HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Third downs are going to be more interesting than usual when Marshall has the ball Saturday in the Conference USA championship game.
On one side is Rakeem Cato and the Thundering Herd offense, which is converting third downs at better than a 1-in-2 rate, 53.4 percent.
On the other side is the Rice defense, denying opponents on third down at a better than 2-in-3 rate, with those foes converting at 32.2 percent.
When the contest kicks off at noon EST at Rice Stadium, something must give.
There's no sense going back over the 12 games to look for the best examples of the two teams' strength. Just check out their regular-season finales - both played with division titles on the line.
Rice simply snuffed Tulane, holding it to 123 total yards in a 17-13 victory. The big stat? Third downs, which the Green Wave converted just once in 14 tries. That allowed Rice to hog the ball for nearly 40 minutes.
A major factor behind Marshall's 59-28 dismantling of East Carolina also was third-down efficiency, where the Herd converted 10 of 14 times. The successes come on plays long and short.
The first was the longest, as Cato fired a perfect dart to Craig Wilkins for 19 yards on third-and-18. That kept alive a touchdown drive that gave Marshall a 10-0 lead, the springboard to the rout.
The rest of the third-down plays showed the outwitting of ECU's defense, which one MU player said was unsure what it wanted to do.
After the throw to Wilkins, Cato rushed for a 4-yard touchdown on third-and-goal. On third-and-9, he threw a good ol' 17-yard pass to Tommy Shuler. On third-and-2, Essray Taliaferro broke loose for 26 yards. On third-and-6, another routine 7-yard pass from Cato to Shuler.
That all seemed to set up the ultimate kill shot late in the third quarter, the 52-yard TD pass to Devon Johnson on third-and-11. With the Herd safely ahead, Gator Hoskins caught a 14-yarder on third-and-8.
In Rice's win over Tulane, the Owls stopped third downs in distances from 1 yard to 27. Tulane QB Nick Montana burned Rice with a 34-yard pass, but was stopped on third-and-12 and the Green Wave settled for a field goal.
And its final points. Rice forced Tulane into a third-and-14 and a third-and-10 to close the game.
There you have it, Marshall vs. Rice, your championship matchup.
Marshall has shown it can pick up a first down with a number of weapons, but the biggest ones are Cato's passes to Shuler and Hoskins, or plays in which Cato pulls the ball down and runs. By this time, at the end of his third year as starter, Cato knows when to dash for it and when to run around and find an open receiver.