The Marshall Thundering Herd are heading back to a familiar place — bowl season.
With their fourth consecutive win, a 20-7 low-scoring decision over the Rice Owls on Saturday, the Herd (6-3, 4-1 C-USA) qualified for bowl season for the third-straight year. Not many teams have reveled in bowl success like Marshall, which sports the highest bowl winning percentage in the FBS and has won six consecutive bowl matchups.
Marshall also remains on track for its first C-USA Championship appearance since 2014, controlling its own destiny in the East division. The last time the Thundering Herd played in Houston was for the conference title in 2013, except this time, Marshall celebrated a victory over the hosting Owls.
Rice (0-9, 0-5 C-USA) remains one of three winless teams in college football and experienced nearly an identical iteration of last week, a 20-6 loss to Southern Miss. The Owls’ defense has held four-straight opponents to 23 or fewer points at Rice Stadium, except the offense averages under 15 points per game and was limited to a lone touchdown in the loss.
Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren made it clear after the Southern Miss game that changes were inevitable for the offense. One of the major changes was notable when Rice first took the field. True freshman JoVoni Johnson earned his first-career start at quarterback. Before today, Johnson had never thrown a pass on an FBS field, but he thrived out of the gate, completing 8/9 passes for 77 yards in the first half.
“He held an edge to him,” Bloomgren said. “When plays broke down, I thought he was able to move the sticks. I gave him an old Bill Walsh quote, “When the offense is humming, the quarterback is moving the sticks at least twice with his feet,” and I thought he did that this week. When JoVoni was in there, the offense looked and felt different.”
From the passing aspect, Johnson declined in the second half, completing 2/8 passes for 20 yards. But the quarterback rushed for 67 of his 77 ground yards in the final two quarters. Johnson left the game permanently in the middle of the fourth quarter, suffering a brutal hit on an 18-yard rush which positioned the Owls inside the Marshall 30.
“Confidence was the key for him,” running back Juma Otoviano said on Johnson. “He came in confident, was encouraging on the sidelines, and seeing we were down by two scores, he was just in our ear pulling guys to keep going. He kept us going today.”
In desperation mode without Johnson and needing two quick scores down 13, Tom Stewart finished the game for the Owls. The senior quarterback completed 1/9 passes and took two sacks, as Marshall’s relentless defense prevailed. With the passing game stalling, Rice grounded the ball for much of the scoreless second half, relying on a fresh Otoviano (3 carries in 2019 entering Saturday) to carry the load.
“It felt pretty good. There was a lot of jawing that came out, out there on the field. I’ve been missing that,” Otoviano said.
Rice’s defense thrived in the second half, but the first half was a show for the Marshall offense. Quarterback Isaiah Green posted one of his strongest performances of the season, completing 17/22 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown. The Herd exposed openings in the Rice secondary early, and receivers were able to get behind Rice defenders for 20+ yard gains. Tight end Armani Levias specifically excelled at shedding coverage, catching seven passes for 96 yards, bruising past Owl tacklers for extra yardage.
But Marshall’s offensive success wasn’t limited to the passing game. Against one of the better rushing defenses in the C-USA, tailback Brenden Knox blazed his way to a 134-yard performance on 27 carries, finishing with one touchdown. Marshall’s offensive line provided plenty of favors, often earning the edge against a typically-physical Rice front seven.
“That’s the first time in a conference game this year I felt we got out-physicaled and manhandled around,” Bloomgren said. “We think there’s really big things in our defense’s future and really appreciate how they competed in the third and fourth quarter until the very end.”
Rice scored the first touchdown of the afternoon, a 2-yard tunnel screen from Johnson to wide receiver Austin Trammell to provide Rice a 7-3 lead. But the Owls’ advantage was short-lived. Marshall instantly responded with a 63-yard pass to multipurpose player Xavier Gaines, who set up Knox’s touchdown run. Marshall’s only other touchdown of the game struck 28 seconds prior to halftime, as wide receiver Talik Keaton burned coverage on a 19-yard corner route touchdown.
“For a defense that wants to be elite, we can’t give up 20 points like that. In the first half, we gave up 300 total yards — that’s unacceptable,” inside linebacker Antonio Montero said. “Their backs ran hard, their receivers were really good after the catch, and their quarterback was also really good, so I feel like we didn’t handle their physicality as well as we should.”
The Owls, led by Montero (11 tackles), stuffed Marshall for the final 30 minutes, holding the Herd to three second half points. Neither defense was able to force a turnover in the contest, so offensive momentum was hard to come by in a game which featured long offensive drives consistently followed by punts.
“I think it was the big plays in the first half which really caused those scores, and once we became more assignment-sound in the second half, we started to deal with their offense a little better,” Montero said.
Rice gets its second bye week of the season before a trip east to Middle Tennessee ensues in mid-November. Marshall is off next week, as well, but a high-stakes game between C-USA West leader Louisiana Tech transpires on a Friday night in Huntington on Nov. 15.
Coaching in a winless locker room can be difficult, but Bloomgren is hoping Rice learns from its close losses in the past — which include a one-score loss to No. 12 Baylor — in order to inspire a winning effort before the season concludes.
“I think we’ve talked about the great teams we played early in the schedule, and when we fought them toe-to-toe, that should count for something,” Bloomgren said. “I showed them a video of ‘The Lion King’ where Rafiki hits him over the head, and you know, it’s in the past. We better learn from it, but we better move forward too.”