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Football to play for C-USA championship

By Dan Elledge     12/3/13 6:00pm

For the first time since the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, the Rice football team has a chance to win an outright conference championship after beating Tulane University 17-13 last Saturday, Nov. 30. With the victory, the Owls won the Conference USA West Division and will be hosting the conference title game this Saturday, Dec. 7 against Marshall University at 11 a.m.

Head Coach David Bailiff said he was extremely impressed with the defense's performance Saturday, which held the Green Wave to 10 total yards and zero first downs in the first half. Bailiff said the entire defense worked together to contribute to the win.

"It was a fabulous effort by all 11 of the [defensive] players that were on the field," Bailiff said. "I was really pleased with them and the effort they gave."

Redshirt senior defensive end Tanner Leland agreed with Bailiff and said each individual defender knew his job and helped the team perform as a single unit, stopping the Tulane offense.

"Overall, the defense understood that each person had a job in order to contain the offense," Leland said. "To stop the offense, we had to play unselfish defense. Our [defensive backs] played great, as every ball was contested."

Going into this week's contest, the Owls are facing Marshall, which was crowned the C-USA East Division champion after beating East Carolina University 59-28 at home on Nov. 29. The last time the Owls played the Thundering Herd was Sep. 22, 2012. Marshall won by the slightest of margins, 54-51, in double overtime. The Owls have not lost at home since and are currently riding an eight-game winning streak at Rice Stadium.

Bailiff said Rice needs to limit its turnovers offensively. He said these mistakes cannot be made against Marshall, which boasts the highest-scoring offense in the conference, averaging 44.6 points per game.

"Against Marshall, we cannot make mistakes, as they are explosive offensively, both in passing and rushing," Bailiff said. "In addition, they are one of the top defenses in the conference."

Leland expressed praise for Marshall junior quarterback Rakeem Cato, who has thrown for over 3,000 yards and has 34 touchdowns and just eight interceptions this season. Leland said it is hard to rattle Cato since he has a firm grasp of the Thundering Herd's offense and rarely makes mistakes.

"Cato is incredible," Leland said. "He kind of sits back there, commands the offense [and] knows who is open, and it will be difficult to contain him and the rest of the team."

Leland said despite Cato's skill, the Owls' defense is not going to be intimidated and will not back down.

"Marshall's offense will motivate us," Leland said. "It's a challenge, and everyone here rises to challenges. We embrace them. Their offense is good, and hopefully we can stop them."

Throughout the season, Bailiff has pointed to the Owls' veteran leadership as a strong point for the team. He said these players never gave up after the struggles in their first two seasons and have showed a lot of heart and determination. According to Bailiff, these veteran players refused to give up until they achieved their goal: a berth in the C-USA championship game.

"With the 19 fifth-year seniors, they never fragmented, and they always believed they could succeed, winning 13 of their last 17 games," Bailiff said. "They wanted to win the West Division and win the conference championship, so kudos to them that they kept working hard even when the times were bad."

Redshirt senior quarterback Taylor McHargue said getting to this conference title game means a lot to the seniors who endured a combined 8-16 record their first two seasons. 

"It was tough early on," McHargue said. "The first couple of years were not really good, but we did not lose faith. We had trust as a class that we would bounce back. [Winning conference] was always the goal. We said coming into the season that it was an expectation to compete for a conference championship. We are happy to be here, but we are ready to finish the deal."

McHargue said he has noticed a change in the atmosphere around campus. He said people have been coming up to him and other players to congratulate them on their success. McHargue said he knows the support will be there come Saturday.

"The culture and attitude is changing around here," McHargue said. "The students are getting behind us, and it means the world that they are coming out and supporting us. We would love to see everyone out this Saturday."

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