HUNTINGTON — In perhaps its biggest game since the 2014 season, Marshall laid an egg.
The Thundering Herd, ranked 15th in both polls coming into Saturday’s contest, was held to the proverbial “goose egg” — zero points — as Rice dominated in all three phases of a 20-0 win over Marshall in front of 10,429 fans at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed in the way we played,” Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said. “Credit to [Rice coach] Mike [Bloomgren] and that team. They came in here prepared and played well.”
The shutout was Marshall’s first since falling 42-0 at Toledo in the 2000 season. It was the first shutout for the Herd at Joan C. Edwards Stadium and the first home shutout since the 1982 season when Western Michigan defeated Marshall 34-0 at Fairfield Stadium.
More importantly for Holliday and the Herd, Marshall missed a chance to solidify its stance for the Conference USA championship game. But the Herd threw that chance away.
Marshall quarterback Grant Wells struggled in a five-interception day and Rice (2-2 overall and in C-USA) used its field position game to earn the win.
Coming into the game, Wells had thrown four interceptions in seven games.
Of Wells’ five interceptions Saturday, three came in a span of four passes during the third quarter — one of which was returned by Rice’s Naeem Smith 36 yards for a touchdown, which increased the Owls’ lead to 20-0.
Rice, which took a 10-0 lead into halftime, had 14 of its 20 points come off Marshall turnovers, which the team had avoided during its successful 7-0 start to the season, including a 4-0 record in C-USA games.
“Anytime you turn the ball over five times, you’re going to have a hard time winning any game and that’s what happened,” Holliday said.
It was the first time Marshall went into the halftime locker room trailing this season, but Wells said that didn’t factor into the tough third quarter.
“We knew what we had to do,” Wells said. “It’s the same feeling if we’re up 20, if we’re down 20 in that locker room. We’re just trying to improve on mistakes that we made.”
It marks the second straight time that Marshall fell to Rice in a December meeting — the last coming in the 2013 Conference USA championship game, when the Owls earned a 41-24 win.
Marshall came into the game as a 22-point favorite and appeared to be even more in favor when it was announced before the game that Rice would be without quarterback Mike Collins and leading receiver Austin Trammell for the game.
However, Rice quarterback Jovoni Johnson, whose first start came last year in a loss to Marshall, handled the offense well, putting the Owls in good situations and eliminating mistakes to keep the Owls in front.
Wells’ first interception came on Marshall’s second drive, when miscommunication on the outside led to Rice’s Treshawn Chamberlain running under a deep pass uncontested.
That led to a 1-yard touchdown run by Jordan Myers, which put the Owls up 7-0 late in the first quarter.
Marshall had its opportunities to score in the first half, driving into Rice territory on three of its first four drives. However, the Herd had zero points on those possessions, which mounted the pressure at halftime.
Wells’ inability to get the passing game going allowed Rice to bring more pressure as the game wore on, and the Owls used the advantage of the Herd being without starting offensive tackles Josh Ball and Will Ulmer in the contest.
Rice sacked Wells three times and won the battle at the line of scrimmage, which did not allow Marshall running back Brenden Knox to get loose.
Knox finished with 76 yards on 20 carries, but was really a non-factor throughout due to the Herd’s inability to sustain drives.
Johnson finished 10 of 14 for 86 yards but no turnovers, and the tandem of Ari Broussard and Khalan Griffin led a Rice rushing attack that went for 127 yards — the first time Marshall has allowed 100 yards rushing all season.
Rice kicker Collin Riccitelli connected on field goals of 39 and 40 yards to account for the Owls’ other scoring in the contest.
Marshall played well defensively, limiting Rice to 213 yards on 60 plays, with linebacker Eli Neal (15 tackles) and defensive lineman Darius Hodge (14 tackles) each notching career-highs in tackles.
Those numbers were of little consequence to Neal following the loss, though.
“The 15 tackles don’t mean nothing to me,” Neal said. “I’d much rather have — if you could get negative tackles, I’d rather have that and win the game. I’d rather have zero tackles and take all the heat that comes with it and win the game.”
The loss kept Marshall from simplifying its opportunity to represent the East Division and host the Conference USA championship game.
Now, that will all be decided at Joan C. Edwards Stadium on Friday night with Marshall taking on Charlotte at 6:30 p.m. in a nationally televised game on CBS Sports Network.
Following the game, Conference USA announced Charlotte, which plays Sunday against Western Kentucky, will make up its game with the Herd on Friday because of the East Division implications.
That contest replaces Marshall’s scheduled trip to FIU, which was nixed due to FIU’s continued COVID-19 and injury issues.