Time and Date: Saturday, December 5 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Location: Joan C. Edwards Stadium — Huntington, WV
Spread: Marshall (-23.5)
ESPN FPI: Marshall has 92.1% chance to win
All-time series: Marshall leads, 5-2
Last meeting: Marshall 20, Rice 7 — November 2, 2019
Coming back from COVID cancelations
No conference has suffered more cancelations and postponements related to COVID-19 this season than the C-USA. Last week, North Texas vs. UTSA was the lone C-USA game to survive the mass wave of cancelations. Since the start of November, every single week has featured at least three COVID-19 related cancelations and postponements for the conference.
Marshall (7-0, 4-0 C-USA) displaying a No. 21 ranking in the College Football Playoff poll, last saw the field three weeks ago in a Nov. 14 matchup with Middle Tennessee. The Thundering Herd had a bye last Saturday, but they were slated to face Charlotte on Nov. 21, but the game was ruled a no contest.
Rice (1-2, 1-2 C-USA) delayed its season start until Oct. 24 and played again to close the month on Oct. 31. In the following four weeks, the Owls played one out of their four scheduled games. Rice was subject to postponements with UTSA and Louisiana Tech within 48 hours of kickoff. Last week, a bizarre situation erupted in Houston where its game against UTEP resulted in a cancelation hours before kickoff due to pregame positive tests within the Miners program.
“With the number of cancelations we’ve had, last weekend feels like a loss, and I can’t have them feeling that way because it was not something we were in control of,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said.
This game was originally scheduled for Oct. 3, but Rice’s season delay postponed it. However, it landed back on the schedule and the two will meet Saturday morning in Huntington, WV in a rematch of the 2013 C-USA Championship Game. Almost seven years later to the date, Rice is entrenched in another high-stakes game with the Thundering Herd with hopes of knocking them off the pedestal.
“It’s the opportunity to go test our metal this late in the season against an undefeated team,” Bloomgren said. “What more could you ask for?”
Marshall is the clear C-USA frontrunner and it’s not relatively close. The No. 21 Thundering Herd have yet to win a game by fewer than 10 points this season and their defense has come alive against its best competition, stifling 7-2 Appalachian State to seven points and 5-1 Florida Atlantic to nine.
Rice proved its made progress in year three of the Mike Bloomgren era. The Owls learned from their opening game mistakes and delivered a 30-6 blow to Southern Miss in their second game. However, Rice has yet to play consecutive weeks since, so a sense of that momentum has been lost. Still, Rice is looking forward to an opportunity to secure its first Top 25 win since 1997.
“Usually we have one of these games on the schedule where you’re playing at LSU or Texas, and we get to test our metal against the best,” Bloomgren said. “This year, we got one in our own conference — a top 15 team. It’s everything, the opportunity. We all learn something about ourselves in these moments when we get to go out there and line up against somebody who’s the best at their position.”
Both teams have seen a rise in offensive production with the implementation of a new quarterback this season. Saturday’s matchup will feature a duel between two of the best pocket passers in the C-USA. Marshall’s Grant Wells is a redshirt freshman, while Rice’s Mike Collins is a senior graduate transfer, but both quarterbacks are in their first year leading their programs’ respective offense.
Wells has enjoyed many impressive showings while leading Marshall to its best start since 2014. But his last outing against Middle Tennessee reigns superior to his other performances with a career-high 336 yards to complement five touchdown passes. He added 39 rushing yards to a stacked résumé and refrained from turning over the ball to guide the Thundering Herd to its seventh-straight win.
“He’s not out there trying to do too much, trying to make too many plays. He does what he can within his means, and when that kid gets hot, he can throw it anywhere it seems with no problem,” Rice defensive end Trey Schuman said. “There’s definitely going to be an emphasis on trying to get in his face and get him out of his rhythm. I feel if you can get him out of his rhythm, you can get the whole offense out of their rhythm.”
Rice’s passing offense under Collins is much improved over the version Marshall faced last November. Collins is one of four FBS quarterbacks with 10+ touchdown passes and as few as one interception. He has two 4-touchdown outings this season and is coming off a game with a season-high 327 passing yards. Equipped with a trustworthy target in senior wide receiver Austin Trammell (335 yards, 6 TD through three games), Collins’ ability to air it out transformed Rice into a formidable offense.
“We’re starting to find our niche,” Rice tight end Jaeger Bull said. “From a tight end’s perspective, having a foot in each camp, whether it be the pass game or the run game, it’s really cool to see those world mesh closer and closer together as this team evolves.”
Comparing run games
Brenden Knox led all C-USA rushers a season ago with nearly 1,400 rushing yards. Even though Marshall has played sparingly due to the influx of cancelations and postponements, Knox is sustaining his 2019 production. This season, Knox ranks 17th in total rushing yards and strung together a 5-game streak of eclipsing the century mark. Knox is no stranger to facing the Rice run defense, and he logged 130 yards on the Owls last November.
