— By Bill Cornwell
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — A fourth straight win and bowl eligibility are on the line Saturday afternoon for Marshall in Houston when the Herd battles Rice in a Conference USA game.
Kickoff is 3:30 p.m., and the game can be seen on Stadium Facebook.
Marshall (5-3, 3-1) is coming off a dramatic 26-23 Homecoming win over Western Kentucky in Huntington last week thanks to kicker Justin Rohrwasser’s 53-yard field goal on the game’s final play.
Rice (0-8, 0-4) lost at home lost week to Southern Miss, 20-6.
Still, Marshall head coach Doc Holliday expects a competitive Owls’ team to be ready to play Saturday.
“There’s no quit in that bunch,” Holliday said. “You just turn the film on. They play. They have some really good players that play really hard and are coached really well.
“Against Southern Miss, they had some turnovers that hurt them as they were going in to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Against UTSA, they had turnovers at the end and they had a chance to win that game. They’re close, so it will be a battle for us.”
Marshall has a 4-2 series lead over Rice, but the Herd and Owls haven’t met since 2014, a 41-14 win for the Herd at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Marshall is 1-2 all-time in games at 70-year-old Rice Stadium.
The Herd enters with control of the C-USA East Division spot in the league’s championship game in December, thanks to wins the last two weeks over Florida Atlantic and WKU.
All three teams have one league loss and the Hilltoppers have a half-game lead in the standings, but Marshall currently controls both tiebreakers if the teams are knotted at the end of the regular season.
A win Saturday gives Marshall a sixth regular-season victory, making the Herd bowl eligible.
This season has been frustrating for second-year Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren, who came to Houston after serving as Stanford’s offensive coordinator.
Some of Rice’s close calls include a 23-20 overtime loss to C-USA West Division leader Louisiana Tech and 21-13 loss to nationally-ranked Baylor.
Bloomgren says he’s been pleased with the progress of his defense and special teams, even though it hasn’t paid off in a win. However, the Owls’ offense remains a concern.
“It’s my job to keep everybody going on this team and put them in the best situations possible,” Bloomgren said. “Whether that’s in the building, whether that’s at practice or of course in games. That’s what I’m going to continue to do. I’m going to continue to work with them and keep them positive. We realize that we still have a third of our season to play. It starts this weekend with a Homecoming Game, having Marshall come in here.”
Holliday is impressed with the Owls’ suddenly-stingy defense.
“They have some good players up front,” Holliday said. “They’re sound, they do what they’re coached to do. They play extremely hard and tackle well in space. They just don’t get out of position. They’re going to get lined up and make you go the distance to score points.
“They’re never the same two weeks in a row. They’re going to give you something different every week. You have to be prepared for everything.”
Bloomgren knows that Rice will face a big challenge in stopping a Marshall offense that is fouth in Conference USA, but first in rushing. He understands Marshall’s attack starts with sledgehammer running by sophomore running back Brenden Knox,
“He’s a bigger back than you think he is,” Bloomgren said. “He runs through tackles, but he’s nifty on his feet as well.
“They’ve got tight ends, some of them run a 4.5 (40-yard dash). They’re not your normal tight ends that you see. They’re certainly not a Clydesdale type tight end. They catch the ball and can do things with it. It will be a great challenge for our defense to stay locked in on their assignments.”
Marshall is on a roll with three straight Conference USA wins, 19 sacks by the defense in those wins and more than 400 yards per contest by the offense.
“Our kids need to be focused right now on winning one more game,” Holliday said. “That has really been our focus the last three weeks. Find a way to be 1-0. That’s what we talked about when we played Old Dominion, same thing with FAU and now Western. If you go anywhere beyond finding a way to be 1-0, then you’re going to get beat.
“Our standards and expectations are a lot higher than just finding a way to get bowl eligible. If it happens, it happens. We just have to focus on getting better this week.”