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.