Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson turned a play he would like to forget into a second half to remember, and in the process helped lead the Owls to a 33-14 comeback victory over Air Force in Saturday’s Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.
Jackson replaced starter Taylor McHargue late in the second quarter after McHargue left the game with a concussion. Jackson proceeded to march Rice 61 yards in nine plays, moving the ball to the Air Force 2-yard line with 12 seconds left in the half.
But with the Owls taking one more shot at scoring a touchdown before halftime, Jackson made a poor pitch on an option play and Air Force recovered the ball, enabling the Falcons to maintain a 14-7 lead.
It was the type of play that could devastate a young player such as Jackson, a redshirt freshman who had made only one start this season. Instead, Jackson came back out and turned in a nearly flawless second half. He completed 10-of-12 pass attempts for 154 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter alone. He finished the game with 264 yards passing and two touchdowns, and rushed for an additional 32 yards.
“Driphus came in and performed as if he was our starter,” Rice running back Turner Petersen said. “I’m proud of the way he stepped up. We have tremendous faith in him.”
Jackson maintained faith in himself as well, even after his first-half fumble. He said it helped that his teammates quickly came to his support at halftime.
“These guys kept me up. They said they had all the confidence in the world in me,” Jackson said. “I understand that playing quarterback, you have to have a short memory. In the second half, the game kind of slowed down for me. I was able to settle myself down and get all the moving parts together.”
Jackson showed flashes of his ability in his only start this season, on Sept. 29 against Houston, completing 17-of-35 pass attempts for 272 yards and two touchdowns. But he also became flustered against the rush and was sacked five times in a game the Owls lost 35-14.
”You could tell he had some anxiety in the Houston game. He was jittery in the pocket, he was quick to run,” Rice head coach David Bailiff said. “But he continued to prepare for the moment when that opportunity came again. When he took that field (Saturday), you could tell just from his body language that he had a swagger and a confidence.”
Jackson said it definitely helped his confidence that he had a made a start earlier in the season and had gotten over some of those first-game jitters.
“After having that one start under my belt, I kind of knew what to expect. I had a better idea how to manage the game,” Jackson said. “They kind of gave me the keys and just told me to go, and that’s what I did.
Did he ever. Jackson began the second half by leading Rice on an eight-play, 87-yard touchdown drive to tie the game 14-14. Two possessions later he directed a nine-play, 74-yard TD drive that gave the Owls a 21-14 lead. Then in the fourth quarter, he helped put the game away by orchestrating a 12-play, 63-yard drive that took nearly five minutes off the clock and gave Rice a 27-14 advantage with only 4:31 to play.
“We didn’t have to dilute the offense at all with the way he was playing. He was ready at game speed,” Bailiff said. “I was very proud of him. He was very efficient running the offense. He played like a seasoned veteran. It looked like he had started a bunch of ballgames this season with the decisions he made. Some of the reads he made were quite outstanding.
“His story is really the story of this football team. He came out every day trying to get better. His hard work paid off and got us a big win today.”