantage.  Finley looked comfortable operating the offense with a 2-touchdown lead in his pocket.  He looked like the final piece of the program’s first bowl season falling into place.  Having made earlier stops at Auburn and LSU, Finley was the veteran signal-caller called upon to orchestrate Offensive Coordinator Mack Leftwich’s scheme.

Owls Claw Back

Rice let an opportunity slip through its fingers last season when they lost to Southern Miss in the Lending Tree Bowl.  The Owls were not going to let it happen again without a fight.  Thanks in part to a trio of penalties on the Texas State defense, Rice was able to scratch and claw its way back to within 21-14.  Padgett guided the Owls 77 yards on 11 plays as the backup quarterback warmed up to the game.

Meanwhile, the Rice defense was holding Texas State to 3-and-out possessions on three straight drives.  The Owls used the extra possessions to work running back Dean Connors into the game.  The surprising junior continued his run of strong performances, rushing nine times for 60 yards and two scores in the first half.  Connors finished the regular season as the team leader in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and all-purpose yards.  His 28-yard scoring romp tied the game at 21-21 late in the second quarter.  As he has all season, Connors was able to shoulder the load under Offensive Coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo’s system.

Second Half Breakout

What Texas State really needed was a sustained drive to start the second half.  It got exactly that with a 10-play drive that finished with a flair.  Offensive lineman Nash Jones took a lateral and rumbled into the end zone from the 3-yard line to open a 31-21 lead.

Holloway broke open the game with his second pick-six of the game when he reeled in a Padgett pass and returned it 48 yards for the score.  Holloway’s touchdown made it 38-21.  His two scores occurred in a homecoming game for Holloway, who transferred to Texas State from SMU after the 2021 season.  Playing at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas again, he spearheaded a Bobcats defense that limited Padgett to 85 yards on 10-of-21 passing.  Texas State also picked off three Padgett passes.  Even the rushing exploits of Connors would not be enough to offset Rice’s inability to throw the ball.

How It Ended

Desperate for offense, Bloomgren inserted freshman quarterback Chase Jenkins into the game.  Texas State defensive linemen Dominique Ratcliff and Jordan Revels converged on Jenkins for a sack on the freshman’s first drive.  Bloomgren pulled Jenkins in the fourth quarter for sophomore Shawqi Itraish, who promptly threw an interception to Kaleb Ford-Dement.  No matter who was running the Rice offense, the Bobcats had all the answers.

The stars are bright for Texas State now that it has its first bowl win under its belt.  The Bobcats open 2024 with Lamar, UTSA, Arizona State, and Sam Houston.  With their historical 2023 behind them and their red-hot coach under contract, Texas State seems poised for further success.


Stars are bright for Texas State
Photo courtesy:  Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports


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