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Pass the cupcakes

The first thing to know about Marshall's next opponent is this: You cannot accuse Rice of playing a watered-down schedule.

The Owls started at Texas, went home to play Purdue, visited Baylor and got acquainted with Robert Griffin III, then traveled to Southern Mississippi to start their Conference USA schedule. In November, Rice travels to Northwestern.

Rice is the only team in America to tackle four BCS-conference schools in its nonconference schedule. It has taken its lumps, for sure - Griffin riddled the Owls for six touchdowns, five passing and one running, for example.

But how about that Purdue game? Rice won that one 24-22, blocking a field goal on the game's final play.

The Owls (2-3, 1-1) come into Huntington on a similar uptick, courtesy of a 28-6 win over Memphis last weekend. Much like Marshall, they are looking to improve on a 4-8 record in 2010, and are confident they can do it.

Rice suffered a painful start to its C-USA season at Southern Miss, getting buried by the Golden Eagles 48-24. Two fumbles returned for touchdowns accounted for most of the Owls' points, as they were outgained 654-229 in total yardage.

Still, the Owls trailed just 20-17 at the half and led 24-20 after Xavier Webb's 96-yard fumble return. That lasted just 4 minutes, 25 seconds, as the Eagles scored the first of their four unanswered touchdowns.

Rice returned home to a sight for sore eyes, the royal blue helmets of the Memphis Tigers. The Owls kept the Tigers out of the end zone, allowing the fewest points in their seven-year Conference USA membership in a 28-6 win.

They will try to carry that momentum into the 3 p.m. Saturday matchup at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. It is homecoming for the Thundering Herd, a week after a waterlogged 16-6 loss at Central Florida.

Rice is ranked just 107th in total offense, but that aforementioned schedule plays a role there. The Owls can move the ball, and quarterback Taylor McHargue is an effective dual threat.

"Offensively, we've got to figure out a way to get into more of a rhythm," Rice coach David Bailiff said after the Memphis game. "We have a lot of talent there, and we're five games into the season."

McHargue, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound native of Cedar Park, Texas, leads the team in rushing attempts, netting 115 yards on 55 tries. Five running backs have 12 or more carries, with Tyler Smith's 97 yards against Memphis representing the Owls' top effort.

Fifteen Owls have caught at least one pass, but tight end Luke Wilson and wide receiver Vance McDonald have the most receptions by far, 20 apiece. They have combined for five of McHargue's seven touchdown passes.

They work with a line that is the most veteran unit on the team - the top six linemen combine for 133 career starts.

Defense is traditionally not a Rice strength, last game notwithstanding. The Owls are 98th in the NCAA in scoring defense (33.2), 107th in pass efficiency defense (146.47 rating), 117th in total defense (501.2) and 119th in rushing defense (231.6).

And that's with the five-sack effort against Memphis, and without the impending track meet at Houston. The Owls have scored three defensive touchdowns, though, and Jared Williams' 47-yard interception return broke open the Memphis game.

Bailiff, 21-33 in his fifth season at Rice, was as pleased with his defense as he has been in a while.

"I don't know when the last time our defense didn't give up a touchdown," Bailiff said. "I'm proud of the defensive coaches, I'm proud of the execution. When we blitzed, we got there - I don't know how many hits and pressures we had [on the quarterback]."

Punter Kyle Martens and kicker Chris Boswell are one of Conference USA's best kicking tandems. Martens is averaging 46.1 yards a boot and has stuck eight inside the 10-yard line; Boswell is 6-of-7 in field goals, with his only miss coming from 55 yards.

The kickoff coverage team has forced four fumbles on kickoffs, two in the last three games.

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazette.com.

 


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