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Marshall football: Herd falls to Rice, 41-24, in C-USA title game

HOUSTON – In its late-season march to Saturday's Conference USA championship game, the Marshall University football team spent much of that time steamrolling over its competition. The Thundering Herd spent Saturday getting taste of how that feels.

Rice University jumped ahead early and barreled through the Herd to claim the C-USA crown in a 41-24 rout at Rice Stadium. In the Herd's first title game appearance since 2002, the Owls won their first outright conference title since 1957.

The Owls (10-3) sprinkled in some big pass plays, including two touchdown passes from running back and game MVP Luke Turner, with its usual bruising running game. Meanwhile, the Herd (9-4) struggled in all three phases.

The bowl picture for both teams cleared very quickly after the game. Rice accepted the invitation to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn., that usually comes with a C-USA title win. Marshall accepted an invitation to the Military Bowl on Dec. 27 in Annapolis, Md. Rice will play a yet-to-be announced SEC opponent, while Marshall will play a yet-to-be announced ACC opponent.

"Plays we made all year just got away from us today," Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said. "We did not make as many as we have, and it was disappointing."

The Herd, which hasn't won a conference championship since the 2002 Mid-American Conference title, found itself in a 14-0 hole within the game's first seven minutes. The first Rice touchdown came on one of those Turner throws, a 35-yard halfback pass to Donte Moore at the 10:15 mark of the first quarter. A shade over two minutes later, Owls quarterback Taylor McHargue tossed a 75-yard touchdown bomb to Jordan Taylor, the longest completion in C-USA Championship history.

"We knew going into the game that they were going to do a lot of halfback option stuff," defensive lineman James Rouse said. "We just didn't execute."

Marshall finally got on the board with 12:21 left in the half on a 27-yard Justin Haig field goal, but Rice countered by taking a page out of Marshall's playbook. It took the Owls just 52 seconds to go 62 yards and finish a four-play drive with a Charles Ross touchdown. 

The Herd offense, which averaged 53.8 points in the five games prior to Saturday, struggled in the chilly Houston air. It didn't score its first touchdown until Devon Johnson bowled in from one yard with 9:18 left in the half. 

"I'm really proud of that defense," Rice Coach David Bailiff said about his unit. "I know we sacked him three times and kept him off track a lot. They had their hands full the whole game. We just kept matching their effort and kept playing hard."

Marshall's defense gave up the most yards since Middle Tennessee gouged it for 585 on Oct. 24 and gain struggled against a power running game. The Owls gained 248 yards on the ground, the most since giving up 288 to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Special teams even had its issues. The Herd's punt returners, whose 13.2-yard average was 16th in the Football Bowl Subdivision, returned just two of Rice's six punts for a total of 12 yards.

The Herd trailed by as many as 24 when Turner's jump-pass touchdown out of the Wildcat formation to Connor Cella put the Owls up 34-10. Marshall's offense finally climbed out of its fog in the fourth with two Rakeem Cato touchdown passes, extending his streak of games with at least one touchdown pass to 31 straight.

Cato threw for 265 yards, two touchdowns and an interception on 24-of-41 passing. Essray Taliaferro gained just 53 yards on 17 carries as the Herd gained just 106 yards on 37 carries overall. Gator Hoskins led Marshall with 99 yards on six catches.

McHargue threw for 196 yards and a touchdown on 8-of-16 passing, while Turner threw for 43 yards and two scores on 2-for-2 passing. Ross rushed for 109 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. 

– Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at derek.redd@dailymail.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.


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