CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The common thread between the two teams in the Conference USA championship are all those intangibles many squads talk about, but rarely measure up to.
Leadership. Accountability. Self-policing. Ownership.
Now is the closest Marshall has come to fulfilling such promises. Perhaps the Thundering Herd must defeat Rice on the road today to make a more impressive case.
The current five-game winning streak, a stunning 59-28 romp over East Carolina, and the program's first division title in C-USA are still not enough to fulfill one of the Herd's major goals.
But then again, this Herd team was leaving Middle Tennessee with a loss and a 4-3 record roughly six weeks ago. Now, that low point is a speck in the rear-view mirror.
"I guess our senior leadership [flipped the switch]," said defensive tackle Brandon Sparrow. "We've had 19 [weekly] captains, a bunch of seniors. We just want to win, you know."
Marshall has finished well under coach Doc Holliday, even in down years. The Herd is 15-4 in games played Oct. 28 or later, and have a chance to tack on two more.
The Owls also are closing with flourishes. Since 2006, the single-year Todd Graham era, they are 23-9 in games played in November or later. They have won eight home games in a row, dating back to Marshall's win in September 2012, and are on a 14-3 run.
Rice's large junior class asserted itself two weeks after that loss to Marshall, when the Owls lost at Memphis and fell to 1-5. "This junior class that is now the senior class started to take responsibility and accountability," coach David Bailiff said. "And at that moment, we changed, became a self-policing [team]. Instead of pointing fingers, [they] started looking at themselves.
"That's the moment it happened. It was actually Phillip Gaines, the corner, that said, 'enough's enough' and drew a line in the sand and said that's not how this team is going to be anymore."
Something worked - the Owls ralled from 2-6 to earn a bowl bid, and then grounded Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth.
And at noon, they take on the leadership-infused Marshall team.