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Defensive development key reason Marshall, Rice in title game

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Marshall football coach Doc Holliday has memories of Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue running up and down the field at Rice Stadium.

Preventing that from happening again figures to be a crucial factor in Saturday’s Conference USA title game between the two teams. Rice (9-3) and Marshall (9-3) are each making its first appearance in the conference championship game.

"If you go back to last year, their quarterback (McHargue) ran through us and around us,” Holliday said Tuesday at his news conference. “Of course, we are a different defense than we were a year ago. We couldn’t stop anybody a year ago.”

McHargue ran for 163 yards on 17 carries in last season’s 54-51 overtime loss to Marshall. For good measure, he threw for 314 and scored 4 touchdowns in a game that would not be described as a defensive masterpiece.

“We have great respect for him because he is a very talented individual,” Holliday said. “When you talk about Rice’s offense it starts with McHargue. He makes them go and does a great job at doing it.”

Last year’s September game featured a combined 1,240 yards. Don’t expect nearly that many Saturday. A reason the Owls and Herd went 7-1 in C-USA play was because of improved defensive play.

Marshall is 32nd in the nation and 5th in C-USA, giving up an average of 357 yards a game. The scoring defense numbers are even better. Marshall is giving up 21 points a contest (3rd best in C-USA). A year ago that number was 43 a game, second worst in the FBS.

The Herd rank in the top 10 nationally in three defensive categories – pass efficiency defense, tackles for loss and yards allowed per play.

“I can’t say enough about what defensive coordinator Chuck Heater and that staff has done,” Holiday said “Our kids have confidence in Chuck. They know that he is going to put them in a position to be successful. He did a great job last week at taking the strengths of East Carolina away.”

Marshall has won five straight games, a streak that includes holding UAB to 14 points and Florida International 10. The Herd defeated East Carolina 59-28 last week to clinch a spot in the title game. Marshall’s three interceptions versus ECU (Gary Thompson twice, Taj Letman) gave the team 17 this season, the most for a Herd squad in nine years.

“Marshall is unbelievable offensively, and that sometimes overshadows a great defense they have,” said Rice coach David Bailiff at Monday’s news conference.

Rice’s defense is coming off a dominating performance of its own. In the Owls’ 17-13 win over Tulane Saturday, the Rice defense gave up just 26 rushing yards. Tulane did not make a first down until the 5:25 mark in the third quarter.

“It was a fabulous effort by all 11 that were on the field, as well as the coaches,” Bailiff said.

Rice ranks second in C-USA and 19th nationally in total defense (349 yards a game). The pass defense is 12th nationally. In five games this year, Rice has taken the ball away at least three times. The Owls are 5-0 in those games.

“Defensively, their corner Phillip Gaines is as good as there is in America,” Holliday said. “They play extremely hard. They are coached well and tackle well defensively. This game will be a great challenge for us and we have to make sure we play extremely well too.”

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