HUNTINGTON — Marshall coach Doc Holliday had a simple message for his team this week. If Marshall takes Rice lightly Saturday, the Thundering Herd will return from Houston with a loss.
It’s a simple yet effective message, but not one expected against a Rice team that hasn’t won since defeating Old Dominion in the final game of the 2018 season.
As Holliday pointed out, just because Rice doesn’t have a win in 2019, that doesn’t mean the Owls don’t pose plenty of problems for Marshall in this Conference USA cross-divisional matchup.
“They’re close [to winning], so it will be a battle for us,” Holliday said.
Holliday’s hope is that it doesn’t come this week against his Herd, which is on a three-game winning streak entering this weekend’s jaunt to Texas.
Getting a win over Rice (0-8, 0-4 C-USA) will be no easy task. The Owls have been in the thick of six of their eight contests this season. Only losses to Wake Forest and Texas early in the season were beyond two scores.
Rice’s last five contests have had an average margin of defeat of 8.8 points, so just a little over one score has separated the Owls from that elusive first victory of the season.
While wins haven’t come, Marshall’s coaching staff has been impressed by the Owls’ play on both sides.
Offensively, Rice lines up in power formations, regularly utilizing a fullback, which is not often seen in today’s college game.
“Some of the kids defensively, they’ve never seen an I-formation,” Marshall defensive coordinator Brad Lambert said. “That’s partly why [Rice coach Mike Bloomgren] does it. It is a throwback.”
The offensive front is solid, and running back Aston Walter is averaging 4.6 yards per rush. The Owls also have a pair of talented receivers in Austin Trammell and Brad Rozner, who each have 524 receiving yards on the season.
Rice’s issues have come at quarterback, where the Owls simply haven’t gotten the plays at needed times to get over the hump. Starter Tom Stewart has dealt with back issues over the last two weeks, meaning that Wiley Green could again see action.
Marshall has prepared for three quarterbacks with Stewart, Green and Evan Marshman all in the mix to play this week.
“I’ve thought about every possibility out there,” Bloomgren said earlier this week. “We’ve got some things that we’re going to kick around this week and give some people some opportunities.”
On the other side, Marshall’s offense needs to continue to take care of the football — something it has done recently. The Herd has just one turnover in its last three games.
Ball security is important, and the ability to sustain drives also will be key against a Rice defense that prides itself on getting the opposition behind the sticks. That effort is led by defensive tackle Myles Adams and linebacker Blaze Alldredge, who has 14 tackles for loss on the year.
It will be strength-on-strength as Marshall’s offensive line looks to move the pile against the Owls’ multiple looks.
“It’s one of those weeks where I’ve got to go through my mental Rolodex and go through everything that I’ve had to go against in my five years here,” Marshall center Levi Brown said.
No matter what side of the ball, the one word that came up when speaking about Rice from all coaches and players was “physical.” This is expected to be a contest in which the Herd has to match the physicality of the Owls to leave Houston with a victory.
If Marshall wins, the Herd (5-3 overall, 3-1 C-USA) would become bowl-eligible while also maintaining control of its own destiny in the Conference USA East Division race as it heads into a bye week prior to a Nov. 15 home contest with Louisiana Tech.
Rice was the only thing on Holliday’s mind this week.
“If you go anywhere beyond finding a way to be 1-0, then you’re going to get beat,” Holliday said. “Our standards and expectations are a lot higher than just finding a way to get bowl-eligible.”