HOUSTON — Rice carved up Marshall’s defense for more than 5 yards per carry and sprinkled in some big-play passing to make Saturday’s Conference USA championship game a runaway.
The Owls converted 8-of-14 third downs and put The Herd in a deep early hole, rolling to a 41-24 victory that gave Rice its first outright conference title since 1957.
“We had talked about how we would need to stop the run, play well on defense and get off the field, and that did not happen,” said Marshall coach Doc Holliday.
After Rice (10-3) earned the Liberty Bowl bid, Marshall (9-4) settled for a consolation prize—the Dec. 27 Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md.
“We’re in! We’re so excited about that,” said Rice coach David Bailiff. “The AutoZone Liberty Bowl, that’s what these seniors set their goal; that’s where they wanted to go this year. The top of our pyramid is to go to the Liberty Bowl and win, and now we have the opportunity to do that.”
Marshall, which averaged 53 points during its last five wins, could not replicate that production against Rice, which showed plenty offense of its own, including five touchdown drives of at least 60 yards. The Owls averaged 7.4 yards per play.
Charles Ross ran for 109 yards–including his 13th and 14th touchdowns of the season—as Rice piled up 248 yards on the ground. Fellow running back Luke Turner capitalized on play-action to pass for touchdowns of 35 and 8 yards.
“They are a good offense,” Holliday said. “They lead the league in rushing and we did not stop the run well today.”
Though Rakeem Cato threw two scores—his 31st consecutive game with a touchdown pass—Marshall’s offense couldn’t play catchup after falling behind 21-3 in the second quarter.
“There were plays out there to be made,” Cato said. “Us as an offensive group, we didn’t make enough plays.”
Rice opened with an 82-yard drive capped by Turner’s 35-yard halfback pass to a wide-open Donte Moore, who raced past Herd cornerback Monterius Lovett
“I didn’t do my job on that play,” Lovett said. “I saw the run and reacted to it, that’s my fault. I had my eyes in the wrong place.”
On the Owls’ second series, quarterback Taylor McHargue fired a 75-yarder to Jordan Taylor to make it 14-0.
Ross added a 4-yard run early in the second period to make it 21-3, before Marshall answered with a 1-yard run by Devon Johnson.
Cato finished 24-of-41 passing for 265 yards and threw an interception to Julius White at the Rice 22 that ended the Herd’s first drive of the second half.
“Just a bad ball,” Cato said. “(White) made a hell of a catch.”
Just minutes later, Rice’s Darik Dillard ran 17 yards for a touchdown, after which a missed extra point left the score 27-10.
The Owls then tacked on a 70-yard drive—capped by Turner’s 8-yard toss to Connor Cella—extending the margin to 34-10, the largest deficit for the Herd all season.
After Cato’s 7-yard pass to Essray Taliaferro cut Rice’s lead to 34-17 with 11:02 left, Marshall got the ball back, but Devon Johnson was stuffed on fourth-and-1 at the Herd 38. Rice took advantage with a 16-yard rushing touchdown by Ross.
Cato’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Devon Smith with 5:35 left gave Marshall a glimmer, but the ensuing onside kick was deflected out of bounds.
Marshall finished with 371 yards and matched its lowest points total of the year as Rice sacked Cato three times.
“Keeping Cato in the pocket was really the key,” said Owls defensive end Cody Bauer. “I mean, that kid can do some amazing things when he scrambles.”