Huntington, WV (SportsNetwork.com) - With three games remaining in the regular season, the Marshall Thundering Herd will try to remain unbeaten as they clash with the defending Conference USA champion Rice Owls Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Marshall has won all nine games this season, and controls its own destiny in Conference USA going forward. The Thundering Herd moved up two spots in the AP Poll this week, sliding up from No. 23 to No. 21 after easily routing conference foe Southern Miss, 63-17 last weekend.
Other than Marshall, Rice is easily the hottest team in Conference USA at the moment, having won six straight games after starting the season 0-3 with losses to three formidable opponents. The Owls are 4-1 in league play with three games left on the slate, and trail Louisiana Tech in the West Division by a game and a half.
Marshall leads the brief all-time series against Rice, 3-2, although the Owls came away victorious in the Conference USA title game in last season's head- to-head matchup. The Thundering Herd will be seeking revenge for the championship game loss.
Rice is coming off a narrow 17-7 victory over UTSA in last weekend's C-USA contest. As the Owls get set to make a run at another title game, their schedule doesn't bode well for a team needed to play catch-up in the league's West Division. Marshall is on the slate this weekend, with a home contest against the red-hot UTEP Miners and a visit to currently 6-0 in conference Louisiana Tech to end the season.
Last weekend's 10-point victory aside, Rice has been blowing opponents out offensively in its six-game win streak. The Owls scored 31, 41 and 41 points, respectively, in each of their three games prior to the meeting with the Roadrunners. Behind quarterback Driphus Jackson, Rice is averaging 29.8 ppg this season through nine games played.
Jackson has passed for 1,861 yards and 15 touchdowns this season against just four interceptions. He's played in all nine games and has completed 58.6 percent of his passes. He's a proven danger in the ground game as well, having gained 330 rushing yards with a touchdown via the rush this season. Watch for tailbacks Jowan Davis (748 yards, five touchdowns) and Darik Dillard (575 yards, seven touchdowns) to get a hefty amount of the work, while receivers Jordan Taylor (520 yards, four touchdown receptions) and Mario Hull (335 yards, four touchdowns) dominate the targets through the air.
The last time Rice's defense allowed more than 23 points in a single game was back when the team last lost a contest - Sept. 20 against Old Dominion. Since then, the Owls have given up just 17.2 ppg to opponents in the team's six-game win streak. The season average is 26 ppg allowed by Rice, with opponents averaging 360.2 offensive ypg. What's more, opponents are averaging just over 25 minutes per game in time off possession against Rice. The Owls will be wise to keep the ball away from Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato.
The defense hasn't loaded up statistically this season, with Alex Lyons leading the team with just 46 total tackles and Jaylon Finner right behind at 45. Defensive ends Brian Nordstrom and Zach Patt has each recorded 7.5 sacks on the year, with Nordstrom also recording 16.5 tackles for loss. Both of them will be extremely busy, along with tackle Christian Covington, trying to limit bruising running back Devon Johnson for the Herd.
Although Marshall has blown every opponent it has faced out of the water this season, Thundering Herd coach Doc Holliday won't be taking Rice lightly at all, especially after what happened in last year's conference championship bout.
"To have a team the caliber of Rice coming in, that's big," Holliday said. "David Bailiff has them extremely well-coached. I don't have to say anything to our guys. That's the team that beat us (41-24) down at their place for the conference championship last year, beat us physically, beat us up."
Marshall is looking to reverse the outcome this weekend at home, and plans on utilizing Johnson to his full capacity after the tight end convert sat out as a precaution with a left knee injury last weekend. Johnson has led the Marshall run game to 295.1 rushing ypg this season, and has personally gained 1,203 yards (ninth in FBS) and scored 15 touchdowns (fifth in FBS).
As was the case last season, Cato is the centerpiece of the Marshall offense. The senior signal caller has thrown for 2,316 yards and 22 touchdowns in nine games played with just six interceptions. With the dominance of Johnson in the run game, the Herd haven't needed to air it out as much in years past. Though reliable targets Tommy Shuler (526 yards, six touchdowns) and freshman Angelo Jean-Louis (396 yards, four touchdowns) will be ready to go if Rice can control the run.
The Marshall defense has had to overcome a bit of a scare in three consecutive contests. The team trailed for the first time all season against FIU, then trailed at halftime against FAU two weeks ago. Last time out against Southern Miss, the Herd had to overcome a 14-point first-quarter deficit in order to gain the edge back. Still, the last time an opponent scored more than 17 points was back on Oct. 11 against Middle Tennessee. The Herd won the game, 49-24.
Allowing just 16.6 ppg to opponents (tied for sixth-best in the FBS), Marshall has given up more than 20 points just twice all season along, while the offense has scored fewer than 40 points only once. Linebacker Neville Hewitt paces the defense with 69 stops on the year, adding in eight tackles for loss and four sacks. Linemen Arnold Blackmon (9.5 tackles for loss, five sacks) and James Rouse (eight tackles for loss) will be spying Jackson in the Rice backfield.
"We're going to have to play extremely well," Holliday said. "They're coming here with six wins in a row, and I'm sure there's a reason they've won six straight games. You know they'll be well-prepared and we've got to be the same."