Marshall football: Rice relishes rebound from start of 2012 season
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- There was a point last season where it looked like Rice's football fortunes would end up like those of so many years past. The Owls were 1-5 - an overtime loss at home to Marshall among the setbacks - and a fourth-straight losing season seemed the inevitable conclusion.
Then the Rice players finally got fed up ... with themselves.
The Owls decided they were the only people who could dig themselves out of the morass and, since then, have been on a tear in Conference USA and they're taking that hot streak into Saturday's C-USA title game versus Marshall in Houston (noon, ESPN2).
The breaking point came in a 14-10 loss at Memphis, a team that finished 4-8 last year. Rice Coach David Bailiff stood before the team ready to shoulder his share of the blame for the defeat, as he had many times before. But his players already were accepting the culpability.
"The junior class that's now the senior class started to take responsibility and accountability," he said. "At that moment, we changed. We became self-policing. Instead of pointing fingers, they started looking at themselves. They started holding themselves accountable."
Senior quarterback Taylor McHargue remembers watching classmate Phillip Gaines stand up and challenge the rest of the team. The corner, who leads this year's team with four interceptions, said the time for making excuses was over.
"This was our legacy on the line and we weren't playing well," McHargue said. "We could change that if we wanted to, but we had to start with being accountable as individuals and as a team. Ever since then, honestly, the culture started to change."
The Owls lost just one more game in 2012, that to eventual conference champion Tulsa. They earned their first winning season and bowl victory since 2008 by beating Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. This year, they've won eight of their last nine games.
Their lone conference loss came, 28-16, at the hands of North Texas.
Yet Rice (9-3, 7-1 C-USA) rebounded and, in their regular season finale, held off Tulane to clinch the West Division crown with a 17-13 win. In winning 14 of their last 17 games, Rice is enjoying its most successful stretch since winning 15 of 17 games between Nov. 8, 1952 and Oct. 2, 1954. McHargue said the key has been winning close games that they couldn't last season.
Four of Rice's conference wins - over Florida Atlantic, Tulsa, the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Alabama at Birmingham - have come by less than a touchdown. The Owls needed overtime to beat the Golden Hurricane and UAB.
"The biggest thing in years past and the start of last year was that we would get into shootouts and defensive struggles and we wouldn't know how to win those close games," McHargue said. "We'd make critical mistakes at the end, we wouldn't make the plays that we needed down the stretch. But once we got that taste in our mouths in the last half of the season of how to win those close games, we started building on that confidence, week in and week out, and that carried over into this season."
The Owls have won this year with a powerful ground game (239.5 yards per game) that leads C-USA and is 17th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The defense (349.4 yards allowed per game) is second in the conference and 19th in the FBS. And Rice dominates time of possession. The Owls hold the ball an average of 33 minutes, 29 seconds a game, the conference's best and the seventh-best in the country.
Rice plays Saturday for its first outright conference title since 1957. Bailiff feels that, by turning the corner in the middle of last season, this Owls team has helped the program turn the corner toward a consistent winning tradition.
"The legacy that is left will be lasting here," he said. "They're the ones that have laid the foundation here for continued success."
Yet McHargue said there's no time right now to reflect on this team's place in Rice history. The Marshall team the Owls are about to face present a fast, aggressive defense and an explosive offense. And just like Rice, the Thundering Herd is trying to climb back to a level of success not seen in a while.
"Honestly, we've got to ignore that for at least one more week," he said. "There will be plenty of time after this season is over to pat ourselves on the back for the things we've accomplished, but none of those things help us win a football game. This is just not the time to pay attention to those kinds of things and read our own press clippings, because this is a really good Marshall team."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.