“He’s a guy that you can tell is strong and quick, and a lot of times, he’s got that special thing that a running back has where his body takes over and does stuff for him,” Schuman said. “You’ll see him in the backfield for which you think is surely a TFL, he’s spinning out of it and jumping to another gap and you’re like, ‘Wow. That’s impressive.’”
Rice expects its feature back Juma Otoviano to return after missing the Owls’ previous game at North Texas. Otoviano was set to play against UTEP after producing 195 rushing yards in two outings this year. Along with Otoviano, Rice is working freshman Khalan Griffin into the mix in the run game. Griffin earned his first career start against the Mean Green and recorded 72 yards.
The Marshall defense ranks first in the country allowing 10.1 points per game. Doc Holliday’s defense particularly specializes in limiting the run, and the unit is superior to any other team in the FBS, yielding an average of 65.3 rushing yards. The run defense is spearheaded by senior outside linebacker Tavante Beckett, who is a lock to make the All-C-USA team this season. Beckett leads Marshall’s elite defense in the tackles department, and the aggressive linebacker has been monstrous in the takeaway game with one forced fumble and four fumble recoveries in 2020.
“Looking at not just him, but their whole defense, they’re solid all the way around,” Bull said. “There’s not one guy I would say we are going to be having eyes for over another because they’re all the way around from the secondary to the corps.”
The Thundering Herd feature a talented pass rush as well, racking up 3.3 sacks per game — the second-highest mark in the C-USA. After facing seven sacks against North Texas’ defense in late November, Rice must refine its pass protection against Marshall’s durable front seven. But Marshall’s defense is no easy read for opposing offensive lines.
“When they do pressure, which is not very often, everything looks the same pre-snap,” Bloomgren said of Marshall’s defense. “There’s no indicators, there’s no safety tilt, there’s nothing to get a beat on. They make everything look like-with-like, and it’s incredibly well done.”
Rice’s front seven will be tested in its own right against Marshall’s offensive line. Led by right guard Cain Madden, the unit is sturdy in the run blocking game, paving pathways for Knox. But the line also thrives in pass protection and only improves as the year progresses. Only one sack has been allowed in the last four games, and the Rice defensive line will be tasked with a major challenge against one of the more cohesive units in the C-USA.
“If you don’t start with stopping the run, that offensive line with Knox will run through you,” Bloomgren said. “They are really well-oiled together. Their offensive line sees the game through one set of eyes and the back always knows and understands where to hit that hole.”
Like Marshall, Rice features tremendous talent at the linebacker position as well. Outside linebacker Blaze Alldredge was second in the FBS in tackles for loss a season ago. Rice has only seen action three times this year, but Alldredge continues to shine as one of the best defenders in the C-USA. He averages over 10 tackles per game and has chipped in two tackles for loss and one sack. Producing eight tackles and a sack, Alldredge played an instrumental part in holding the Thundering Herd to just two touchdowns and 20 total points in the 2019 meeting in Houston.
The Owls’ defense has been solid this year, but it will need a boost from the offense and special teams in order to maintain full strength. Rice is tied for third in the nation in lost fumbles per game and the Owls have muffed a punt in all three contests. With hopes of notching its first ranked win in 23 years, it is imperative Rice cuts down on the fixable mistakes against a Marshall team which plays a disciplined brand of football.
“Watching them is definitely where we want to be, and watching Saturday, I think everybody will see that we’re not that far from that point,” Schuman said.
Players to watch
Xavier Gaines, TE, Marshall: Gaines, a former high school quarterback, can line up anywhere on the field for Marshall, and Rice saw snaps with him at wildcat quarterback a year ago. This season has primarily featured Gaines in his tight end role, and he’s been an unstoppable pass catcher there. Gaines is first on the team in receiving yards and he has hauled in three touchdowns through seven games.
Austin Trammell, WR, Rice: Trammell is the star wide receiver well-deserving of all-conference recognition despite playing an abbreviated schedule. He is averaging 111.7 yards and two touchdowns per game this season, and his 20.9 yards per reception ranks first in the C-USA.
Darius Hodge, DE, Marshall: Hodge is the leader of Marshall’s belligerent pass rush, and he manages nearly one sack per game. With eight tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks on the season, Hodge is looking to build on his stellar season against a Rice offensive line which struggled against North Texas’ frequent blitzing.
Naeem Smith, SS, Rice: Smith hasn’t played a game for Rice this season, but the starting strong safety is set to make his debut Saturday. He recorded 50 tackles and a team-high two interceptions in 2019, and he’ll be needed in zone coverage to stop Wells’ myriad of weapons.
While Marshall’s offense is certainly talented, it’s the Thundering Herd defense which will impose their will on this game. Marshall hasn’t allowed more than 17 points this season, and in five games in Huntington, no team has piled on more than 10 points on the Herd.
Last year’s battle between the programs was a low-scoring bout, and it should play out similar this year. Marshall is undefeated for good reason, and the Thundering Herd have enough offensive talent in Brenden Knox’s rushing and Grant Wells’ arm to control the scoreboard.
Rice plays well for a half, but the lone undefeated C-USA team maintains its unblemished record this Saturday.
Prediction: Marshall 30, Rice 13