HOUSTON - Today's Conference USA championship game between Marshall and Rice will be one for the history books.OK, that may be overstating the importance, at least on a national scale. For many fans, it will be an afterthought the minute the Southeastern Conference title game kicks off, followed by four similar games.Shoot, ESPN, is airing a noon game between C-USA defectors Central Florida and Southern Methodist, 249 miles north-northwest in icy Dallas. The Thundering Herd and the Owls are playing at the same time on ESPN2.Marshall (9-3) is playing for its first conference championship in 11 years, a drought considered unthinkable way back in 2002, as Thundering Herd fans were eyeballing a potential move to Conference USA. Today's MU players were midget-leaguers at the oldest.Rice coach David Bailiff remembers watching the Herd's glory years from afar."They were an amazing I-AA program," he said Tuesday. "I had some friends that worked there back during that run. The fans are fanatic, the fans have high expectations. ... They're getting the type of student-athlete, they're getting some guys going to 'The League,' they've done a great job."For Marshall fans, those I-AA and Mid-American Conference championships seem as if they happened, oh, about 56 years ago. For Rice, those 56 years are no exaggeration.The Owls last won an outright championship in the old Southwest Conference in 1957. They shared one in 1994, two years before the SWC went kaput and the Owls were exiled to the Western Athletic Conference.
Not that the Owls tore it up there, either. By the time they landed in their first bowl game in 45 years (2006), they had joined Marshall in the restructured C-USA.C-USA is again in the midst of restructuring, but the teams playing today will still be around next year. That's a source of pride, especially after how Rice dispatched Tulane last week and Marshall rocked East Carolina - both teams joining 3-9 Tulsa on the way out."I think it's great, to be honest with you," said MU coach Doc Holliday. "I think it's kind of nice that whoever the defending champion will be, will be back next year. You look at Rice's roster, you've got a lot of young players, you look at our roster, we've got a lot of young players. Hopefully, we've got a shot at being pretty good next year, too."These are the seventh and eighth different schools to participate in the C-USA championship game, which is in its ninth rendition. And there are some quality matchups, including:Quarterbacks Rakeem Cato vs. Taylor McHargue: Yes, Bailiff, toiling in the middle of Texas A&M country, compared Cato to Johnny Manziel. That may be a stretch, but this isn't: Cato keeps plays alive out of the pocket, and he can destroy good coverage by running to open space.
Cato has run for 26 first downs this season."A big part of their strength on offense is him," said Rice defensive end Cody Bauer. "They don't have any broken plays. If all of their players are covered, he can pull it down and do some damage."
McHargue is well-known to Herd defenders for his Manziel impression in last year's game at Rice Stadium, a 54-51 MU win in double overtime. McHargue passed for 314 yards and ran for 153 before injuring his shoulder.Both QBs have had a reduction in total offense this year, Cato 16 percent to 297.3 yards per game; McHargue 13 percent to 208.9 yards. The big reason is ...Battle of the running attacks: Two of C-USA's four 1,000-yard rushers are on display, Marshall's scrappy Essray Taliaferro and Rice's 235-pound Charles Ross.
Their sidekicks are not shabby - MU's Steward Butler can score from anywhere on the field, and Rice freshman Jowan Davis is solid. Both teams sport punishing offensive lines.Battle of improved defenses: In conference games, Marshall's total defense has improved from 455.9 yards per game to 392.4, while Rice's went from 436.2 to 329.4.Battle of special teams: This may not be equal in several areas, including field-goal kicking. Chris Boswell is 14 of 21, but that's in part due to going 2 of 6 from 50 yards and out. He does have the leg, though - he has hit from 56 yards this year, and is headed to the Senior Bowl.
Marshall has had its special-teams problems, but kickoff return coverage isn't among them. When Amareto Curraj isn't booting long for a touchback, opponents are averaging just 19 yards per return. The average start after MU kickoffs is the 23-yard line."You'll see our best players out there," Holliday said, after raving about Devon Johnson on that unit. "Neville Hewitt's a guy, you've got [Deandre] Reaves, our punt returner who's also out there. Had D.J. Hunter out there this past week, Raheem Waiters, Taj Letman, Corey Tindal."Those are but a few facets of today's championship bout, which will a substantial new chapter in the winning school's history. Which one will that be, Marshall or Rice?"We were fortunate enough to get a 'W,'" MU defensive end Alex Bazzie said of last year's game. "They're going to come at us with their best shot, and we're going to have to be ready to take it. But at the same time, they're going to have to be ready to take our best shot."Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.