Owls' offense presents big problems for Herd
Scanning Rice's depth chart, some of the height and weight numbers are ordinary.
Center Nate Richards, 6-foot-4, 305 pounds out of junior college. Check. Left tackle Jon Hodde, 6-7, 300. Hey, left tackles are supposed to be small.
Then there's Luke Wilson (6-5, 250), Vance McDonald (6-5, 260) and Taylor Cook (6-7, 255) listed at ... "WR"?
You mean these guys run "nine" routes and stuff? Hide your women, children and undersized cornerbacks!
OK, so maybe those guys aren't trying to be extra-large Aaron Dobsons. As "Y" receivers, they're more likely to line up as a tight end as they are to split out. But they also have a 6-5, 210-pound downfield threat in Jordan Taylor and three big running backs: Charles Ross (6-1, 235), Turner Petersen (6-2, 220) and Jeremy Eddington (6-2, 235).
There are smaller skill players such as 6-0, 180-pound Donte Moore, but size mismatches are a large part of Rice's offensive arsenal. Marshall is preparing for that sizable challenge in the Conference USA opener for both teams, 3:30 p.m. EDT Saturday at Rice Stadium.
"With our game plan, the way we can isolate defenses the way we want with our play-calling, it's good to get big bodies on those little defensive backs," McDonald said Tuesday from Houston. "We do what we can, in terms of play-calling, to get that to happen. We seem to have a lot of success, and we have plenty of guys to go around to do it."
Much like at Marshall, plenty of Owls cradle the rock. Against Louisiana Tech, seven different players rushed the ball and 10 caught at least one pass, with four players doing both. Second- and third-level defenders beware: McDonald had three carries.
"We have, I would say, maybe the best skill guys in our conference, or at least competitive with the top few schools in our conference," quarterback Taylor McHargue said. "Jordan Taylor [15 receptions, 205 yards] is having a big year, Vance McDonald [10-133, one TD] - all of our tight ends, Vance, Luke and Taylor Cook are all three big-time, huge tight ends. They run-block well, they get open and make plays in space.
"[The three running backs] are big backs, they move well and they protect well. My job is just to get the ball in their hands and not turn it over. And when we do that, we're successful."
But McHargue, an ordinary 6-1, 210 junior, won't tell you he's as much a threat as any of the Owls. As the Thundering Herd prepares to take him on, the squad sees a similar quarterback to Ohio's Tyler Tettleton, except McHargue is more prone to tuck the ball and run.
And he's pretty good at it. While Ross leads the team with 212 rushing yards, McHargue has 206 with four touchdowns. On a given play, he'll run the traditional and read options, and is also adept in avoiding sacks.
The Owls are averaging a respectable 412.7 total yards and 28.7 points per game, but have not kept up with two high-scoring opponents, UCLA (49-24 loss) and Louisiana Tech (56-37). Between those games, the Owls rose up and beat Kansas 25-24 on a last-play field goal.
McHargue and his offensive mates do not duck responsibility there. Against UCLA, Rice fell behind 19-3, rallied to take a 24-19 lead, then failed to score in the second half. Against Louisiana Tech, the Bulldogs jumped to a 21-0 lead as the Owls had trouble getting the offense started.
"As a team, something I think we should focus on is starting a little faster," said McHargue, who has thrown for four touchdowns. "Offensively, we've done a pretty good job moving the ball; [we need to] do a better job starting faster and maybe converting these drives into touchdowns instead of field goals in the red zone. That helps our defense out."
Marshall defensive coordinator Chris Rippon knows Rice offensive coordinator John Reagan, who was a center and captain at Syracuse when Rippon arrived there. Rippon notes that Reagan has a strong triple-option background from coaching stints at Army and Air Force.
Rippon thought Rice was the toughest offense to prepare for last year, from a schematic standpoint.
"You don't know what formation they're going to be in based on the people they have in the game," Rippon said. "[Most teams have] two tight ends, two wideouts normally, the tight ends line up as tight ends and you have two wide receivers. Well, these guys will have four wides with them. Two by two, three by one, they'll go empty, they'll bring them back in tight.
"We're challenged a little bit with that, but we have some experience with that this season, in how to get lined up and the things that we're going to try to do. They force you to be very disciplined at the linebacker position and the defensive end position.
"And then they take advantage of you with mismatches, size-wise, splitting those tight ends out. On kids like [safety turned linebacker] D.J. Hunter, that's a mismatch, size-wise."
Rippon says that without an ounce of fear. He's not worried about Hunter, who presents a speed mismatch in other situations, and the rest of his Herd defense.
"They have to protect, they've got to throw the ball, they've got to complete it, he's got to catch it, so I kind of like our chances there," Rippon said.
BRIEFLY: The start of the Herd's game at Purdue on Sept. 29 has been moved up to 3:15 p.m. The decision was made for television considerations, officials announced, but sunset at Ross-Ade Stadium, which lacks permanent lights, may have been a factor.