GAME NOTES: The two best teams in Conference USA get together in Houston on Saturday, as the Rice Owls entertain the Marshall Thundering Herd in the conference championship game.
After just four games, the Thundering Herd were sitting at .500, but since then the team has rattled off seven wins in eight tries and is enjoying a five-game win streak at the moment. The most recent of those triumphs took place last Friday in a 59-28 blowout of East Carolina, moving Marshall to the top of the East Division over the Pirates with a record of 7-1.
"Their goal is to go play for a championship," Marshall head coach Doc Holliday noted when asked about the venue. "I would have loved to have had the game here for our fans, but it's not. We're going to Rice to play and we have to go there and play extremely well. That doesn't surprise me the way the kids reacted. They are a more mature bunch that has handled themselves all year with their preparation."
Over in the West Division, the Owls produced eight wins in nine tries, finishing with the same overall record as Marshall at 9-3. The team has enjoyed several blowouts throughout the schedule, but more recently the games have been a bit more challenging with Rice slipping by Tulane last weekend, 17-13, after needing overtime to set down UAB on Nov. 21 in a 37-34 final.
"We're standing up here 9-3 and the West Division Champs," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "And you know what's great? Those 23 seniors and 19 fifth- year guys, that's exactly what they said they wanted to do. They had a dream and they matched it with effort, and here we are making their dreams come true. And what a legacy this senior class is going to leave us and this university."
With respect to the all-time series, Marshall has won all but one of the previous four encounters. The most recent battle took place last season with the Herd needing double-overtime to capture a 54-51 win on the road.
Because the teams did not meet during the 2013 regular season, the location of the title game was determined by the BCS standings of each program and the Owls came out ahead.
Last year, the championship was claimed by Tulsa in a 33-27 final versus UCF at Chapman Stadium in Oklahoma.
Scoring no less than 45 points in the last six games and producing eight such games overall this season, the Thundering Herd find themselves ranked sixth in the country in scoring overall with 44.6 ppg. The team is producing a massive 513.3 ypg in offense, with much of the credit going to Rakeem Cato who has completed almost 60 percent of his passes for 3,314 yards and 34 touchdowns, against just eight interceptions.
Tommy Shuler may have the most receptions (89) for Marshall, leading to 1,019 yards and nine touchdowns, but the player who has gotten the most out of his catches is Gator Hoskins who has made it into the end zone 13 times on just 38 grabs.
On the ground, the Herd are producing a shade under 220 ypg and thanks to four players who have all scored at least six TDs, the program has tallied 32 scores while averaging 5.3 yards per attempt. At the top of the list is Essray Taliaferro with his 1,006 yards and nine scores on 185 attempts.
Defense has also been a strong suit for the Herd while holding the competition to only 21.7 ppg to rank 26th nationally this week. The unit is giving up 206.4 ypg through the air (22nd in the country), due in large part to the fact that Marshall has compiled 17 interceptions, by 12 different players. The team also spreads the wealth on tackles as well, with as many as seven players with at least 50 overall stops in 2013.
Like the Herd, Rice has been rather tough on opposing passing attacks, giving up only 189.9 ypg to rank 12th in the country after 12 decisions. The run defense hasn't been quite as punishing, permitting 159.5 ypg, but when you put it all together you find an Owls squad that is in the top tier of defenses among programs outside of the BCS, allowing only 349.4 ypg.
Michael Kutzler leads the way with 79 stops, followed by Paul Porras with 70 tackles, while further down the list us Christian Convington is has made 9.5 of his 48 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and is tops on the unit with four sacks.
Charles Ross is listed as the top rusher for Rice with his 1,143 yards, leading to 12 touchdowns to pace the program in the latter department as well, but he has been held in check the last few weeks after running for 215 yards and five touchdowns in the win over Louisiana Tech (52-14). The last two games have seen Ross collect just 130 yards and one TD on 25 carries.
Quarterback Taylor McHargue is more than capable of directing the Rice offense, having thrown for more than 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns, but his last three games have also been a bit light, throwing for 180 yards or less after having back-to-back contests with at least 220 yards and a combined six TDs.
Because the Rice offense can struggle at times, the Thundering Herd has to be considered the favorite in this matchup, regardless of venue. As long as Cato doesn't get ahead of himself and try to do too much, too fast, Marshall should have the advantage.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Marshall 38, Rice 31