Rice's Sam McGuffie has been moved from running back to wide receiver.
HUNTINGTON - Of Marshall's seven wins last season, six were in doubt late in the game. A few of those wins, the Thundering Herd simply stole.
One qualifies as the grandest of thefts - the 24-20 win over Rice in the Herd's seventh game of the season. In fact, Rice had the Herd cooked when Sam McGuffie was running for a first down with 31/2 minutes to go and the Owls ahead 20-17.
That's when Vinny Curry, playing the game of his life following his mother's death, threw a diving downward slap and knocked the ball free. Monterius Lovett recovered and the Herd scored with 1:49 left to win the game.
"He almost single-handedly won the game for us on defense," said Jeremiah Taylor, who played opposite Curry at defensive end.
The 2011 result deeply affected both teams' seasons. Marshall needed every win to become bowl eligible, while Rice was denied a chance to reach .500 and eventually finished 4-8.
With Curry in the NFL, the Thundering Herd prepares for its return match with the Owls at 3:30 p.m. EDT Saturday at Rice Stadium. It is the Conference USA opener for both teams, who sport 1-2 records, and the league's first interdivisional league game. The game will air on WCHS, Channel 8 in Charleston-Huntington.
Rice, an old Southwest Conference program that doesn't duck the tough games, owns Conference USA's best nonconference victory this year, a 25-24 win Sept. 8 at Kansas. That upset was sandwiched between boat-racings by UCLA (49-24) and Louisiana Tech (56-37), games in which the Owls yielded a combined 1,255 total yards.
Of that total, 676 came on the ground, signaling an opportunity for the Herd to revive its dormant rushing game. Rakeem Cato threw for 432 yards and rushed for 32, while his tailbacks gained just 17 more in the Herd's 27-24 loss to Ohio.
More than anything, the Herd's offensive line wants to correct its run blocking. Right guard John Bruhin said he is back to full strength and right tackle Garrett Scott may return, but that's not all the unit needs to fix.
"We definitely need to clean a lot of stuff up," Bruhin said Monday. "We've got to get everybody on the same page, backs hitting the right holes, offensive linemen making the holes to start with. We all just got to clean little stuff up, just come out and focus on it. We were throwing the ball so many times, but we've got to get better at the run game."
Rice will run the ball, averaging 204.3 yards per game. McGuffie has been shifted to wide receiver, so 6-foot-1, 235-pound Charles Ross is carrying the load, fifth in C-USA rushing at 70.7 yards per game. A spot behind him is quarterback Taylor McHargue at 68.7.
McHargue is comparable to Ohio's Tyler Tettleton, who ran for 35 yards and passed for 200 and three touchdowns last week against Marshall. Tettleton frustrated Herd rushers quite a bit - at one point, a pursuing Taylor yanked Tettleton's towel, but otherwise came up empty.
"I don't like mobile quarterbacks," Herd safety Okechukwu Okoroha said, half-jokingly. "Quarterbacks who just keep plays alive. That's what the game is evolving to."
McHargue had five double-digit runs against Marshall last year, but was sacked repeatedly by Curry and left the game with concussion-like symptoms. With big targets such as Jordan Taylor, Luke Willson and Vance McDonald, he averages 204 passing yards after three games this year.
How big are those wide receivers? All are 6-foot-5, and Taylor is the skinny one at 210 pounds. Willson is listed at 255 and McDonald, who caught a 49-yard TD pass against MU last year, is 265.
And if the Owls really need him, Taylor Cook is listed at 6-7, 255. But Cook is used more as the man who might be college football's tallest punter.
"I expect their offense to run a lot, actually do a lot of everything," Jeremiah Taylor said. "They use a lot of personnel, use a lot of tight ends, some receivers and they use a few running backs. They're going to do it all."
Rice coach David Bailiff is tending to his ill mother, so his coordinators fielded questions at the weekly press conference Monday.
As one could imagine, offensive coordinator John Reagan is the happier of the two after the Owls' 56-37 loss to Louisiana Tech, as his team rushed for 255 yards and had 477 total. The Owls went 8 of 17 on third-down conversions and scored touchdowns all five times in the red zone.
But once the Owls fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter, they could do no better than trade scores the rest of the way. The host Bulldogs ran up 609 total yards.
"We've got to play more consistently on defense, we have to tackle better," said defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond. "We tackled really well in the Kansas game, we were able to win the game, we were able to control the game at times. We did not tackle especially well in the UCLA game and we didn't tackle especially well last week."
Bailiff is in his sixth year at Rice and is now the third-longest tenured coach in the league. The others are Central Florida's George O'Leary and Texas-El Paso's Mike Price, both in their ninth years.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org