PEERING INTO a tunnel from outside Rice Stadium, I noticed a sign that told players what they were in for over the next few hours. The banner read something like, "Heat Advisory; temperatures on the field can top 100 degrees."It's September in Houston, and the TV folks wanted the game at 2:30 p.m. Central. Didn't take The Weather Channel to figure out it just might be hot and muggy.Perhaps the sign was a ploy to psych out the visiting Marshall team Saturday, give the host Rice Owls a little advantage. And at first guess, the Owls should have enjoyed an edge to some degree - summer has broken in Huntington and Thundering Herd players have enjoyed several fall-like practices.But because of a supreme coaching effort by Doc Holliday and staff, any such advantage was negated - even reversed.Yes, the last paragraph was crafted with the sole intention of making you, the reader, spew coffee in random directions.After watching their team's defense yield more than 600 total yards for the second time in four games, Herd fans are growing disgruntled with coordinator Chris Rippon. Watching the Herd play not to lose in the final four minutes was tough to take. "Pooch" kickoffs should have gone the way of the Snyder administration.But there should be no criticism of the Herd's offensive line, which bulldozed the way for three running backs to run for a combined 353 yards and six touchdowns. If they sought redemption after the loss to Ohio, they earned it.And that unit was ready to play as many overtimes as it took."I thought we went out in the second half, and I thought we were in good shape," said Herd coach Doc Holliday. "I don't think conditioning was a problem ..."Hey, did someone mention conditioning? Since the Herd convened for preseason camp, a few players have, lauding the summer program of strength and conditioning coach Joe Miday.Offensive guard Alex Schooler, a fourth-year junior, told me earlier this month that he did more running in the summer than he ever has - 110-yard runs, 300s, stadium steps, 40-yard sprints, you name it, followed by many a good night's sleep.
Oh, did it ever pay off Saturday.First, look at that maligned Marshall defense, which looked helpless at times against quarterback/escape artist Taylor McHargue. Not sure when the last time a QB ripped a Marshall defense for 300 passing yards and 150 on the ground, but McHargue was making his best case for offensive player of the year, to say nothing of the week.Herd defenders needed a big play down the stretch, and had enough in the tank to make several.When McHargue ran his last 47 yards to the Marshall 2 with 1:20 left and the game at 41-38, the Herd was in a world of hurt. A score probably meant Rakeem Cato would have to direct a 75-yard touchdown drive with 40-something seconds left. (Rice's Chris Boswell would have launched the kickoff halfway to Dallas.)
On first down, Turner Petersen could only pick up half of those two yards, with tackles Jarquez Samuel and Steve Dillon getting credit for the stop. After Petersen's fateful false start, backup QB Driphus Jackson had no chance of running in a keeper from the 6.
On third down, Rice opted for the chip-shot field goal and overtime - a winning result for the Herd.Why? Because the only way the Owls were going to stop the Herd's running game was by recovering a freak fumble. The Owls scored one valiant three-and-out during their 11-point rally, but I'm chalking it up to a tentative, conservative series by the Herd offense. (In other words, playing not to lose.)But overall, Rice's tackling deteriorated as the game wore on. In the two overtimes, the Owls got rag-dolled in the trenches. After the Herd denied two TD passes - excellent coverage by Monterius Lovett and then a big hit by Okechukwu Okoroha - the Owls had to settle for a field goal.It was Rice's first lead, 51-48, but you knew the home team was toast. And the Owls were toasted in their own Houston heat.One hopes the Herd gave Miday the game ball. That, my friends, was some good coaching.
In most years since 2005, Conference USA has been superior to the Mid-American Conference. This is not one of those seasons.Last weekend, the MAC took all sorts of scalps - Central Michigan beat Iowa 32-31, Western Michigan rode Connecticut out of Kalamazoo 30-24, Northern Illinois dropped Kansas 30-23 and Ball State sent Skip Holtz's South Florida team home a 31-27 loser.If memory serves, I don't remember such MAC-inflicted carnage since that special day of September 20, 2003, when Marshall beat sixth-ranked Kansas State, NIU toppled Alabama and Toledo downed Pittsburgh. And Bowling Green threw a scare into Ohio State.So on the latest Saturday, the MAC racked up four wins over BCS-level opponents, quadruple the one C-USA has managed - those Rice Owls kicking over Kansas. (Charlie Weis, how is life treating you in Lawrence?)C-USA is going to have to claim 2013 newcomer Louisiana Tech for its brownie points. If you missed it, the Bulldogs administered corporal punishment in Champaign, Ill., beating Illinois 52-24. The Fighting Illness had six turnovers and was outgained 403-324. nn
Looking way down the road, we saw a hint of what Old Dominion likes to do offensively - throw for 700-plus yards. Taylor Heinicke threw for 730 yards in a 64-61 win over New Hampshire, breaking the 22-year-old Division I record by Houston's David Klingler. That game did not go to overtime, either.Heinicke will be gone a year before the Monarchs get to Conference USA, but you have been warned. Coach Bobby Wilder likes a little grass basketball, and I figure he'll get another QB to play it.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org.