Memphis, TN (SportsNetwork.com) - The 10-win Rice Owls take on the SEC's Mississippi State Bulldogs in the 55th Liberty Bowl.
Rice (10-3, 7-1 C-USA) has reeled off four straight wins and earned a spot in this game by thrashing Marshall in the Conference USA Championship Game, 41-24. The Owls, who beat Air Force in last season's Armed Forces Bowl (33-14), are playing in consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1960-61. This year's C-USA title was the program's first ever.
On the opposite sideline, Mississippi State is going bowling for a school- record fourth straight season. The Bulldogs have won five of their last six bowl games, with the loss coming against Northwestern in last season's Gator Bowl. MSU closed out the regular season with consecutive overtime victories; a 24-17 road win at Arkansas, and a 17-10 triumph over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.
"We're excited to face Mississippi State," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "Dan Mullen and his staff are doing a great job. You look at their schedule and you see they only lost to Auburn by three at Auburn, and they lost a shootout with Texas A&M. They really closed ranks and showed great character down the stretch, winning those last two games in overtime to become bowl eligible. We know we are in for a tremendous challenge, but that's what is exciting about the season we have had. I know our players are excited to play a team from the SEC and ready to get to work as soon as we can."
This will be only the second-ever meeting between these two programs. MSU claimed a 28-14 win over the Owls at Rice Stadium back on Oct. 11, 1975, a result that was later forfeited.
Rice's offense is predicated on a ground game that tops C-USA and ranks 16th in the country with an average of 240.2 yards per game. Senior Charles Ross is the headliner, as he leads the conference with an average of 113.8 yards per game. Sophomore running back Luke Turner threw for two touchdowns (on two attempts) and was named the MVP of the C-USA title game, while Ross ran for 109 yards and a pair of scores on 18 carries.
The Owls scored on their first two possessions and never looked back. Junior Jordan Taylor finished with six catches for 131 yards and a championship game- record 75-yard touchdown, which he scored on the team's second possession to help set the early tone.
Marshall entered the title game averaging better than 50 points over its previous five games. But against Rice's defense, the Thundering Herd produced only 24 points. After allowing an average of 30 ppg through 13 games last season (99th in the nation), the Owls have reduced that number to 22.9 ppg allowed in 2013, which ranks 33rd nationally. For a point of comparison, in the seven seasons prior to 2012, Rice's defense had allowed an average of 37.7 ppg. The Owls have shown a penchant for creating turnovers, a trend they no doubt hope to continue in this matchup.
Mississippi State has already set a school record with 273 first downs. The Bulldogs are averaging 426.2 yards of total offense per game, which would break the program record of 422.0 set in 1982. And consider, that yardage average is despite totaling just 296 yards against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott has given the MSU offense an added dimension with his legs. His 751 rushing yards this season broke Don Smith's single-season school record (for a quarterback) of 740 yards, set in 1986.
Prescott works behind an offensive line anchored by All-SEC guard Gabe Jackson, and he has completed 55 passes to Jameon Lewis, the second-highest reception total in a season under Dan Mullen. Lewis is also the only player in the nation with at least five receiving touchdowns, three rushing scores, and three passing TDs.
The MSU defense has been an opportunistic unit of late. In the last four games, the Bulldogs have tallied 14 takeaways (nine interceptions) after forcing just one in the three previous games. They forced four turnovers against Ole Miss, the sixth time this year they have generated two or more takeaways. MSU's defense also had four turnovers against Alabama. Nickoe Whitley leads the way with five interceptions, while Taveze Calhoun and Jamerson Love each have three picks.
"Our seniors have done something no one here has ever done, and that's play in four straight bowls, said Dan Mullen, who has guided Mississippi State to a 2-1 postseason ledger. "That's special. This is a reward for all the hard work that started back in August, and I know our players, coaches and fans look forward to going to Memphis and playing another game."