ECU, Marshall to meet at high noon for East Division title

CorrespondentNovember 27, 2013 

N.C. State, NC State, Wolfpack, ECU, East Carolina, Pirates, ACC

East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden (5) beats N.C. State’s Robert Caldwell (48) on a 3-yard touchdown run Saturday. The Pirates won 42-28.

ETHAN HYMAN — ehyman@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— High noon. That’s the time East Carolina and Marshall will battle it out at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Huntington, W.Va., on Friday to decide who gets to represent the East Division in the Conference USA championship game.

The Pirates (9-2, 6-1) will enter the game with the nation’s 11th-best scoring offense (41.5 points a game) and full of swagger after they downed N.C. State 42-28 to extend their winning streak to five.

With the eighth-highest scoring offense in the country (43.3 ppg), the Thundering Herd (8-3, 6-1) is coming off a 48-10 rout of Florida International on Saturday and has won four straight.

For the past two seasons, ECU and Marshall have gone at it like the Hatfields and McCoys, with each taking turns knocking the other out of postseason contention.

This season the stakes are higher, and with the Pirates preparing to leave for the American Athletic Conference at the end of the season, it seems only fitting that Round 3 is played in the home of the two former feuding families.

On Monday, East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill acknowledged the rivalry and said these types of games are why he loves punching the clock every day.

“It has been a game that, every year; it comes down to something on the line,” McNeill said. “That’s why you’re in coaching – for the competition. When you’ve been around as long as (me and Marshall coach Doc Holliday) have, and been through a lot of these contests before, it’s a very intense time, but it’s fun.”

It wasn’t so much fun for McNeill and the Pirates in 2011, when the Herd trampled ECU’s postseason dreams with a 34-27 overtime victory in West Virginia. The loss left the Pirates with a 5-7 record and snapped their streak of bowl appearances at five.

East Carolina would have to wait 12 months for payback, but it was worth it.

In 2012, it was Marshall that sat on five wins heading into the regular-season finale, but its bowl dreams were shot down by then-sophomore quarterback Shane Carden, who threw for 439 yards and accounted for five touchdowns to lead ECU to a 65-59 double-overtime victory.

Carden, along with Marshall’s fellow junior quarterback Rakeem Cato, will be the central figures in Friday’s grudge match.

While Cato, 6-foot-0 and 188 pounds, was the 2012 Conference USA Player of the year, 6-2, 218-pound Carden might have the edge on him this season.

Carden leads the FBS in completion percentage (72.8), has the third-most touchdown passes (32) and is fifth in passing yards (3,575).

Cato stands 19th in passing yards (3,042) and 65th in completion percentage (59), while his 32 TD tosses are tied with Carden.

“They’re both the generals of their teams, not just their offense,” McNeill said. “They have great decision-making skills, distribute the ball extremely well, have the ability to extend plays and they’re both two of the top quarterbacks, not just in the conference, but also in the country. They would be good quarterbacks in any league and on any team.”

The teams mirror each other in more ways than one. Both have top-notch receivers, a capable corps of running backs and are backed by defenses that are vastly improved from their last meeting.

ECU junior wide receiver Justin Hardy has been sensational this season, catching 95 passes for 1,130 yards and eight scores.

Hardy’s 8.6 receptions per game is the sixth-highest total in the FBS, while his receiving yardage ranks 15th in the country.

Thundering Herd slot receiver Tommy Shuler has been Cato’s go-to guy all year long, catching a team-high 80 passes for 872 yards and nine touchdowns.

In the backfield, both teams rely heavily on undersized rushers. Vintavious Cooper is 98 yards away from his second straight 1,000-yard season, and Essray Taliaferro has gained 845 yards on the year.

“Both (offenses) are similar. We spread the field. We both try to stretch the defenses vertically. They do a great job of that and I think we do a great job of it,” McNeill said. “We both try to stretch the defenses horizontally and then we both have a run game. (The offenses) are similar in nature.”

Scheme-wise, the Pirates’ 3-4 defense varies from the Herd’s multiple packages, but both units have turned the corner since last season.

Marshall dropped an FBS-best 20.9 points per game off its scoring average last year and rank second in C-USA in scoring defense (21.9).

East Carolina’s front seven has been the strength of its defense and boasts the nation’s ninth-best run defense (103.9 ypg), while ranking 21st in total defense (347.3) and 32nd in scoring defense (22.1 ppg).

With both teams being evenly matched, the outcome might lie in who makes fewer mistakes.

“I think both of us have pretty good defenses. We follow each other in (a lot of) categories, including special teams,” McNeill said. “I think it’s about playing a total team game. Complementary football will need to be at its highest Friday. This is a game where routine plays will be vital.”

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