FORT WORTH, Texas – Air Force’s backup quarterback lit a spark; Rice’s backup caught fire.
In a game where four quarterbacks contributed, it was Rice second-stringer Driphus Jackson who helped the Owls score all 26 second-half points in zooming past Air Force 33-14 in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium.
“They kind of gave me the keys and told me to go,” said Jackson, a redshirt freshman with one career start. “That’s what I did.”
Jackson completed 15-of-21 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns, while running for 32 yards. Under his guidance the Owls (7-6) committed no second-half turnovers and turned a game that was tied going into the fourth quarter into a runaway in front of an announced crowd of 40,754.
Until Jackson took command Saturday, it looked like the backup from the other side would be the story of the game.
Air Force (6-7) coach Troy Calhoun, who pushed every button at his disposal, made a quarterback switch with his team trailing 7-0 in the second quarter. The move from senior Connor Dietz to sophomore Kale Pearson immediately paid off, with Pearson leading a tying 66-yard touchdown drive that he capped with a 9-yard run.
The Falcons then went 35 yards after a Rice turnover – one of three in the first half for the Owls – and went ahead 14-7 on Wes Cobb’s 1-yard plunge.
The offensive highlights stopped there for the Falcons. Dietz and Pearson both saw time in the second half, but the offense picked up just two first downs over the final two quarters and the strain showed on a defense that eventually collapsed.
“The second half, every single spot, we didn’t play at the level that you have to play,” Calhoun said.
Rice had no such problems, outgaining the Falcons 331-58 in the second half.
The loss of starting quarterback Taylor McHargue to a second-quarter concussion didn’t slow anything, thanks to Jackson’s performance.
“You could tell just in his body language that he had a swagger and some confidence,” Rice coach David Bailiff said. “We didn’t have to dilute the offense at all, the way he was playing allowed us to continue to utilize our entire playbook.”
It didn’t hurt that Jackson had a massive mismatch to exploit. Air Force cornerback Chris Miller, who stands 5-foot-8, couldn’t keep pace with Rice’s 6-5 target Jordan Taylor. The sophomore set an Armed Forces Bowl record with 153 yards while tying marks with nine catches and three touchdowns.
“Being tall is a good thing, but most corners we play are about that size,” Taylor said. “Conference USA is known more for speed than for size. We took advantage of matchups today and it really worked out.”
The Falcons didn’t go away without trying to be creative.
In addition to swapping quarterbacks, Calhoun started offensive lineman Jason Kons in the backfield, he called for a fake punt in the second quarter (which didn’t work) and his timeout just before the snap on a second-quarter field-goal attempt from Rice negated a kick that was good from 52 yards and resulted in a miss on the second try.
“That was part of our game plan coming in,” Calhoun said. “And yet when it doesn’t come to fruition, I think for everyone coaching, you go back and look at what we did.”
Much of the attention during and after the game was on Calhoun’s decision to rotate quarterbacks.
Dietz, who has already graduated and earned a commission as a second lieutenant, stoically accepted his role as a part-time quarterback in his final game. Pearson admitted that the lack of continuity complicated the effort.
“Especially with our offense, we rely on our tempo,” said Pearson, who went 2-of-8 for 44 passing yards with an interception and ran six times for 11 yards. “If you can’t get that going, it’s hard to move the ball.”
Dietz also ran for 11 yards and completed a 4-yard pass.
The Falcons were led offensively by Ty MacArthur with 48 rushing yards. Cobb added 39 on the ground and Cody Getz wrapped his career with 35 yards, giving him 1,213 rushing yards this season.