Marshall didn’t need one of the top rushers in the nation to help it remain undefeated last weekend. However, the Thundering Herd will certainly welcome back Devon Johnson to face Rice’s stingy run defense Saturday.
The junior will be available as No. 21 Marshall looks to deny the visiting Owls a seventh consecutive victory in this rematch of last season’s Conference USA title game.
A leg injury limited Johnson to the role of spectator for last Saturday’s 63-17 rout of Southern Mississippi. Among the FBS leaders in rushing yards (1,203), yards per game (150.4) and yards per carry (8.8), Johnson was hurt while running for a school-record 272 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-16 home win over Florida Atlantic on Oct. 25.
”Devon probably could’ve played, but I watched him during warmups and didn’t like his body language,” coach Doc Holliday said.
Though the Herd (9-0, 5-0) fell behind 14-0, they regrouped to easily extend their best start since the 13-0 season of 1999. With Johnson out, backups Steward Butler and Remi Watson along with quarterback Rakeem Cato ran for six touchdowns and 259 of Marshall’s 335 rushing yards.
Marshall, sixth in the FBS with 295.1 rushing yards per game, has gained 663 in the last two contests.
“It’s business as usual,” center Chris Jasperse told Marshall’s official website. “Coach told us all week we’re planning to play without (Johnson). (Offensive line) coach (Alex) Mirabal says, ‘It’s on us,’ and we’ve got to show (that the line is) the reason we’re rushing for all of these yards.”
East Division-leading Marshall could have a tougher time against Rice (6-3, 4-1), which has allowed 2.5 yards per carry and no more than 104 on the ground to a league opponent.
The Owls limited Marshall to 106 rushing yards in a 41-24 victory in the league championship game Dec. 7.
In the midst of its longest winning streak since a seven-game run to end the 2008 season, Rice is second in the West Division, 1 1/2 games behind Louisiana Tech. The Owls held their third straight opponent and fourth in five games to fewer than 265 yards last week, giving up 257 in a 17-7 win over UTSA.
“(Coach) David Bailiff has them extremely well-coached. I don’t have to say anything to our guys,” said Holliday, whose team has won 12 straight at home and both previous meetings with Rice there.
“We’re going to have to play extremely well,” he added. “They’re coming here with six wins in a row, and I’m sure there’s a reason they’ve won six straight games. You know they’ll be well-prepared and we’ve got to be the same.”
Jowan Davis rushed 25 times for 121 yards last Saturday for the Owls, who average 196.8 on the ground and gained 248 against Marshall last season.
The Herd have allowed an average of 188.4 rushing yards over the last five games, but have given up more than 17 points twice all season. They showed their defensive mettle by holding Southern Miss to three points after the first quarter and 300 yards for the game.
“The kids just started doing their jobs, started executing,” Holliday said. “We had some adversity right away, didn’t handle it well, but I really liked the way we stuck with things.”
Marshall’s career leader with 13,196 total yards, Cato extended his FBS record by throwing a TD pass in his 41st consecutive game.
Fifth in the FBS with a 162.0 passer rating, Cato has thrown 22 TD passes on the season, and six interceptions since he was picked off four times in the opener against Miami of Ohio. He threw for 265 yards with two TDs and an interception against the Owls last season.
Cato was sacked three times last year by Rice, which ranks among the national leaders with 32 this season.
Rice has lost 23 straight to ranked opponents since a victory over then-No. 21 BYU on Oct. 11, 1997. Its last road win over a Top 25 team came against then-No. 8 Baylor on Oct. 12, 1991.