The Rice Owls are the 2013 Conference USA (C-USA) champions. They beat the Marshall Thundering Herd Saturday afternoon 41-24 at Rice Stadium for Rice’s first outright football conference championship in 56 years. Shortly after the game, the Owls accepted an invitation to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
Rice will face Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl. For bowl ticket information, visit riceowls.com. Rice News will be posting daily stories, videos and pictures of the Owls’ adventures in Memphis and game preparations here. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN. A list of alumni watch parties across the country can be found here.
The C-USA championship game
Despite a temperature of 35 degrees at the 11 a.m. kickoff, the chilly weather could not put a damper on the Owls’ offense or defense … or the Owls’ hardy fans.
After receiving the opening kickoff, the Owls drove the ball 88 yards in 10 plays to take a 7-0 lead. The drive included two third-down conversions, the first a Taylor McHargue third-and-seven 14-yard pass to Jordan Taylor, and then Charles Ross rumbled 9 yards on third and one. After their third first down, McHargue pitched the ball to running back Luke Turner, who in turn threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Donte Moore, and Rice was on the board in the first five minutes of the game.
“It’s nice to have eight former quarterbacks on the team,” said head coach David Bailiff with laughter after the game. “Luke really throws the ball well. His passing for completions is pretty good. His pass-to-touchdown ratio is pretty good too. He’s an amazing athlete. He’s such a great runner that they have to honor his running.”
Rice senior defensive lineman Cody Bauer welcomed Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato to Rice Stadium with an 8-yard sack to start the game defensively for the Owls, and after a quick three and out the Thundering Herd gave the ball right back to the Owls.
“Coach Thurmond put together a great game plan,” Bauer said. “We threw in a couple of different things, threw in a couple different looks, and I think we did a good job shutting that down.”
Rice wasted little time going 73 yards on two plays for its second score. After Rice running back Charles Ross lost 2 yards on first down, McHargue threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Taylor. After Chris Boswell added his second extra point of the game, the Owls were up 14-0 just seven minutes into the game. The McHargue-Taylor touchdown pass play was the longest in C-USA championship history, and it was Taylor’s longest touchdown as an Owl.
“We knew coming in we were going to have to put up some points against this offense,” Taylor said. “It was great to come out and start it the way we did.”
Both defenses then stiffened up, and at the end of the first quarter Rice was ahead 14-0.
“How we started this football game with the offense going into the wind and getting those two quick scores, and with how the defense was playing, I think we set the tone,” Bailiff said.
The Herd would get on the board with their first drive of the second quarter. Cato would find Tommy Schuler for 20 yards and Gator Hoskins for 17 yards, leading the Herd to a Justin Haig 27-yard field goal.
But the Owls struck right back. A Darrion Pollard 30-yard kickoff return set Rice up at its own 38. On first down, McHargue found Pollard for 28 yards. McHargue then hit Taylor for 20 yards, and the Owls were first and 10 at the Herd 14. Two plays later Ross ran it in for his 13th touchdown of the season, and with 11:29 left in the first half, the Owls had a commanding 21-3 lead.
By the end of the half, Marshall found the end zone with a Devon Johnson 1-yard run. The Herd’s eight-play, 65-yard drive made it 21-10, and that’s where the game stood at halftime.
The Owls’ defense didn’t let up after halftime. On Marshall’s first possession of the second half and with the Herd at the Rice 40-yard line, Julius White intercepted Cato, ending a drive that could have brought Marshall within one score of the home team.
The Owls needed to punt on their next possession after one first down, but they held the Herd to a three and out and scored on Rice’s next drive.
With 3:57 remaining in the third quarter, Rice capped a 61-yard, seven-play drive with Turner pitching the option play to Derik Dillard for a 17-yard touchdown. Boswell missed the extra point when his kick hit the left upright. The Owls were now up 27-10.
After Rice’s defense held Marshall to another three and out, the offense went back to work, methodically throwing and running the ball down the field on the Thundering Herd. Ross had runs of 9, 5 and 6 yards, and McHargue found Dennis Parks for 37 yards. The seven-play drive culminated with Turner throwing a jump pass 8-yard touchdown to Connor Cella. It was Cella’s first touchdown as an Owl and running back Turner’s second touchdown pass on the day. And with 34 seconds left in the third quarter, Rice was up 34-10 and running away with the game.
In the fourth quarter, Marshall scored on two long and time-consuming drives. Cato found Herd running back Essray Taliaferro for a 6-yard touchdown, making it 34-17, but Rice answered again, with Ross scoring his second touchdown of the game with a 16-yard run. Ross tied Trevor Cobb for the Rice University school record for rushing touchdowns in a season with 14, and the Owls were ahead 41-17 with just over eight minutes left in the game.
Marshall ended its final possession of the day with a Cato-to-Devon Smith 3-yard touchdown pass and catch.
The Owls then ended the game with the ball up 41-24, kneeling the ball twice to run out the clock. Simultaneously on the sidelines, Bailiff was getting a Gatorade bath. After the game he said he wished it been hot chicken soup, due to the weather.
Turner was voted the game’s MVP. He ended the day rushing nine times for 49 yards and throwing two touchdowns.
Turner credited being prepared as the reason the Owls were so effective. “Coach (John) Reagan put together a great game plan,” Turner said. “He (Reagan) mixes up the pass-and-run really well, and throwing in a couple of trick plays really put them on their heels a little bit. They didn’t understand what we were doing.”
Ross ended the game with 18 rushes and 109 yards; McHargue was 8 for 16 with 196 yards and a touchdown, and Taylor caught six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. Rice punter James Ferrimond punted five times with an average of 49.2 yards and pinned the Herd down all day.
Immediately following the game and during the postgame news conference, Harold Graeter, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl’s associate executive director, was in person to offer Owls head football coach David Bailiff an invitation to the Dec. 31 bowl game.
“We’re in!” Bailiff said. “We’re so excited about that — we really are. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl — that’s what these seniors set their goal for; 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, so thank you very much.”