Remembering the details of Rice’s previous outright conference championship is an exercise that would tax even the sharpest memory.
It came in 1957, with Rice clinching the Southwest Conference crown against Texas A&M and earning the subsequent berth to the Cotton Bowl. That seismic moment was relevant and worth revisiting, for it served as a vivid reminder of how long Owls supporters went without.
Rice ran roughshod over Marshall 41-24 in the Conference USA Championship Game on Saturday to claim its first C-USA title and end a drought enveloping three league affiliations and generations of languishing.
“We’re proud to be Conference USA champs after a 57-year drought,” said Rice coach David Bailiff. The Owls accepted a berth to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis following the victory. “Just to be outright champions, the amazing thing is this senior class showed us we can. There are new expectations around this football program.”
The Owls (10-3) mostly relied on their bruising ground attack to subdue the Herd (9-4), with running backs Charles Ross and Luke Turner delivering via versatility. But their aerial attack was equally prolific, with Rice striking an offensive balance that kept Marshall on its heels.
Ross rushed for 109 yards and two touchdowns, upping his season total to 14 and matching the program single-season mark set by Trevor Cobb in 1991. Turner passed for two touchdowns to become the first non-quarterback to record multiple scoring passes in the C-USA Championship Game.
The Owls’ defense was exceptional throughout, limiting the Herd to 371 yards and just 4.8 yards per play. Marshall averaged 53 points during the five-game winning streak it carried into its first C-USA Championship Game appearance, and it amassed 3,009 yards of total offense in November.
Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato passed for 265 yards and two scores but was limited in his ability to locate receivers. Rice cornerbacks Phillip Gaines and Bryce Callahan were responsible.
Marshall also labored running the football against the Owls’ defensive front. That inability to maintain balance undermined goals of efficiency.
“It is very physical up front,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said of the Owls’ defensive line. “We knew going in they were, and we did not run the football. When we do not run the football well we become one-dimensional at times and we struggle. That is what happened today.”
Rice scored on its opening possession for the 12th time this season, covering 82 yards over 10 plays in grabbing a 7-0 lead. The Owls’ effective run-pass mix set the stage for a trick play that culminated the march, with Turner taking a pitch before completing a 35-yard pass to Donte Moore for a touchdown at the 10:15 mark of the first quarter.
Rice was less methodical on its second possession. Taylor McHargue and receiver Jordan Taylor teamed on a 75-yard score on the second snap. That pass play was the longest in C-USA Championship Game history and represented a career long for Taylor.
“Throwing in a couple trick plays really put them on their heels a little bit,” Turner said. “They really didn’t understand what we were doing.”
Marshall, meanwhile, struggled to get its prolific offense rolling. The Herd managed only 58 yards in the first quarter and closed its opening two possessions with punts. Its initial scoring drive covered 64 yards yet required a dozen plays and eventually bogged down at the Rice 9.
The Herd, C-USA leaders in total offense (513.2 yards per game) and scoring offense (44.6 points per game), settled for a 27-yard field goal from Justin Haig that cut the deficit to 14-3 with 12:21 left in the half. Marshall completed its ensuing possession with a 1-yard Devon Johnson touchdown run at the 9:18 mark of the second quarter, but that followed a brisk 4-play, 62-yard and 52-second touchdown drive that lifted the Owls to a 21-3 lead and allowed them to establish control.
“There were plays out there to be made and I feel like they (the Owls) made the best of those plays,” Cato said. “As an offensive group we didn’t make enough plays. We didn’t put enough points on the board to win the ballgame.”
Marshall accepted a bid to the Military Bowl on Dec. 27 in Annapolis, Md. against an ACC opponent.