Rice pulls a fast one on Marshall
HOUSTON - One week after Marshall seemed headed toward world domination, the Thundering Herd was outworked, outsmarted and outplayed by Rice in the Conference USA championship game Saturday.
Between two well-placed trick plays by an unlikely game MVP, a bruising running game and a near-total lockdown by their cornerbacks, the Owls made it look easy in beating the Herd 41-24.
Before a few thousand fans bundled up against 35-degree cold considered brutal by local standards, the Owls (10-3) won their first conference championship since taking the Southwest Conference crown in 1957.
In the process, they made the Herd a shell of the team that pounded East Carolina 59-26 last week.
The breakage started on the game's 10th play, 4 minutes, 45 minutes into the first quarter. That's when Luke Turner took a toss sweep to the right, suddenly stopped and fired downfield to a wide-open Donte Moore for a 35-yard touchdown.
On the Owls' next possession, it took only two plays to give them a double-digit lead for good. That's when Taylor McHargue found Jordan Taylor down the left side, and Taylor turned on the jets for a 75-yard score to make it 14-0.
Both sides agreed the halfback pass set the tone for Rice's offense, which rolled up 487 total yards. Marshall's defense had only one tackle for loss.
"The trick play really gave them momentum, because once you see them execute like that, you know it's something you have to be ready for," said MU defensive end James Rouse.
In other words, that play made Marshall's defense very, very honest.
"I didn't do my job on that play," said cornerback Monterius Lovett. "I saw the run and reacted to it; that's my fault. I had my eyes in the wrong place."
"It's nice to have eight former quarterbacks," Rice coach David Bailiff said with a chuckle. "Luke really throws the ball well. He's an amazing athlete. He's such a great runner that they have to honor his running."
Marshall (9-4) had to honor the running of big Charles Ross, too. He barreled for 109 yards on 18 carries with two touchdowns. The first of those made it 21-3, coming after Marshall scored on a Justin Haig field goal.
That was the other part of the equation. Haig's field goal came from 27 yards, meaning the Herd had to settle for three points on a trip deep in Rice's territory.
That was one big victory for the Rice defense. The other came early in the second half, when Marshall was driving to cut into a 21-10 halftime margin. On first down at the Rice 40-yard line, Rakeem Cato's pass to Tommy Shuler was picked off by free safety Julius White.
"Just a bad ball," Cato said. "He made a hell of a catch, he got up under it and made the play."
The Herd's offense suffered two three-and-outs after that, which were followed by two Rice touchdowns. Turner's 8-yard jump pass to Connor Cella was pretty much the kill shot, giving the Owls a 34-10 lead.
Cato threw touchdown passes to Essray Taliaferro and Devon Smith in the fourth quarter, but the Herd needed to score more than 10 points in the first 45 minutes.
Marshall's offense, averaging 44.6 points and 513.2 total yards beforehand, was held to 241 total yards in those three quarters, 371 for the contest.
The Herd was held to 106 yards rushing, which forced Cato to throw 41 times. He completed 24 for 265 yards, but had a hard time finding open receivers, particularly his outside targets. That factored into his three sacks, as he often held the ball longer than he wanted.
"All throughout practice, we knew they had two great cornerbacks," Cato said, referring to Phillip Gaines and Bryce Callahan. "The routes we ran weren't open toward the coverage they were running."
"They were giving us a lot of time to get after the quarterback," said Rice defensive end Cody Bauer. "That helped us out a lot. I wish we could have gotten a little more pressure than we did. [Cato] was really good on his feet, he was squirting out there."
Cato's finest moment came in the second quarter, after Rice took that 21-3 lead. From the Rice 28-yard line, he somehow ducked out of a collapsing pocket, ran to the right, stopped to avoid a thunderous hit from a linebacker and ran to the sideline. Knowing exactly how much time he gave himself, he finally found Gator Hoskins coming back out of the end zone.
After that 27-yard completion, Devon Johnson scored from the 1 in the "Cheese" formation.
But that play was overshadowed by everything else, including Turner's two gadget-play touchdown throws that helped earn him the MVP award.
"[Offensive coordinator John] Reagan put together a great game plan," Turner said. "He mixes up the pass and run really well, and throwing in a couple of trick plays really put them on their heels a bit.
"They didn't understand what we were doing."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.