HOUSTON -- The last time the Owls of Rice University played for an outright football championship, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was in office. The year was 1957 when the Owls won the Southwest Conference with a 7-6 win over conference foe and then No. 1 Texas A&M.
Including the 1957 title, the Owls won Southwest Conference titles in 1934, 1937, and 1946. They shared titles in 1953 and 1994. This will be their first opportunity at a conference title since joining Conference USA in 2005.
Marshall will also be playing in its first Conference USA championship since becoming a member the same year. Previously a member of the Mid-American Conference, the Thundering Herd won six consecutive championships through 2002.
While the years have passed, the stories of Marshall’s resiliency and resurgence have been well documented. The Marshall program endured what has been considered one of the most deadly sports-related tragedies in United States history.
OVERCOMING THE ODDS
The commercial jet flight was traveling from Stallings Field in Kinston, N.C. to Huntington, W.Va. and the Tri-State Airport on Nov. 14, 1970. It was carrying 75 people on board after a 17-14 loss to East Carolina.
Passengers included 37 members of the Marshall football team, eight members of the coaching staff, five flight crew members, and 25 boosters. The aircraft crashed into a hill near the airport at 7:36 that evening killing all 75 people on board.
The Marshall family has since recovered and quite well. This is a triumph of the human spirit while overcoming tremendous odds through time.
Both institutions will enter Saturday’s game with their own set of scars. However, this game will prove that scars do heal.
LOOKING AT RICE
Both teams enter Saturday’s 11 a.m. CT contest 9-3 overall, 7-1 in conference and with several top 25 national rankings. Western Conference champion Rice boasts the nation’s 17th-ranked rushing offense with 239.5 yards game. That’s also tops in C-USA.
Head Coach David Bailiff’s ground attack is led by 6-foot-1, 235-pound running back Charles Ross. The senior from Schertz, Texas averages 114.3 yards rushing per game. His best game this season came against Louisiana Tech as he set a career high with 215 yards.
Joining Ross in the backfield are freshman Jowan Davis, redshirt freshman Darik Dillard, and 6-foot-1, 230 pound sophomore Luke Turner.
The game will also feature an offensive line led by seniors Nate Richards and Jon Hodde that have logged a total of 54 starts. Skilled position players also include senior speedster wide receiver Donte Moore, who had his best game of the season with four critical catches for 42 yards. Two of those catches were third-down conversions.
Junior 6-foot-5 receiver Jordan Taylor has burned defenses this season to the tune of 48 catches for 715 yards and seven touchdowns. Joining Taylor is sophomore receiver Dennis Parks who has scored three touchdowns on 25 receptions.
Senior quarterback Taylor McHargue engineers the Owl attack and is 153-of-293 for 2,065 yards, 16 touchdowns with eight picks. Along with the rest of the 22 seniors, he hopes to end his Rice career on a bright note
“This was obviously what the plan was and the goal was when we came in as a class,” said McHargue. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t finish out with some of these guys like Turner and Corey Frazier. But, we know they’ll be cheering us on the sidelines being leaders off the field.
“But, it is special. It’s special for this team and this program and especially since we’re hosting it here.”
Speaking of special, the defense is ranked 19th in the nation. Sophomore defensive lineman Christian Covington leads the Owls with 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He gets help from defensive end Cody Bauer with 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Senior linebacker Michael Kutzler and safety Paul Porras lead the team with 79 and 70 tackles, respectively, while senior and junior cornerbacks Phillip Gaines and Bryce Callahan lead the Owls with four and three interceptions respectively.
EYEING THE HERD
Marshall’s attack starts with senior quarterback Rakeem Cato, who is one of the nations’ best at throwing the football. Cato is 246-of-414 for 3,314 yards, 34 touchdowns with only eight interceptions. That’s good for a No. 17 national ranking.
His targets are inside receiver Tommy Shuler with 89 receptions for 1,019 yards with nine touchdowns and tight end Gator Hoskins with 38 catches, 618 yards and 13 touchdowns. In fact, Shuler and Cato were high school teammates while at Miami Central. Cato threw for 9,412 yards with 103 touchdowns against 23 interceptions as a prep star. Shuler caught 3,000 of those 9,412 yards and 30 touchdowns.
The ground game features Essray Taliaferro who has tallied 1,006 yards and nine touchdowns on 185 carries.
Junior linebacker Jermaine Holmes leads the Thundering Herd with 80 tackles. The defense does a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage as they have limited teams to an average of 150.6 rushing yards per game.
Keeping spread and power teams below an average of 400 yards per game during this era of football speaks highly of any defense.
WRAP IT UP
These two teams last met at Rice Stadium in 2012. The result was a 54-51 overtime win for Marshall. Big plays could be the story of this game as Rice averages 420 yards of total offense while Marshall averages 513 yards.
This game will come down to making big plays. But more importantly, both defenses must play well. The Rice Owls were nearly flawless a week ago against Tulane as they didn’t allow a first down in the first half. Tulane was 1-of-14 on third-down conversions.
If the Rice Owls can play that same type of defense, the result will be positive. However, Marshall’s third-down conversion rate is 53 percent, good for fifth in the nation.
Coach- speak can be employed here: the team that makes the most big plays in critical situations during this game is the team that will walk away with its first C-USA championship.