Rice has a chance to make history and end a championship drought all at once.
The Owls face Marshall on Saturday in the Conference USA championship. Rice, which is in its first C-USA title game, has not won an outright championship since claiming the Southwest Conference title in 1957; the Owls last shared a conference title in 1994 when it was still a member of the SWC.
However, the Owls are not thinking about all that history.
“We’re not focused on the historical perspective this week,” Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue said. “We’ll look back after the season and embrace a lot of this, but for right now I think we’re so focused on winning this game that a lot of the historical stuff we don’t pay attention to. We do realize something special is going on right now.”
Unlike in years past where Rice has leaned on its offense to put up a lot of points, the Owls have been able to win this year with a good defense. Cornerbacks Phillip Gaines and Bruce Callahan have seven interceptions between them, while linebacker Michael Kutzler and safety Paul Porras lead the team in tackles with 79 and 70, respectively.
In its 17-13 win over Tulane to clinch the West Division, Rice’s defense allowed only 10 yards and no first downs at the half and 123 yards total for the game.
Rice’s defense will be tested against Marshall, which has scored at least 45 points in each of the last six games.
“We got here by one play at a time, one game at a time,” Rice coach David Bailiff said. “Our focus is Marshall, and they are a great football team. We are going to have to bring our ‘A’ game in all three phases to win it.”
Five things to know about the game:
MARSHALL TITLE HOPES: Marshall earned its first trip to the C-USA title game since joining the conference in 2004 with a 59-28 win over East Carolina. It is also the Thundering Herd’s first conference title game since winning the Mid-American Conference crown for a sixth straight time in 2002. The nine wins by Marshall this season are its most since going 11-2 in 2002 and the 7-1 league record is the Herd’s best in nine years of C-USA play.
“Their goal is to go play for a championship,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “We’re going to Rice to play, and we have to go there and play extremely well. . They are a more matured bunch that has handled themselves all year with their preparation. I’m sure they’ll do the same thing this week.”
RICE’S THREATS: The Owls scored 20 points or more in nine of its 12 games this season. Quarterback Taylor McHargue has been a dual threat throwing for 2,065 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, while completing over 52 percent of his passes but he has also rushed for 432 yards and five scores this year. Along with McHargue, Charles Ross leads C-USA with 114.3 yards per game average and has rushed for 1,143 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.
MARSHALL’S ‘D’: The Thundering Herd’s defense has allowed some 21 fewer points per game in 2013 compared with last year, which leads the nation. Marshall’s defense has improved in almost every statistical category, including pass efficiency defense, tackles for loss and interceptions gained where they jumped into the top 10 nationally in each category after being in the bottom half of the nation last year. A.J. Leggett leads the team with three interceptions, while Jermaine Holmes, Evan McKelvey and Neville Hewitt each lead the team in tackles with 80, 78 and 70, respectively.
PLAYING THE CLOCK: Rice is seventh in the nation in time of possession this season, holding on to the ball for an average of 33 minutes, 29 seconds. The Owls have won the time of possession battle in 10 of 12 games this season and has held the ball for more than 38 minutes three times.
THE HERD ON OFFENSE: Led by Rakeem Cato, Marshall’s offense has been tough to stop. Cato has thrown a touchdown pass in 30 straight games. Cato has completed over 59 percent of his passes this season for 3,314 yards and 34 touchdowns. He is also a threat to run, having scored six touchdowns on the ground. Essray Taliaferro, who has rushed for 1,009 yards and nine TDs and Steward Butler, who has 751 yards and eight TDs, give the Herd a nice duo on the ground. Wide receiver Tommy Shuler, who has 89 catches for over 1,000 yards and 9 touchdowns and Gator Hoskins, who has 13 TD catches this season, are Cato’s favorite targets.
“A year ago we were kind of one-dimensional and throwing the ball all over the place,” Holliday said. “We’ve become more balanced. We’re a much better offense now than we were a year ago. We’re averaging more points per game. If we can continue to run the football like we have it will help us tremendously in the passing game.”