HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — East Carolina will return to football practice this week without knowing its next opponent or where its next game will be played.
Marshall dashed the Pirates’ hopes of appearing in the Conference USA championship game when the Thundering Herd rolled to a surprisingly easy 59-28 victory Friday in front of 25,117 spectators in chilly Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Marshall (9-3 overall, 7-1 conference) won the C-USA East Division championship. The Thundering Herd will take on either Rice or UTSA at noon Saturday for the conference title and a berth in the Liberty Bowl.
The Pirates ended the regular season with a 9-3 overall record and 6-2 conference mark.
“We’re going to a bowl game somewhere,” East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. “It will be great for our fans and (ECU fans) will travel. Some bowl will get a great team and fan base.”
Which bowl will get East Carolina is to be determined. Speculation centers on the Dec. 23 Beef O’Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., against a team likely from the Mid-American Conference. Another possibility is the Dec. 27 Military Bowl Dec. 27 in Annapolis, Md., against a team from the ACC.
C-USA features six primary bowl tie-ins and at 9-3, East Carolina certainly will receive a bid. The Liberty Bowl has the first selection of C-USA teams and likely will take the league champion. The Heart of Dallas Bowl, New Orleans Bowl and Hawaii Bowl are others tied to the league. ECU played in the New Orleans Bowl last season.
While the Liberty Bowl was the Pirates’ goal, McNeill said the season remains a success and his team has plenty for which to play.
“We’ve done a lot of things nobody thought we could do,” said McNeill, whose team defeated North Carolina and N.C. State outside the conference. “We’ve faced a lot of adversity and have been resilient. Today was tough for us. Marshall is tough.”
Marshall will learn its next opponent Sunday.
Rice (8-3, 6-1) can win the West Division with a Saturday victory at home against Tulane (7-4, 5-2). If Rice loses and UTSA (6-5, 5-2) wins at home against Louisiana Tech (4-7, 3-4), the Roadrunners win the West and the right to play at Marshall in the championship game.
If UTSA wins the West Division, it will play the Herd in Edwards Stadium. If Rice captures the West, the site of the championship game won’t be known at least until 8:30 p.m. Sunday when the final BCS rankings are revealed. The higher-ranked team in the BCS standings will serve as host for the championship game.
Marshall bolted to a 24-0 lead by 9:33 of the second quarter. East Carolina converted two Herd turnovers to pull within 24-10 on a 2-yard touchdown run by Vintavious Cooper and a field goal by Warren Harvey.
“We’ve had some tough starts and battled back,” McNeill said. “I never thought we were out of it. I felt if we could hold them at the beginning of the third quarter, the most important five minutes in most games, then we could come back.”
That didn’t happen. Marshall went 53 yards in nine plays before fullback Devon Johnson scored on a 2-yard run to give the Herd a 31-10 lead. The Pirates never recovered as Marshall outscored them 35-18 in the second half.
An anticipated battle of the league’s premier quarterbacks — ECU’s Shane Carden and Marshall’s Rakeem Cato — didn’t amount to much. The Herd’s dominant ground attack accounted for 267 yards on 53 carries, including 161 yards on 26 attempts by Essray Taliaferro, taking the steam out of a previously stout ECU defense.
Carden finished with 291 yards passing, completing 29 of 52 with three interceptions. Carden had thrown just seven interceptions all season.
Cato went 17-for-28 for 272 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Cato also ran for two touchdowns.
“We usually start fast, but we played from behind today,” Carden said. “Things didn’t go our way. They’re a good defense. I’m not taking anything away from them. They’re good, but we’re better than we showed today.”
Carden said the Pirates will bounce back, but this loss will stick with them a while.
“It’s very tough,” Carden said. “Our goal was a championship. It hurts. It hurts bad, but we have to get over it. We have a chance to win 10 games and to win a bowl game. The sooner we get over this game, the better.”
Cooper, who ran for 93 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, said East Carolina’s final game in C-USA didn’t turn out as he hoped, but the Pirates still have reason to work hard.
“We’ll refocus as best as we possibly can,” Cooper said. “We’ll look at film and correct everything that went wrong.
“We didn’t play the way we’re capable. We played in spurts.”