Dec. 4, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Marshall hasn’t won a conference championship in football since 2002. Rice hasn’t shared a title since 1994, or won one outright since 1957 in the long-gone Southwest Conference … when Herd coach Doc Holliday was about 8 months old.
Neither team has played for a Conference USA championship. So, when Marshall visits the Owls on Saturday afternoon at Rice Stadium for the 2013 league title, maybe a guy who knows the feeling of a long wait would be appropriate for the coin flip.
Oh, he will be there for the pregame toss.
Marshall defensive tackle James Rouse was named a game captain for the seventh time this season by Holliday on Tuesday, along with cornerback Monterius Lovett, quarterback Rakeem Cato and tight end Gator Hoskins.
His story – like that of Marshall and Rice football – is a bounce-back story.
“It’s a big deal to me,” Rouse said when asked about being part of a retooled defense that has helped usher the Herd program back into the limelight. “It’s just because when I came back, I wanted to help the team get to where we wanted to go.
‘And I feel that me and all of the other defensive weapons we have are doing that and everybody’s clicking. That’s helped us a lot to get to this point.”
Rouse’s return to the field has been a rousing one for the Herd. The 6-foot-5, 258-pound senior – he’ll repeat that year in 2014, it seems – leads Marshall in tackles for loss (12) and sacks (four). The Herd ranks seventh nationally as a team in TFLs, with 94. Rouse’s dozen TFLs rank fourth in C-USA.
As a 195-pound two-way end at Harrisonburg (Va.) High, Rouse said he was part of a district championship team, but nothing like Saturday’s noon game.
“Oh, yeah, this is the biggest game I’ve ever played,” said Rouse, whose explosiveness at the 3-technique spot has given Marshall an inside athleticism it lacked in the coach’s first three MU seasons.
Rouse’s appreciation for the task -- and not just the success -- fuels his play. He spent almost two years on the sidelines, from September 2011 until this season’s opener.
Holliday said recently that Rouse’s appreciation for the game – rooted in his absence from the sport – is something the Herd finds valuable, too.
“He’s relayed that message to our kids multiple times,” Holliday said. “He understands, and nobody knows better than he does. It’s been his last multiple times. He just keeps overcoming that adversity and he’s such a great kid.
“He needs something good to happen for him because he sure deserves it. He’ll get another year. There’s no question of that. He’ll have one, but he has to make that decision. I hope he comes back and I think he will. He’s a tremendous kid and an asset to our program.”
Andrew Donovan, Marshall’s associate athletic director for compliance, said the university is seeking a sixth year of eligibility for Rouse through the NCAA waiver process, due to his injuries that limited his participation in the 2011 and ’12 seasons.
“We hope to have an answer by the start of the spring semester,” Donovan said.
Then a defensive end, Rouse suffered a back injury in a 2011 game (Week 3) at Ohio’s Peden Stadium, after seven starts in 2010 and ’11 combined. He returned to the field for spring practice in 2012, but tore his left Achilles on April 12 of that year.
He seemed destined to make a comeback at some point last season when he needed to undergo back surgery to fix a herniated disc from his 2011 injury. Now, he’s playing in a title game, on the heels of Marshall’s East Division-clinching thumping of a quality East Carolina team, 59-28, last Friday.
“It’s hard to try and stay calm because you’re so excited about it, getting to the game,” said Rouse, whose seven game captaincies lead the MU defensive players. “Then getting in the game Saturday, you just have to calm yourself down and tell yourself it’s another game.
“The East Carolina game … I think it’s one of the things we said before the season, that we wanted to get Marshall football back to where it once was, and all the people who were previously in this program, the ones who came before us, want to get it back to that spot. I think that game helped a lot.”
Rouse said the Herd learned a lot about itself in conquering some of its earlier road foibles with a comeback win at Tulsa despite losing five fumbles. He said the team takes that positive mindset into the trip to Houston for the title game.
“I think (the Tulsa win) helps a lot because we found a way to win that game, even though everything that happened in that game … it could have gone wrong,” Rouse said. “It helped us out, put us in a better mindset … that we can do anything, make mistakes, and we can still win games.
“We’d been able to do that at home, and now we know we can win like that on the road, too. You always want to be good on the road, and not make many mistakes. And I think the avenue that we’ve been through on the road will help us in this big game.”
Asked what he thinks might have been overlooked in the Herd’s winningest season since 2002, the defensive lineman didn’t hesitate with a response.
“I think if there’s something,” Rouse said, “it’s that people don’t know or understand how hard we work in the offseason for this, and how much we dedicated to do everything in the weight room possible to put ourselves in this position.”
Rouse said he didn’t pay much attention Sunday to all of the C-USA tiebreaking hullaballoo over whether the Herd would host the title game or go on the road.
“I didn’t really care or know about it, to be honest,” he said. “It didn’t matter either way, because it’s still a game and it’s going to be on a field that’s the same, 120 yards, and it’s a championship game. That’s what’s most important.”
What he does know is Rice returns plenty from the team that fell 54-51 in double overtime to visiting Marshall last season -- a game in which he didn’t play, but he did watch. The Owls have won 15 of their last 19 games, and have been a good late-season team (20-8) under coach David Bailiff, just as the Herd has been under Holliday (15-4).
“They have a good running game (235-pound Charles Ross leads C-USA with 114.3 yards per game) and the offensive line is the same offensive line from last year,” Rouse said of the front that he will face. “They bring everybody back, so they have a lot of people who have played a lot of football.”
Rouse wishes he could have played more, but he now finds himself in the title game the Herd has longed to play for a decade. Holliday is just happy Rouse has been able to play as much as he has – all things considered.
“He’s a dominant player,” the Herd coach said. “I think (defensive tackles coach) J.C. Price has done a tremendous job at managing (Rouse) with his reps and the way we practice with him. We call him ‘the old man’ (Rouse is 22) and we try to take care of him. We try to limit his reps in practice and try to always know what’s going on with him.
“I’m glad he’s been able to hold up and play because he’s a great player. Since I’ve been here he’s been hurt just about the entire time. He was hurt two years in a row. It’s amazing for him to still have the desire to go out there and play after what he’s been through.
“To come back and want to play football after all the adversity he’s been through is amazing. He’s been through back surgeries and Achilles surgeries. Most people that go through what he has gone through would have hung up their cleats a long time ago, but he’s stuck in there. He’s truly an amazing story with what he has done. He’s just a wonderful kid.”
And like Marshall football, Rouse is definitely back.