Marshall, Rice accustomed to finishing strong
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The common thread between the two teams in the Conference USA championship are all those intangibles many squads talk about, but rarely measure up to.
Leadership. Accountability. Self-policing. Ownership.
Now is the closest Marshall has come to fulfilling such promises. Perhaps the Thundering Herd must defeat Rice on the road today to make a more impressive case.
The current five-game winning streak, a stunning 59-28 romp over East Carolina, and the program's first division title in C-USA are still not enough to fulfill one of the Herd's major goals.
But then again, this Herd team was leaving Middle Tennessee with a loss and a 4-3 record roughly six weeks ago. Now, that low point is a speck in the rear-view mirror.
"I guess our senior leadership [flipped the switch]," said defensive tackle Brandon Sparrow. "We've had 19 [weekly] captains, a bunch of seniors. We just want to win, you know."
Marshall has finished well under coach Doc Holliday, even in down years. The Herd is 15-4 in games played Oct. 28 or later, and have a chance to tack on two more.
The Owls also are closing with flourishes. Since 2006, the single-year Todd Graham era, they are 23-9 in games played in November or later. They have won eight home games in a row, dating back to Marshall's win in September 2012, and are on a 14-3 run.
Rice's large junior class asserted itself two weeks after that loss to Marshall, when the Owls lost at Memphis and fell to 1-5. "This junior class that is now the senior class started to take responsibility and accountability," coach David Bailiff said. "And at that moment, we changed, became a self-policing [team]. Instead of pointing fingers, [they] started looking at themselves.
"That's the moment it happened. It was actually Phillip Gaines, the corner, that said, 'enough's enough' and drew a line in the sand and said that's not how this team is going to be anymore."
Something worked - the Owls ralled from 2-6 to earn a bowl bid, and then grounded Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth.
And at noon, they take on the leadership-infused Marshall team.
Holliday mentioned that Rice may have won more games this year and last than it has in any two-year span in 40 years or so. With a 9-3 mark so far, the Owls have won 16 games in 2012 and 2013.
Turns out Holliday was even low in that estimation. It has been a whopping 59 years since the Owls have won 16 in two straight years - 1953 and 1954, when they went 9-2 and 7-3. If Rice wins Saturday or in its bowl game, the 17 wins over two seasons would be a first since 1934-35.
Indeed, there are great days for Rice football, as the Owls try to capture their first outright conference title since 1957.
"It would be nice to get recruited here now," said receiver Jordan Taylor. "When I came here four years ago, things were on the downslope."
Nationally, there isn't the greatest buzz around today's game. The Southeastern Conference, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference, Pac-12 and Mountain West Conference all have their title games later.
In addition, the American Athletic Conference has a few games. The Mid-American Conference put on its game Friday night.
C-USA's coaches teleconference may have had just four media members on the line. That's the number who lobbed questions - the Houston Chronicle's Joseph Duarte and the motley threesome of full-time Marshall beat writers.
How many fans inhabit Rice Stadium is another question. For Marshall's visit last year, 5,000 live bodies might be a liberal estimate (from the press box, seats on the same side are obscured). Fans were invited on the field to form the human tunnel for the players to run out.
The school is making as much of a promotional splash as possible this time around, but the facts remain: Rice is a small school in a spread-out city with differing loyalties, college and pro. To make things tougher today, the weather is not going to cooperate.
Not only is rain in the forecast, the high temperature may not hit 40 degrees. This game will avoid the ice storm that is hitting Dallas, but Houstonians don't much care for those conditions.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.