Dec. 7, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HOUSTON – The early week controversy and Marshall’s kelly green rancor over the site of the 2013 Conference USA Championship football game was no factor here Saturday.
Not only did Rice play host to the game, but the Owls also played at another level.
No tiebreaker was needed on this windy, cold day, as the C-USA West Division champs scored on their first two possessions, and rolled past the Thundering Herd, 41-24, at Rice Stadium.
In a matchup of 9-3 teams with identical 7-1 regular-season C-USA records, the Owls won with a balanced attack, physicality and more than enough plays from their bag of tricks – like a halfback pass and a fake run-turned-jump pass for touchdowns.
Although losing in its first C-USA title-game appearance was painful, the Herd (9-4) learned of a consolation prize not long after the game. Marshall received a bid to the Friday, Dec. 27 Military Bowl in Annapolis. Md., facing an ACC team that is likely to be revealed Sunday night.
Sources indicate that the sixth annual Military Bowl is hoping for nearby Maryland (7-5), but the game has to wait and see what other ACC-affiliated bowls do with their picks. The Military gets the No. 8 ACC selection.
With a Liberty Bowl executive in the Rice Stadium pressbox, there was some notion floating around the facility that the Memphis, Tenn., game might take the Herd – win or lose – with an impressive performance.
As it turned out, the Owls (10-3) are headed for the Liberty against an SEC club, probably Mississippi State or Vanderbilt.
“That’s a great ballclub,” Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato said. “It was no secret what they were going to do. They made big plays. They made more plays than us. You can’t do that and win a championship.
“We wanted to win a championship game. I said all week, big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. And we didn’t. We didn’t make the plays we needed to. They made more plays than us, and we’ve got to come back off this.”
The postgame interviews were too soon for the Herd to find any solace in its bowl berth.
“It’s a tough loss,” Herd senior cornerback Monterius Lovett said after Rice dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage. “Let’s give credit to that team. They did a good job. They physically beat us. They came out ready to play.
“We came out ready to play too, but they just beat us. It’s tough. Everybody is disappointed. We’ve just got to come out and practice and get ready for the bowl.”
In Marshall’s five-game win streak the Owls ended, the Herd has gotten early defensive stops, then turned things over to the offense, which has produced quick scores.
Not this time. Rice scored on its first two possessions, on a 35-yard halfback pass from Luke Turner to Donte Moore, a play that victimized Lovett, who has starred this season. Next came a C-USA Championship Game-record 75-yard TD pass from quarterback Taylor McHargue to Jordan Taylor.
It was 14-0 less than seven minutes into the game. And while the Herd expected Rice to do most of its damage on the ground, the Owls were mixing things – and the Herd – up.
“I didn’t think they were going to throw it as much as they did,” Lovett said. “The (halfback pass), I just didn’t do my job, I saw the run and I came up like you’re supposed to. That was on me, my fault. I had my eyes in the wrong place.
“At times, it was real frustrating. I think it kind of got to us a little bit.”
Of Rice’s 487 yards total offense, 248 came on the ground and 239 in the air. The 5.2 yards per carry was a high against Marshall this season, as was the 7.4 yards per play – by a whole yard average.
Much of the damage was done to the Herd by 230-pound bullish back Charles Ross, who ran to the game’s MVP honor with 109 yards. McHargue and Turner combined for 10-of-18 passing for three scores.
In the coldest game in the nine-year C-USA Championship history – it was 35 degrees at kickoff – the Herd needed a de-icer.
“They came out and were prepared,” Marshall junior slot receiver Tommy Shuler said. “They’re a great defense. It seemed like they wanted it more.
“We just didn’t get it done. We came out slow, and that’s not a good thing on the road … A lot of players have hurt on their shoulders right now.”
Marshall played without injured starting cornerback Darryl Roberts, and No. 2 running back Stew Butler suffered an ankle sprain in the second quarter and was hobbled thereafter. But MU coach Doc Holliday wasn’t making excuses.
