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Team Report - MIDDLE TENNESSEE ST

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INSIDE SLANT

It may not be the sexiest type of football, but it has certainly grabbed Marshall's attention.

The run-first, physical brand of football is what's worrying Marshall coach Doc Holliday entering Saturday's Conference USA Championship Game Saturday in Houston.

"They are an extremely physical football team," Holliday said.

Rice RB Charles Ross is one of the top offensive weapons in the entire league. Ross, a senior, has rushed for 114.3 yards per game and 12 touchdowns this year. It's part of a Rice rushing offense that leads the conference this year with 240.3 yards per game.

But Marshall knows what it's doing on offense, too. The Thundering Herd, at 44.6 points per game, led the league in offense this year. It's a two-dimensional one, too, one with QB Rakeem Cato and RB Essray Taliaferro.

Rice will need a strong game from QB Taylor McHargue. The Owls have not been pass-happy this year, and a two-dime signal Rice team will be hard to beat.

East Carolina

The Pirates (9-3, 6-2 C-USA) seemed to have the inside track for most of the year before falling in a rout at Marshall with the East Division title on the line. Still, with the league's top QB in Shane Carden and one of the league's two best offenses, East Carolina won't be an easy out for anyone in a bowl. Plus, the Pirates are operating at a level under Ruffin McNeill that they haven't in some time in Greenville, which might make him a hot commodity.

Florida Atlantic

It took quite the effort for the Owls (6-6, 4-4) to win four in a row and rally around their interim coach, but FAU might be on the outside looking in as it pertains to bowl chances. The bigger question? Who will coach them next year?

Florida International

It wasn't just that year one under Ron Turner ended in 11 losses, it was more about how the Panthers arrived there. FIU (1-11, 1-7) showed very little offense and ended the year as one of the nation's worst attacks. But FIU was also one of the country's youngest teams, which might harbor some reasons for optimism next year.

Louisiana Tech

The Bulldogs (4-8, 3-5) took a noticeable step back in offensive performance from 2012 to 2013, and the loss column rose in lock-step. Still, it was year one under Skip Holtz, and there is potential for improvement next year especially with young running backs.

Marshall

The Thundering Herd (8-3, 6-1) took East Division supremacy in a big way last week, dispatching East Carolina 59-28. It was a testament to just how solid QB Rakeem Cato is -- and just how two-dimensional the Herd has developed into.

GAME PREVIEW: vs. Marshall, C-USA Championship game, Saturday, Dec. 7, at Rice Stadium in Houston. The Thundering Herd's rushing offense (219.9 yards per game) and its passing offense (293.3 ypg) are among the best in the league, but they'll be up against a strong Rice defense.

Middle Tennessee

Year One in Conference USA was more of the same for the Blue Raiders (8-4, 6-2) and coach Rick Stockstill. QB Logan Kilgore was the senior leader the Blue Raiders knew he would be, and he should be a big reason why any team would hate to draw MT in a bowl matchup. MT also won its final four games.

North Texas

Dan McCarney's third season in Denton was a breakout one for the Mean Green (8-4, 6-2), as the team is bowl eligible for the first time in a decade. Though it blew a chance at a West Division title with a late loss against UTSA, QB Derek Thompson and the Mean Green proved it belonged in Conference USA after years in the Sun Belt.

Rice

Behind the usual complement of rushing yards from Charles Ross, the Owls (9-3, 7-1) played their consistent brand of football all season that's a credit to coach David Bailiff. It earned them the West Division title against a spate of upstart contenders.

GAME PREVIEW: QB Taylor McHargue will need to provide more of a passing attack than the 11th-best passing offense in the league that he has produced this year. If Rice can't throw the ball, the running game is moot.

Southern Miss

Hard as it might be to believe, the Golden Eagles (1-11, 1-7) are going into the offseason on a positive note. It wasn't just that they won their final game of the year to break a 23-game losing streak, the longest in the FBS, but they blew out UAB, 62-27. A true freshman quarterback, Nick Mullens, can only get better in the offseason.

