HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- The Rice football team isn't expecting anything vanilla from Marshall's defense when the two teams clash Saturday at noon in the Conference USA championship game (ESPN2).
When The Owls (9-3, 7-1 C-USA) welcome the Thundering Herd (9-3, 7-1 C-USA) to Rice Stadium that day, they're sure Herd defensive coordinator Chuck Heater has some surprises in store.
"They move around a lot and run a few different fronts to try and mess up your protection rules," Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue said. "I'm sure they'll have some wrinkles in for this game that we haven't seen before."
Game film proves that theory. The Herd defense -- after switching to a base nickel package for 2013 -- has at times broken out a "radar" package, with just one down lineman. Against East Carolina, Marshall started out in a 3-3-5 defense to throw the Pirates' high-octane passing offense off its game.
That's a big change from last season, when the Herd defense was just trying to stay solid in its fundamentals. Last season's Rice game was a prime example. In that 54-51 double-overtime win for the Herd, Marshall allowed 647 yards of total offense. McHargue threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns while also running for 153 yards and a score.
"We were watching film from last year and I was embarrassed," Herd defensive lineman Brandon Sparrow said. "I was looking myself and I was like, wow, I wasn't running to the ball. None of us were running to the ball."
But Marshall's defense is much different in 2013. The Herd has jumped from 103rd nationally in 2012 to 32nd nationally this year in total defense. It's jumped from 123rd nationally last year to 26th nationally this year in scoring defense. With that comes a trust from the coaching staff that the players can handle and succeed with new wrinkles to its scheme.
"Coach Heater is a great coach," Sparrow said. "This year, we're playing what we're practicing. When we go into a game, we're just more prepared."
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THE HERD also knows what it's going to get from Rice's offense - a group that loves to run. The Owls lead Conference USA and are 17th in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 239.5 rushing yards per game. That attack is led by senior running back Charles Ross, a 6-foot-1, 235-pound bruiser who leads C-USA with 114.3 yards per game and 12 rushing touchdowns.
"He's a big guy that is extremely physical," Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said. "If we can't stop the run then we have no chance. It's going to come down to that again."