A rematch of the 2013 Conference USA title game revisits the same location. That December afternoon was Rice’s highest point of the decade, and in the same venue against the familiar opponent, the Owls have a chance to jumpstart their program with a much-sought-after win.
Meanwhile, Marshall (5-3, 3-1 C-USA) has its sights set on its first C-USA championship since 2014.
Conference play launched in an unfortunate manner for the Thundering Herd, which fell 24-13 to Middle Tennessee in their C-USA opener. But all the Herd needed was a confidence-building win to get back on track. After expectedly downing a 1-win Old Dominion team, Marshall handed two C-USA East rivals their first and only conference losses of the season.
Marshall’s offense shined in a 36-31 victory over Florida Atlantic, as running back Brenden Knox exploded for 220 rushing yards. Upon the return home to Huntington, Doc Holliday’s defense frustrated WKU, forcing three turnovers in a 26-23 win over the Hilltoppers. With a trio of consecutive wins, Marshall is one of the hottest teams in the conference and controls its own destiny in a wide-open C-USA East. But Saturday’s road matchup in Houston could prove to be a trap game for the Herd.
Rice (0-8, 0-4 C-USA) hasn’t played bad game in Houston yet this season. Yes, the Owls are 0-8, but Rice has dragged several visitors into defensive battles at Rice Stadium this season. Baylor is 8-0, but even the Bears couldn’t score on the Rice defense for a half, escaping Houston with a 21-13 win. Louisiana Tech is 7-1, but the Bulldogs never led Rice on the road until a game-winning touchdown in overtime. Last week, 5-3 Southern Miss and its explosive offense was held to one touchdown for the first 59 minutes of action.
In Rice’s last three home games, against teams with a combined record of 20-4, the Owls have allowed just 21.3 points per game. However, as head coach Mike Bloomgren addressed postgame after a 20-6 loss to Southern Miss, “the elephant in the room” is the offense.
Rice scored six points last week, and the team’s 124th-ranked scoring offense has yet to post more than 27 points in a game this year. Bloomgren hinted postgame that “changes will be made” offensively, meaning new-look starters and altered play-calling could come Saturday.
The Owls have struggled throwing the football this season. The most passing yards attained by a Rice quarterback this year is 185 from Tom Stewart in Week 2’s loss to Wake Forest. Last week, Rice trotted out three different quarterbacks, starting the game with typical starter Wiley Green and finishing with Evan Marshman’s first minutes of 2019. Stewart was scheduled to start the Southern Miss game, but he suffered a back injury in practice. The senior, who has logged snaps in six games this season, will likely serve as the Saturday starter.
Marshall’s quarterback situation is much clearer. Isaiah Green, a second-year starter, is set to make his ninth appearance of the season. Green enjoyed a solid outing against WKU, throwing for 230 yards and a touchdown without an interception. While Marshall’s passing game is serviceable, it’s the rushing attack which makes the Herd’s offense dangerous.
Brenden Knox has recorded three 100-yard games this season, registering 408 rushing yards and three touchdowns in his last three contests. He’ll have to fight a feisty Rice rushing defense, which boasts one of the better front sevens in the conference. Owls’ outside linebacker Blaze Alldredge ranks fifth in the country in tackles for loss with 14. Marshall’s offensive line, which allows 1.63 sacks per game, must stay aware of Alldredge’s location at all times in order to optimize Knox’s performance. Another threat in the trenches is defensive tackle Myles Adams, who has recorded 29 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss as the leader of Rice’s defensive line.
Rice’s defense may do its job in stopping the Herd, but the Owls will still need a boost from its offense. Wide receiver Austin Trammell, Rice’s go-to screen threat should be the focus of Marshall’s secondary. The Owls don’t run many plays past 10 yards to the center of the field, so the Thundering Herd must focus on the flats and the backfield. The man in charge of guiding the defensive stops is linebacker Omari Cobb, who has a versatile stat-line featuring 70 tackles, two sacks, and two forced turnovers this season.
The Thundering Herd are 1-2 in road contests this season, and they must avoid an upset Saturday in order to keep control of their division in the C-USA. Rice may be winless, but the Owls have provided enough scares this season to force any visiting opponent to take their defense seriously.
Time and Date: Saturday, November 2 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Network: Facebook Live
Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
Spread: Marshall (-11)
ESPN FPI: Marshall has 75.6% chance to win
All-time series: Marshall leads, 4-2
Last meeting: Marshall 41, Rice 14 — November 15, 2014
The interdivisional C-USA matchup hasn’t transpired since the days of Rakeem Cato. A 13-1 Marshall team annihilated an 8-5 Rice squad in Huntington, which was the Owls’ most recent winning team. But the most famous matchup between the programs is the 2013 C-USA Championship Game in Houston. In the Owls’ only C-USA title, they prevailed in a 41-24 rout of the Herd.
Rice is going to strike one of these days, it’s hard to predict when. Despite an 0-4 start, Rice played respectably against several strong non-conference opponents, but instead of those performances translating into wins in conference play, we’re seeing much of the same. The Owls’ defense has kept nearly every game close, but the offense has yet to capitalize. Rice should see more success this week with the hyper focus on improving the unit and a healthier Tom Stewart starting.
But Marshall’s been rolling lately. Brenden Knox is one of the most challenging running backs the Owls’ defense faces this season and Rice cannot afford to let Isaiah Green open the field and connect on deep shots, as he did several times against Florida Atlantic. Marshall’s offense won’t need to execute to perfection to win this, as the Herd’s defense just needs to contain Rice from reaching the end zone. Expect a similar result to last week’s matchup at Rice Stadium.
Prediction: Marshall 23, Rice 13