Tulane

The Green Wave (7-5, 5-3) capped their first bowl season in a decade under coach Curtis Johnson, and the momentum heading into an on-campus stadium next year is strong. But the Green Wave and QB Nick Montana have much work to do on their offense.

Tulsa

For the Golden Hurricane (3-9, 2-6), this season was a tremendous setback after 12 wins and winning Conference USA last year. Tulsa was also the C-USA preseason pick, but troubles on offense led to a three-win season. The humbling season leads to a head-scratching offseason for Bill Blankenship.

UAB

The Blazers (2-10, 1-7) ended on quite the downer: a 35-point loss to Southern Miss, the Golden Eagles' first win since 2011. Garrick McGee's club had the worst defense in the league all year, and he even had to fire his defensive coordinator in the middle of the season. He'll be on the hot seat heading into 2014.

UTEP

Sean Kugler's first season as the head coach of the Miners (2-10, 1-7) didn't have much success. His defense had plenty of work to do. But QB Jameill Showers, injured late in the year and lost for the season, gives promise for the future.

UTSA

The Roadrunners (7-5, 6-2) more than acquitted themselves in year one in Conference USA -- and year three as a program. There will be work in replacing QB Eric Soza, but coach Larry Coker has a good thing going in San Antonio in a short amount of time.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Rice senior RB Turner Petersen will miss the game and the rest of the season due to knee surgery, the Houston Chronicle reported.

--A big reason why Marshall's two-dimensional offense is among the best in the conference? The offensive line, coach Doc Holliday said. "There's no doubt that we are so much better than we were a year ago," he said.

--Marshall RB Kevin Grooms is suspended for Saturday's game after a weekend arrest, according to the Huntingdon (W.Va.) Herald-Dispatch.

--Marshall CB Monterius Lovett drew Marshall coach Doc Holliday's praise this week. "You just can't give enough credit to Monterius Lovett. There were a few plays in that game where he just took the best receiver out of the game. Not only Lovett but, Tindal, Daryl Roberts and all of them did such a tremendous job," he said.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Since I took this job we've wanted to become a balanced offense. We've been able to do that this year. We're a much better offense than we were a year ago because we've been more balanced and been able to run the ball as much as we throw it." -- Marshall coach Doc Holliday.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH THIS WEEK IN CONFERENCE USA:

1. Marshall beat Rice in double overtime last year and the two teams did not meet this year. Looking back at that game, Marshall coach Doc Holliday thinks the factor was Rice QB Taylor McHargue.

"If you go back to last year, their quarterback (McHargue) ran through us and around us," he said. "Of course, we are a different defense than we were a year ago. We couldn't stop anybody a year ago. We have great respect for him because he is a very talented individual. When you talk about Rice's offense it starts with McHargue. He makes them go and does a great job at doing it."

2. The Rice defense, led by CB Phillip Gaines, one of the league's top players, has Marshall's attention. Rice is No. 2 in the league in pass defense, allowing 190.3 yards per game.

"They have two corners that could play for anybody in the country and the safeties are good players," Marshall coach Doc Holliday said.

Said McHargue: "It's no secret we've leaned on our defense the entire year," according to the Houston Chronicle.

3. Holliday saw his defense improve last week, with a win over East Carolina. That makes him feel better entering this week's game at Rice. "The more the season has progressed Chuck has become more comfortable trusting the defensive guys to handle a little bit more. I think it's a combination of both," he said.

4. Rice is hot, and may be emerging as the league's pre-eminent program. Rice has won 14 of its last 17 games dating back to mid-2012. Since both teams are teams that will be in C-USA next year, is this a game for 2014-forward supremacy?

5. If it comes down to a late last-second field goal, the advantage goes to Rice and PK Chris Boswell.

"He may be the best kicker in the country," Holliday said.

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