Close encounters of the third down
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.
That gives defenders a nightmare or two.
"The big part of their strength is [Cato]," said Rice defensive end Cody Bauer. "They don't have any broken plays. If all of their players are covered, he can pull it down and do some damage. The key will be containing that quarterback."
Of the Herd's 317 first downs this season (regardless of which down they were achieved), the trio of Shuler, Hoskins and Cato has made 113 of them. Shuler has 56, Hoskins 31 and Cato 26.
Shuler has caught at least one pass for a first down in 24 consecutive games, last getting skunked at the 2011 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. He thwarts defenses good and bad - for instance, eight of his 10 receptions at Virginia Tech went for first downs.
The on-field communication between Cato and Shuler, boyhood friends from Miami, is almost telepathic. But Cato has become that way with several other targets, Hoskins being a prime example. Remember, Hoskins is the deadly "red zone" threat, scoring 13 touchdowns in his 38 receptions.
"We might call a play; say he throws the ball anywhere else, and he asks me, 'What did you have out there?' " Hoskins said. "I'd let him know, 'I had this and this.' He'd say, 'OK, I see the middle open.'
"And then we'll get a play from the sidelines, we look at each other, we look at the defense, he'd give me a signal, a head nod, eye contact, let me know exactly what he wants - 'I'm coming to you' - and we communicate like that."
At times in their history, ancient and recent, Rice players could spell every word in the English language but "defense." That is certainly not the case this time around, as the Owls are loaded with fifth-year seniors and fourth-year juniors. The cornerbacks are considered the top strength, with the starters combining for seven interceptions.
The Owls' Phillip Gaines is considered an NFL prospect.
"He's just got everything you look for in a lockdown corner," said Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue. "He has weight [6-1, 185] and he's difficult at the line of scrimmage, and he plays the ball well.
"A lot of times, corners don't play the ball well once it's up in the air and that's when they get a lot of [pass interference fouls]. Phil never panics, and that's the thing with Bryce [Callahan], he never panics. That's where you see they don't have a lot of PIs and they have a few interceptions."
Which puts a premium on Cato's decision making and execution, and that of the players around him. But Cato will stress Rice's defense as well, particularly on third down.
Which side will prevail?
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.