Marshall football: Rice trick play hit Herd hard early
HOUSTON - The Rice University football team's calling card this season was a Texas-beef-and-potatoes power running game. Razzle-dazzle wasn't on the menu.
So it stunned the Marshall Thundering Herd even more when the Owls pulled from deep within their bag of tricks for their first touchdown of the game. With the Herd reeling, Rice was able to pull away early and stay ahead to beat Marshall, 41-24, in the first Conference USA title game for both teams.
On their opening drive, the Owls got the Herd focused on their run game. Before the touchdown, Rice had run the ball on five of the previous six plays. It looked like it would be six runs in seven plays when Taylor McHargue pitched the ball to Luke Turner on second and 8 from Marshall's 35. But Turner stopped and lofted a pass to Donte Moore for the touchdown.
"When I caught the pitch, I made sure it was going to be a wide-open pass," Turner said. "I just laid it up there like I usually do in practice and didn't think about it."
Senior corner Monterius Lovett, who was covering Moore on the play, shouldered the blame for the defensive breakdown.
"That was very unexpected," Lovett said. "I just didn't do my job. I saw the run and I came up when I wasn't supposed to. That was on me. I had my eyes in the wrong place."
With that play allowing Rice to seize the game's momentum, the Owls staked a 21-3 lead before the Herd could score its first touchdown. That one play did plenty to put the Herd's defense on its heels, defensive tackle James Rouse said, giving the unit another wrinkle in Rice's game to have to think about.
"They execute that trick play and get a score off of it, and now you have to account for that all game," Rouse said.
HERD QUARTERBACK Rakeem Cato was surging going into Saturday's game, throwing for 19 touchdowns against just two interceptions in his five previous starts. Rice's defense made him a non-factor until the fourth quarter, when the Herd finally was able to score through the air.
Through three quarters, Cato had thrown for just 149 yards on 14 of 25 passing. He was averaging 301.4 yards per game through November. Rice's secondary, led by corners Phillip Gaines and Bryce Callahan, made it tough for Cato to find open receivers, while the Owls' pass rush had him on the run.
"(The secondary was) giving us a lot of time to get after the quarterback and that helped us out a lot," defensive end Cody Bauer said. "I wish we could have gotten a little more pressure than we did. He was really good on his feet. He was squirting out of there."
Rice got enough pressure to sack Cato three times. He finally threw a touchdown in the fourth quarter, bouncing forward and back in the pocket before sidearming a throw to running back Essray Taliaferro for a 7-yard score. That extended his Herd-record streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass to 31. Cato added a touchdown to Devon Smith with 5:35 left in the game.
The junior finished the game completing 24 of 41 passes for 265 yards, two touchdowns and a momentum-sapping interception to start the second half. The Herd, down 21-10 and driving, got to Rice's 40 on its first drive of the third quarter. Cato tried to zip a pass across the middle to Tommy Shuler, but Julius White was there to intercept.
"It was a bad ball and he made a hell of a catch," Cato said. "It was a low ball, he got up under it and just made a hell of a play."
MEANWHILE, RICE'S pedestrian pass game put together several big plays. The Owls entered Saturday averaging just 181 passing yards per game. McHargue and running back Luke Turner combined to throw for 239 yards on 10-of-18 passing, a whopping 23.9 yards per completion.
Marshall played Saturday's game without one of its top corners, junior Darryl Roberts. Roberts, who entered the game second on the team with seven pass breakups and tied for second with two interceptions, injured his ankle against East Carolina. He dressed for the Rice game, and the participation chart indicated he entered the game, but he didn't record a tackle.
"We missed him," Lovett said. "We need everybody, so we missed him a lot. We knew during the week that he wasn't 100 percent."
EARLY IN the game, Marshall tried to break out its "radar" defense, a scheme that employs just one down lineman. It's been successful in past games, neutralizing the University of Texas at San Antonio's offense. But Rice sniffed it out and the "radar" was unplugged.
The first time, McHargue threw a first down pass. The second time, he ran for a first down. McHargue credited the offensive line for making it fizzle.
"It's a smart group of guys," he said. "We understood, regardless of where they moved, who their five guys were and the backs they were responsible for. We busted them on it the two times they ran it."
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.