Marshall football: Herd remembers Rice well
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - In preparing for two of the most important games in its recent history, the Marshall University football team has relived two of its wildest contests of 2012.
The Thundering Herd had to hearken back to last year's triple-overtime loss to East Carolina in order to beat the Pirates this year and secure the Conference USA East Division title. That gave Marshall the honor of playing in its first C-USA championship game against Rice. That 2012 memory was a little bit saner.
That game only went to double overtime before the Herd won.
"There must be somebody around here who's lining up these games," senior defensive end Alex Bazzie said with a smile.
When the Herd and Owls clash at noon Saturday in Houston (ESPN2), both teams will hope for a much less chaotic game. And both teams will hope Saturday's game ends with them hoisting aloft their inaugural C-USA championship trophy. Marshall (9-3, 7-1 C-USA) hasn't won an outright conference title since winning the Mid-American Conference in 2002. Rice (9-3, 7-1 C-USA) hasn't won an outright conference title since taking the Southwest Conference in 1957.
Both teams have improved from last season to reach this title game at Rice Stadium. The Owls sneaked into a 2012 bowl bid with four straight wins to end the regular season, then beat Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl to finish 7-6 overall. The Herd fell to ECU in its 2012 regular-season finale to finish 5-7 and out of bowl contention.
Yet on Sept. 22, 2012, it was the Owls that gave Marshall its first conference win of the season in a frenzied 54-51 final that saw the two teams combine for 1,240 yards and 65 first downs.
"It was a typical Conference USA shootout, going back and forth," Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue said. "We knew how good Marshall's offense was then, similar to what they are now. We knew they were going to put up a lot of points. We just kept going back and forth. It was just kind of a slugfest."
The lessons that Rice is taking from last season's game are what the Herd isn't this year, namely a porous defense. Marshall has climbed into 32nd place in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards allowed (356.8 per game) and into 26th place in points allowed (21.7 per game).
"I think Marshall's a better football team than a year ago," Rice Coach David Bailiff said. "I think they're playing great defense this year. If you look statistically where they are in the conference, they're up there high in total defense. Last year, neither one of us played very good defense and that's where they made their biggest strides, defensively. Last year's game was one of the wildest games I've ever been a part of, a flat shootout where nobody was stopping the other."
The lessons that the Herd is taking from last season's game are reminders of what the Owls still are, namely a powerful running team.
Rice, which gouged the Herd for 301 rushing yards last season, leads C-USA and is 17th in the FBS averaging 239.5 rushing yards per game. And while 235-pound bruising running back Charles Ross leads the charge with 1,143 yards and 12 touchdowns, McHargue is dangerous with his feet as well. He led Rice with 153 rushing yards against the Herd last year.
"If you go back to last year, their quarterback ran through us and around us," he said. "Of course, we are a different defense than we were a year ago. We couldn't stop anybody a year ago. We have great respect for him because he is a very talented individual. When you talk about Rice's offense it starts with McHargue. He makes them go and does a great job at doing it."
Marshall Defensive Coordinator Chuck Heater, the architect of the Herd's defensive turnaround, admits that his unit has struggled versus power running games. He knows that's exactly what his defense will face Saturday, and that it will have to overcome those issues.
"You can make a case that we've not done well against teams that have pounded us," Heater said. "Middle Tennessee pounded us. Tulsa pounded us. We were able to put them in some difficult situations, but, still, they ran the ball. I think our challenge against a good running team will be to be able to strap it up and go play."
Rice would rather not engage in another shootout, not against a team that leads C-USA and is sixth in the FBS averaging 44.6 points per game, a team that also is averaging 53.8 points in its last five games. The Owls have a defense that can keep that from happening, 19th in the FBS allowing 349.4 yards per game and 35th in the FBS allowing 22.8 points per game.
While both the Herd and Owls can look back at last season's game and shake their heads with amazement, Bazzie doesn't think either team can solely go by that 2012 barnburner to prepare for Saturday. The two teams, he said, are miles ahead of last year.
"Both teams did an amazing job coming into the season this year to put themselves in a great position and better themselves," Bazzie said. "Now it's who's bettered themselves the most."
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.