Marshall’s perfect season is no more.
The No. 21 Thundering Herd won every game by double digits this year, but they couldn’t manage a single point at home against an upset-starved Rice team. The Owls (2-2, 2-2 C-USA) left Huntington, WV, with their most significant victory of the Mike Bloomgren era in a 20-0 win over Marshall (7-1, 4-1 C-USA). It was Rice’s first shutout since 1995 and its first win over a ranked team since Oct. 11, 1997.
“I can’t remember the last time I’ve been more proud of a team,” Bloomgren said. “We faced a lot of adversity coming into this game, and against the No. 15 team in America.”
Marshall quarterback Grant Wells threw a combined four interceptions during Marshall’s unblemished 7-0 start to the season, but Rice’s defense forced him into many pressure situations. As a result, the Owls picked off Wells five times while securing their first win over the Thundering Herd since the 2013 C-USA Championship Game.
“What our defense did — the five takeaways, the first shutout by a Rice football team of a ranked since 1960 — just how grinding we were. It was exactly who we wanted to be,” Bloomgren said. “It was ‘Intellectual Brutality’ all over the field. We knew we were playing a very physical team and we knew we needed to match and exceed it.”
Rice’s defense started the first quarter in typical fashion, shutting an opponent out on its opening drive for the fourth time in four games this year. But having a hand in the turnover game made this Rice’s best defensive performance yet. It started when outside linebacker Treshawn Chamberlain snagged an overthrow from Wells in the first quarter and returned it 21 yards into Marshall territory. Ten plays later — nine of them being runs — Rice punched it into the end zone on a 1-yard dive by tight end Jordan Myers.
“We had an inkling they were gonna take the ball, and we thought that was an insult to our defense,” Bloomgren said on the game’s opening sequence. “We take that stuff personally. We’re working really hard and we think we are a pretty formidable defense.”
Rice recorded one more interception toward the end of the first half, but the Owls left points on the table by missing a 23-yard chip shot field goal from the far hash. While it seemed like a squandered opportunity at the time, the defense provided three more turnovers in the second half and Rice caught half as many passes on defense (5) as offense (10).
“This was an opportunity of a lifetime,” strong safety Naeem Smith said. “That’s something that we stressed. As a team, we had an unwavering belief in ourselves as players and as a team.”
Marshall fired three interceptions in a 7-play span in the middle of the third quarter. The first of the three interceptions landed in the waiting hands of Smith. Making his 2020 debut after battling a hamstring injury for months, Smith jumped a miscommunicated route and sprinted 36 yards to the end zone to hand Rice a 20-0 lead.
“Marshall, to keep it simple, is a pretty simple team,” Smith said. “But they’re a physical team and you just can’t stop them. Today, we saw a lot of the same tendencies. They didn’t really change stuff and we really prepared mentally and physically for this game as a whole team.”
While Rice didn’t score another point, the Owls defense continued to fuel the Marshall offense’s nightmare afternoon. Blaze Alldredge hauled in an interception off a ricocheted pass in Marshall territory. Although Rice fumbled near the goal line to keep the score at 20-0, cornerback Andrew Bird kept the game in equilibrium by recording his second pick of his career to prevent Marshall from a long scoring drive.
“I think it’s contagious,” Alldredge said. “When we play with juice and play with confidence, there’s plenty to go around. “We left some on the field. We could have had more, so we’re gonna do a great job of seeing that on film, keeping belief in ourselves, and building on this performance.”
Rice only needed one offensive touchdown to upend the undefeated Herd. The Owls played shorthanded without its top two offensive players as quarterback Mike Collins and wide receiver Austin Trammell sat out due to injury. Thus, the Rice offense manufactured the upset with a new cast of characters, including quarterback JoVoni Johnson. The mobile redshirt freshman entered Huntington with one career start, coincidentally against the Thundering Herd in 2019. For Johnson, inexperience didn’t translate to a lack of confidence..
“I think back to that game last year. He didn’t panic, but he was such a pup, a true freshman in our system,” Bloomgren said of Johnson. “We had a fast Friday yesterday where he was just on everything, and that just allowed our confidence to continue to grow. And you saw him go out and execute at a high level today.”
Johnson completed 10/14 passes for 86 yards without an interception. Starting the first game of the season on the road against a ranked team is never an easy task, but Johnson managed the game like a veteran quarterback and lived up to the challenge of facing the No. 1 defense in the FBS. The end result was Rice’s first win over a team with a winning record in six years.
“It was almost everything you could hope for. You’re just hoping for that opportunity, all throughout high school, all throughout your first year here,” Johnson said on his successful first start of 2020. “I felt nervous about the game when they first told me I was starting, but when we got up to the game, I felt so confident. I laid down to go to bed, had some DoubleTree cookies, sour Skittles, went to sleep, woke up stretching, and came out here and played.”
Even though the offense wasn’t producing explosive plays, Rice was able to control clock and keep Marshall’s offense off the field by controlling over 36 minutes of possession. Rice ran 44 times, and walk-on running back Ari Broussard ate a sizable chunk of clock in the second half to seal the victory. Broussard entered the contest with one carry career, but handled the ball 19 times for a team-high 62 yards.
“I knew eventually that I would be able to start and play. I wanted to start, I wanted to make a difference on the offense,” Broussard said. “The game has slowed down to me at this point. It’s not as fast as it was when I was a sophomore or freshman. It’s slow — I can see things, I can read things, and do my thing.”
Marshall’s chances to secure its first New Year’s Six bowl in the College Football Playoff era are all but finished. The Thundering Herd were a late-season victory over WKU away from accomplishing this feat in 2014, and once again, another shocking loss spoils Marshall’s dream. Still, the Thundering Herd control their own destiny to their first conference championship in six seasons.
Meanwhile, Rice proved it’s a program on the rise with a statement victory in dominant defensive fashion. The Owls improve to .500, and if they can handle the C-USA frontrunner with ease, they believe any game is theirs for the taking in this conference.
“We believe that we can play with anybody,” Alldredge said after ending Marshall’s perfect season. “These are things I wanted to accomplish in college. I wanted to make history.”