East Carolina visits Marshall with division title at stake

Nov. 28, 2013 @ 10:42 PM

East Carolina had never beaten North Carolina and N.C. State in the same season until the Pirates clinched an instate sweep of the Tar Heels and Wolfpack last Saturday with a 42-28 win in Raleigh.

The taste of victory then was as sweet for East Carolina as the 55-31 drubbing of North Carolina in late September. But the celebration in Carter-Finley Stadium was short-lived.

“It definitely means a good bit,” running back Vintavious Cooper said following the game. “I know it probably means a lot more to the fans. But at the same time, we have bigger fish to fry than Carolina and N.C. State.”

Cooper and the Pirates (9-2, 6-1) play for an East Division title Friday (noon, CBS Sports Network) at Marshall (8-3, 6-1) with a berth in the Conference USA championship game on the line. East Carolina would host the title game next week with a win Friday.

East Carolina is searching for its first 10-win season in 22 years and is assured of its seventh bowl appearance in the last eight seasons.

The Pirates lead the series against Marshall 10-4 with each of the four losses coming away from Greenville. The last two meetings have gone to overtime with the Thundering Herd winning in 2011 and East Carolina claiming a 65-59 double-overtime victory last season.

The 24-hour rule was not in effect for East Carolina following the win at N.C. State.

“It was more like eight or 12 hours as we had to dive into Marshall pretty quickly to get the game plan going,” East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill said Monday in his weekly press conference. “After the game Saturday, they were pretty happy to win, but they also knew that we have another game coming up that has a lot of significance to it. The way they handled that after the game was expected, but great to see as well.”

East Carolina junior wideout Justin Hardy leads C-USA with 95 catches and 1,130 receiving yards and Cooper is the fifth-best rusher in the league with 902 yards and nine touchdowns. They’re vital components in an offense that ranks second in the conference behind Marshall in total yards.

But the featured attraction in this matchup is between quarterbacks Shane Carden of East Carolina and Marshall’s Rakeem Cato. The juniors are tied for third among all Division I FBS players with 32 touchdown passes.

Carden has thrown for 533 more yards this season than Cato, the offensive player of the year in C-USA last season. The Herd quarterback has 181 more rushing yards, but five fewer rushing touchdowns than the East Carolina signal caller.

“He’s a little bit like Cato,” fourth-year Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said of Carden Monday in his weekly press conference. “When he gets out on the perimeter his head doesn’t go down, his eyes go up. He makes plays when kids shouldn’t make plays. When plays break down into a scramble situation is when Carden is at his best. Both of these quarterbacks are the heart and soul for the offense.”

Marshall has the edge in productive backfields with four players boasting 400 or more rushing yards. Cooper is the only back for the Pirates with more than 400 yards on the ground.

Each team is among the leaders in C-USA defense.

First-year defensive coordinator Rick Smith has led the resurgence of an East Carolina defense that was subpar in McNeill’s first three seasons as head coach.

The Pirates have recorded a takeaway in all but one game this season and rank second in C-USA total defense, one spot above Marshall.

East Carolina is welcoming back junior nose tackle Terry Williams, a former starter that had been suspended since Sept. 24 for violating a team rule.

The Pirates will join the American Athletic Conference next season. They haven’t appeared in the C-USA championship game since 2009, also the last year the Bucs claimed a win in Huntington, W.Va.

“It’s a great challenge and an exciting time,” said McNeill. “In coaching, you look forward to this opportunity and both teams have worked their way into this position.”

“We can’t control anything that Marshall does,” McNeill added. “But we can control what we do and how we work and this group understands that.”

Contact the writer at kholtzman@hendersondispatch.com.