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December 7, 2013

C-USA Football Championship Game Preview

West Division champion Rice will host East Division champion Marshall in the 2013 Conference USA Football Championship Game on Saturday, December 7. The Owls (7-1 in C-USA play, 9-3 overall) did not face the Thundering Herd (7-1 in C-USA play, 9-3 overall) during the regular season. The 2013 C-USA Championship Game will be televised live on ESPN 2, beginning at Noon EST/11 a.m. CST.

Marshall earned its spot in the championship game with a 59-28 victory over East Carolina in a winner-take-all game at home on Friday to take the East Division Championship. Rice punched its ticket with a 17-13 victory over Tulane Saturday afternoon in Houston to win the West Division title.

Led by junior QB Rakeem Cato, Marshall has the top-ranked scoring offense (44.6 points per game) and total offense (513.2 yards per game) in Conference USA. Cato has thrown a league-high 34 touchdown passes and completed 59.4 percent of his passes for 3,314 yards (second in C-USA).

The Thundering Herd have the nation's 22nd-ranked rushing offense and 32 rushing touchdowns, led by senior RB Essray Taliaferro, who has 1,006 yards and nine touchdowns. Sophomore RB Steward Butler is second with 751 yards and eight touchdowns. Senior WR Tommy Shuler, a high school teammate of Cato's, has 89 receptions for 1,019 yards and nine TDs. He is second in C-USA in catches (7.4) and yards per game (84.9). Senior TE Gator Hoskins has 38 catches for 618 yards and leads the nation's tight ends with 13 TD receptions.

The Marshall defense leads the FBS in terms of improvement in scoring defense compared to the 2012 campaign (21.4 fewer points allowed per contest at 21.7 per game). The unit places third in C-USA in pass defense and fifth in total defense, after ranking 10th and 12th in those categories a year ago. Junior MLB Jermaine Holmes leads the team with 80 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss and two sacks, while senior DT James Rouse has accounted for 12 tackles for loss and four sacks.

The Herd's special teams unit is highlighted by senior PR Devon Smith, who places second in C-USA with a 16.3 yard average with one return for a touchdown. K Justin Haig is second in the league in kick scoring with 97 points.

Rice owns the top rushing offense in Conference USA, averaging 240.3 yards per game. Senior RB Charles Ross averages a league-best 114.3 yards per game and is tied for the conference lead with 12 rushing touchdowns. He has 1,143 yards this season, which ranks fourth in school history, and he is 244 yards from moving into second. Senior QB Taylor McHargue is one of only two players in school history to have thrown for 5,000 yards and rushed for at least 1,000 (Chase Clement, 2005-08). McHargue stands at 5,842 yards passing and 1,379 rushing.

Despite facing two of the top 10 offenses in the country, Rice has allowed 102 fewer points through the first 12 games than they did in 2012. The Owls have given up 274 points (22.8 per game). Last year, the Owls had allowed 376 points through the first 12 games. In five home games this year, Rice allowed an average of 12.4 points per game (62 total). The Owls are second in Conference USA in pass defense (190.3 yards per game) and total defense (351.1 yards per game). Rice is coming off its finest defensive showing of the season, allowing just six first downs and 123 total yards in the win over Tulane. Sophomore DT Christian Covington, junior LB Michael Kutzler (a former walk-on), senior CB Bryce Callahan and senior CB Phillip Gaines are the top performers on the unit.

Senior K Chris Boswell is the nation's premier long distance kicker. He has eight more field goals from 50 yards or beyond than any active kicker in the FBS. Boswell has kicked at least one field goal from 50 yards in each of his four seasons at Rice, and he has hit 13 of 21 in his career.

The Owls are one win shy of matching the school record for wins (10) set in 1949 and matched by head coach David Bailiff's 2008 team. Rice is a perfect 5-0 at home this season, its first perfect home campaign since the 2008 squad was 6-0.

Both schools will be making their first appearance in the C-USA Football Championship Game.

Marshall leads the all-time series, 3-1, including a wild 54-51 victory in their last meeting, Sept. 22, 2012, at Rice Stadium. The Thundering Herd has won both meetings in Huntington, W. Va., while the teams are 1-1 in Houston.

The Thundering Herd will be playing for their first conference championship since winning their sixth straight Mid-American conference title in 2002. The Owls won a share of the Southwest Conference championship in 1994 and their last outright conference title was the 1957 SWC championship.

Joe Tessitore, Matt Millen and Maria Taylor will announce the action for ESPN.

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