Dec. 5, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – The Conference USA Championship football game is just what the Dallas-based league might have ordered.
Marshall versus Rice: a battle of incumbents.
The ESPN2-televised noon game Saturday at Rice Stadium makes a statement of sorts for C-USA, which has suffered mightily at the microphones and keyboards of the pundits since the conference lost four members in the major college conference realignment that took effect this school year.
The exits of UCF, Houston, SMU and Memphis to the American (then-Big East, when the deal was done) did some damage. The pending moves of East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane to the AAC after this school year supposedly were further proof that C-USA was hurtin’ for certain.
So, when the C-USA football coaches picked their preseason poll for 2013 back in July, the division choices were the Pirates and Golden Hurricane, putting C-USA in their rear-view mirrors with a route through the title game.
Well, it didn’t happen that way. The coaches’ second-place selections’ stepped up.
It’s another reason the Marshall-Rice matchup -- a first C-USA title-game appearance for each -- is significant. The Owls and the Herd are staying in Conference USA, two programs making a statement in filling the void left by those exiting clubs.
“To be honest with you, I think it’s great,” Herd coach Doc Holliday said at his Tuesday news conference. “It’s nice that whoever that defending champion will be, will be back next year. It’s a good thing and both teams will be back. Rice has a lot of young guys on their roster and we have a lot of young players on our roster, too.
“Hopefully we’ll both have a great shot as being really good next year too. David (Bailiff, Rice coach) does such a tremendous job at representing our conference. He’s a great coach and one that I have great respect for. He’s done a tremendous job at Rice.
“He took them to a bowl game a year ago. I think they’ve won more games in the last two years than they had in the last 40 at Rice for a two-year span. He deserves a lot of credit and has done a tremendous job.”
Those seven departing teams made pretty much a lateral move, considering the AAC won’t be a power conference, and will be playing at the same “Group of Five” bunch with C-USA, the Mountain West, Sun Belt and Mid-American.
Before Herd-Owls, none of the previous eight Conference USA title games has matched two teams that will be in the league as of the 2014-15 school year.
In fact, the only one of those five members “staying put” – Marshall, UAB, UTEP, Southern Miss and Rice – that has played in a C-USA Championship is Brett Favre’s alma mater in Hattiesburg.
The Golden Eagles are 1-1, falling to Houston in 2006 and upsetting the No. 6 (and BCS-hopeful) Cougars two years ago.
Marshall’s convincing triumph over ECU last Friday was a huge statement for a conference that is losing the Pirates, who have been overwhelmingly C-USA best home draw in football.
The Herd appears to be seizing an opportunity – with so many newcomers and Southern Miss, UAB and UTEP trying to build from the bottom of the standings – to become what East Carolina has been … that’s a perennial C-USA title contender and bowl team.
“I’m just proud that our fan base, community and school are getting back to playing in championships, because that is what they deserve,” said Holliday, whose Herd this week was the first Marshall team to get poll votes since 2002. “That’s what they’ve been hungry for around here. For the first time in 11 or 12 years, we get to talk about it.
“You can see the excitement around town and it’s getting back to where it needs to be. The town deserves it, the community deserves it and the state deserves it. I’m just happy that they can get that feeling again. “Is it huge? Yes. From a national standpoint, people are starting to take notice of what this program is all about again. That hasn’t happened for about 12 years. Anytime Marshall University is getting mentioned as a really good football team that makes me feel good, and that’s the way it should be.”
It also helps C-USA that it finished with eight teams at the bowl-eligible level of six wins or better, although UT-San Antonio (7-5) won’t go anywhere, because the Roadrunners’ are still finishing their “conditional” FBS incubation period. And five of the seven C-USA bowl-eligibles are teams that are going to be in C-USA next season (ECU and Tulane the exceptions).
C-USA has been 8-2 in bowls over the past two seasons, and if the league can get all seven eligible into an overcrowded postseason, that will be a conference record for bids.
Along with UTSA, bowl-bound Middle Tennessee and North Texas proved to be solid football additions for Conference USA this season. Western Kentucky arrives next season after going 8-4 in the Sun Belt regular season, while Old Dominion (7-5) makes the transition from FCS with star quarterback Taylor Heinicke (a senior next season) -- despite allowing 80 points to North Carolina a couple of weeks back.
Marshall and Rice also share something besides the C-USA Championship spotlight.
They were the only two C-USA teams to go unbeaten at home this season, and both own eight-game home win streaks. The only two teams outside the automatic BCS qualifying leagues with longer home streaks are Fresno State (12 in a row) and Northern Illinois (11).
Rice went without a bowl bid from 1962-2005, but the Owls have won two in a row under Bailiff, the 2008 Texas Bowl over Western Michigan – capping a 10-3 season -- and last season’s Armed Forces Bowl over Air Force.
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Sticking with the same subject – making the most of opportunism –Holliday’s program is set up for big success at just the right time, as C-USA reinvents itself.
If you take the top 20 players who are regular contributors on defense, the Herd figures to lose only three – defensive end Alex Bazzie, tackle Brandon Sparrow and cornerback Monterius Lovett. And the first two of those already roll in and out regularly with contributing underclassmen (Gary Thompson, Arnold Blackmon, Steve Dillon, Jarquez Samuel) who will step right into starting roles.
On offense, the 2013 losses run deeper, particularly on the offensive line, where guard Alex Schooler and tackles Garrett Scott and Gage Niemeyer exit, as does running back Essray Taliaferro, tight end Gator Hoskins and wideout/punt returner Devon Smith.
However, Holliday’s club has capable backups now at running back and tight end, plus a good number of offensive linemen taking redshirt years to join returnees Chris Jasperse, Sebastian Johansson, Clint Van Horn and Mike Selby.
In other words, it would be no stretch to see the Herd in the 2014 C-USA title game, too.
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The Herd that takes the field for the conference title game is arguably the best on offense in school history. If you look at the total offense average per game, there should be no argument.
The school record for yardage in a season is 7,287 yards, but that was set over 15 games, when then-Coach Bob Pruett’s debut season brought a 15-0 finish and NCAA championship in the program’s final Division I-AA season.
The 2013 Herd needs 1,128 yards over its final two games to reach 7,287. Clearly, that’s not impossible, considering Marshall has averaged 601.8 per game in its five-game winning streak – the first time MU has had five 500-yard games in succession in school history (and seven total 500-yarders in a season).
However, if you’re talking average per game, the current Herd is tops, at 513.0 entering the title date against Rice, which is ranked in the top 20 nationally in total defense (349.4 yards per game). That 1996 Marshall club averaged 486 yards per game.