HOUSTON (AP) The Rice Owls had an impressive second-half turnaround to rebound from a terrible start and finish last season with their first winning record since 2008.
As they prepare for their 2013 campaign, they're hoping to build on the momentum they gained by reeling off four straight victories to qualify for a bowl. They defeated Air Force 33-14 in the Armed Forces Bowl to end the year 7-6.
"We never gave up," coach David Bailiff said. "We were in every game and it was just a matter of us continuing to improve each week. We knew we were really talented, we just had to put it all together."
Looking back on what happened to get his team on track; Bailiff said that much of the credit has to go to quiet defensive star Phillip Gaines. Bailiff said the defensive back, who doesn't talk much, addressed the Owls after a four-point loss at Memphis.
"He really challenged this football team, and I think it was really special that it came from him," Bailiff said.
Gaines leads a defense that returns 10 starters. The Owls are a veteran-laden squad, returning 19 starters overall. He was named the Conference-USA preseason defensive player of the year after ranking second nationally with 18 pass breakups last season. The senior has already set a school-record with 29 passes broken up in his career.
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Gaines finished with 33 tackles, including two for losses and recovered a fumble and returned it 12 yards for a touchdown.
His performance last year came after he suffered a season-ending injury just three games into the 2011 season.
Gaines and the Owls will get one of their toughest tests early when they open the season at Texas A&M on Aug. 31.
Five things to know about Rice:
NEW ATTITUDE: As he begins his seventh year with the Owls, Bailiff is happy with the change in culture on the team during his tenure at the academically prestigious university. "We're recruiting young men now who want to graduate but they also want to win championships and they want to work equally as hard on the football field as they do in the classroom," Bailiff said.
RIVALRY CONTINUES: The Owls will continue their rivalry with in-town foe Houston despite the Cougars leaving C-USA for the American Athletic Conference. They'll face Houston on Sept. 21 at Reliant Stadium, home of the NFL's Houston Texans. Rice has lost two in a row to the Cougars.
HE CAN RUN, TOO: Senior quarterback Taylor McHargue returns after throwing for 2,209 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He's also a threat on the ground and led C-USA signal callers with 667 yards and tied for fifth overall in the league with 11 rushing touchdowns. About the only complaint Bailiff has about his quarterback is that he refuses to slide. Bailiff evened joked that he wanted Texas Rangers slugger and former Rice standout Lance Berkman to give McHargue some sliding lessons, so maybe he'll do it this season.
JUST KICKIN' IT: The Owls have one of the best long-distance field goal kickers in the country in senior Chris Boswell. He has 11 field goals in his career of more than 50 yards, and led the country last season with six goals of 50 yards or more. Last season he had kicks of 55 yards and 56 yards to become the first player in C-USA history with a pair of field goals longer than 55 yards in one season. His 51 career field goals are the most in school history. "He's a weapon," Bailiff said. "He's just really confident in his ability and he backs it up. He's one of the first kickers I've been around that really influences a football team with his leadership. He's a big reflection of what we are."
BIG TARGET: The Owls are eager to see how junior receiver Jordan Taylor will follow up a solid 2012 season where he led the team with 826 yards receiving. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound Taylor was a high school quarterback who starred in Rice's bowl win with nine receptions for a career-high 153 yards and three touchdowns.