The Mountain State’s TRUSTED news source.

Click here to stay informed and subscribe to The Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Click #isupportlocal for more information on supporting our local journalists.

Learn more about HD Media

Eli Neal 7cwiqcfk6l4hlfd6ge5_original

Marshall’s Eli Neal (24) brings down Florida Atlantic’s LaJohntay Wester (83) in the Herd’s win on Oct. 24.

HUNTINGTON — Marshall’s football team has again had plenty of time off to think about the situation it will be facing as the Thundering Herd takes on Rice at noon Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

The Herd is ranked No. 15 in the Associated Press and Amway Coaches polls and has achieved its its highest-ever spot in the College Football Playoff rankings at No. 21.

Still, none of those rankings are the focus for the Herd.

Instead, the focus is on a Conference USA championship, which has been the goal since the players reported on May 20 for voluntary workouts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

After three weeks between games, the Herd is eager to return to the field on Saturday and continue its pursuit of that championship goal.

“You’ve heard me say it a thousand times — control what you can control,” Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said. “I think our guys have done a nice job of doing that.”

Focus should not be an issue for the Herd as it gets set to take on the Owls.

Marshall was in a similar situation last season and faltered, losing its next-to-last game of the season at Charlotte, which knocked the Herd out of East Division title contention.

That memory was on the minds of players as they went through preparation over the last two weeks.

“We know what our goal is,” Marshall linebacker Eli Neal said. “It’s an arm’s length away and we’re ready to get it.”

A win this week could clinch an East Division title and berth in the Conference USA championship game on Dec. 18, but that is contingent on Charlotte’s contest with Western Kentucky and a potential schedule change that could be announced this weekend by Conference USA involving next week’s contest.

That is looking way down the road according to Holliday and the players.

Instead, they are just looking to win one day at a time.

If Marshall is to keep its perfect record overall and in Conference USA, the Herd must get past a Rice team that has plenty of talent.

Last season, Marshall went to Houston to take on the Owls, who were 0-8 at the time. The Herd earned a hard-fought 20-7 win, but the players knew that team was better than its record indicated.

“We got in that game and were like, ‘What the heck? These guys are good,’” Marshall offensive lineman Alex Mollette said. “This is a good football team. I don’t really know what happened [early] last year, but I think they won three games at the end of the season. They started to put it together at the end of the year last year and they’ve got a lot of those guys back.”

The Owls went on to win their final three games in 2019 to build momentum for 2020, and now have added a game-changer in quarterback Mike Collins, a graduate transfer from TCU.

“They have a transfer quarterback, Collins, who has come in and he’s playing extremely well for them,” Marshall defensive coordinator Brad Lambert said. “A lot of stuff runs off their play-action.”

Rice (1-2, 1-2 C-USA) has played just three games, but Collins has been solid, throwing for 802 yards and 10 touchdowns with one interception.

The biggest target has been Austin Trammell, who has 335 receiving yards and six touchdowns in just three games.

For Marshall, quarterback Grant Wells has been just as impressive with more than 1,600 yards passing and 16 touchdowns with four interceptions all season.

The Herd also has the benefit of a stout offensive line that paves the way for running back Brenden Knox, the reigning Conference USA Most Valuable Player.

Knox has rushed for more than 100 yards per game this season and has 10 total touchdowns to his credit. Another big effort from the junior from Columbus, Ohio, will be needed against the Owls, whose defense features one of the league’s top linebackers in Blaze Alldredge.

Marshall has a 5-2 all-time lead in the series with Rice and has won all three games played in Huntington.

“We’re looking forward to finally getting to play again here on Saturday,” Holliday said. “It’s nice to be at home. Our crowd has been great all year and I’m sure they are going to show up this Saturday like they have all year. That 12,500 will sound like 25,000. That’s what we need and I’m looking forward to it.”