“No. 1, we talked about coming in that we had to stop the run, they did an extremely good job of running the football,” Holliday said. “We didn’t do that very well.
“And again, when we’ve played well on defense, we’ve gotten off the field on third down. It didn’t happen. We didn’t make the plays we’ve been making, and Rice is a very physical football team and did a nice job.”
The Owls were 8-of-14 on third-down conversions, only the third time this season a Marshall foe has reached 50 percent or better. The other two were in road losses, too – at Ohio and Middle Tennessee State.
Marshall averaged only 2.9 yards per rush, led by Essray Taliaferro’s 53 yards on 17 carries. Quarterback Rakeem Cato was 24-of-41 for 265 air yards and two scores, but his early second-half interception – the only turnover in the title game – was particularly costly.
Rice led 21-10 at halftime, but the Herd was getting the ball on the second-half kickoff. Holliday’s team drove from its own 25 to a first-and-10 at the Rice 40, when Owls free safety Julius White dived an picked off a Cato pass intended for Shuler at the hosts’ 22 just 2:54 into the half.
“We thought coming out for the second half, we knew we were going to get the football, and we felt it was important to come down and make something good happen early, and then we had the turnover,” Holliday said. “We felt, coming back, take it down and something good happens early, we’re right back in it … We’ve been making plays all year, and we just didn’t make ‘em today.”
It was only Cato’s third interception – to go with 21 touchdown passes – in his last six games.
“It was a bad ball, a low ball,” Cato said. “The safety made a heck of a catch. A low ball, he got under it … made a heck of a play.”
Rice coach David Bailiff liked his team’s defense in particular.
“That offense (Marshall) had scored 50 points a game for the past five games, so I'm really proud of that defense,” Bailiff said. “I know we sacked him three times and kept him off track a lot."
Holliday knew the Herd had issues coping with Rice’s physicality, too. Marshall’s 371 yards paled in comparison to the 601.8 that the Herd averaged during its five-game winning streak.
Marshall also had only one tackle for loss and no sacks, two categories the Herd has been strong in throughout the season.
“I thought they were very physical up front, and we knew they were,” Holliday said. “And again, we didn’t run the football very well and when we don’t run the football well, we become one-dimensional and we struggle at times and that’s kind of what happened … We didn’t execute on offense, to be honest with you.”
Cato said the Herd now has to regroup before it heads to Washington, D.C. – where all of the bowl’s practices and functions are scheduled before the game trucks north on U.S. 50 to 34,00-seat Navy Marine Corps Stadium for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff (ESPN telecast).
“It’s like anything else,” Cato said. “Whenever you get to this point, bottom line is, you need to win that football game, you need to get that championship and we didn’t do that. So, fortunately, we’ve got to go back to work and it’s like anything else. You put it behind you, look forward, get ready for the next game.”
SEEN ‘N’ HERD – Shuler had a game-high eight receptions, taking him to 97 for the season and into fourth place on the Marshall single-season list. Shuler’s 110 catches last season are the school record. He sandwiches Mike Barber’s 106 in 1987 and Troy Brown’s 101 in ’92 … Shuler also is at 221 in career receptions, tied for fourth all-time with Tim Martin (1993-96). The top three are Josh Davis (306, 2001-04), Darius Watts (272, 2000-03) and Barber (249, 1985-88) …
Place-kicker Justin Haig scored six points in the loss, moving him to 103 points for the season – the first Herd kicker with 100 or more points since Tim Openlander had 130 in Marshall’s final division I-AA season (1996). Haig scored 99 points last season … Cato’s two touchdown passes extended his streak of consecutive games with a TD pass to 31, one shy Derek Carr of Fresno State for the lead among active FBS quarterbacks. Carr threw one Saturday night in the second quarter of the Mountain West Conference Championship against Utah State (in progress as of this posting).