The Texas State Bobcats (8-5), in its first-ever bowl appearance, finished the season on all-time high note with a strong 45-21 victory over the Rice Owls (6-7) in the 2023 First Responder Bowl. First Responder Bowl MVP Brian Holloway, a former SMU Mustang, made his return to Gerald J. Ford stadium a memorable one. The senior linebacker posted six tackles and returned two interceptions for touchdowns. On the night, the Bobcats picked off five passes by the Owls. Cornerback Kaleb Ford-Dement, safety Shawn Holton and Bobby Crosby also registered thefts from Rice quarterbacks AJ Padgett and Shawqi Itraish.
Texas State head coach G.J. Kinne, a former standout college quarterback at Tulsa, coached the 2022 Walter Payton Award winner -Lindsey Scott- at Incarnate Word a year prior to arriving in San Marcos. The Cardinals averaged nearly 600 yards per game (581.2) as Scott accounted for an astronomical 71 total touchdowns (60 PASS, 11 RUSH) in 2022.
In his first season at Texas State, the Bobcats finished 15th nationally in total offense (457.6 YPG) and 11th in scoring offense (36.7 PPG). They were led by former LSU and Auburn signal-caller TJ Finley. Finley threw for just 152 yards in the First Responder Bowl, but accounted for 3,439 yards passing (67.9% completion), 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2023. Finley recently announced he will return to Texas State in 2024 for a second run under Kinne.
The Rice defense –led by fifth-year defensive coordinator Brian Smith– made life tough on the Bobcats offense most of the night. The former Michigan defensive backs coach led a unit that held Texas State to a conversion rate of just 35-percent (6-of-17) on third down.
Senior DT De’Braylon Carroll finished his senior campaign in style. Carroll had nine tackles, a quarterback sack and three tackles for loss in the First Responder Bowl. The Owls allowed just 3.5 yards per carry on 42 rushing attempts by the Bobcats.
And while the star of the night was Holloway, the play of the night belonged to Texas State left tackle Nash Jones. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound junior caught a three-yard touchdown pass from Finley on a throwback pass in the third quarter. Jones followed Kinne from Incarnate Word, where he earned first-team All-Southland honors in 2021 blocking for recent Miami (Fla.) transfer quarterback Cameron Ward.
Both players have impressed one another on the other side of the ball.
“Man, I was going crazy on the sideline. It was executed perfectly. I was so hyped,” Holloway said of Jones’ touchdown catch. “I saw TJ stop and I was like, ‘what is he doing?’, and I saw Nash and he throws it to him. It was awesome.”
Jones was just as impressed by Holloway’s two interception touchdown returns. It marked the first time anyone had accomplished the feat in school history.
“Just knowing the story of him playing here (SMU’s Gerald J. Ford stadium) for all this time and transferring to us and we come back here, gets two interceptions, two tuds (TDs), I was going absolutely crazy on the sideline,” Jones recalled. “He (Holloway) gives me some of the best work in practice. My first spring practice, I’m going against him and we’re just hitting. Working every single day with this guy, seeing him in the weight room lifting freakish amounts of weight. Just being super strong, being a leader for that defense. He’s put the time in…the work in. This is a true NFL guy right here.”
After the brief exchange, the two players give each other a fist bump. It speaks to the environment created by Kinne in less than a year. We go inside the images of the school’s first-ever bowl victory in our photo gallery.