By GARY FAUBER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When Conference USA released its 2013 football schedules earlier this year, it was believed by many that Marshall and East Carolina would find themselves in this very situation.
ECU’s reputation was long cemented as one of the best in the league, even more so with the departure of UCF and Houston.
As for the Thundering Herd, wins over Ohio and Virginia Tech, while nice, would have been unnecessary. With games against many of the league’s newcomers, and with an offense that returned several key pieces from what was one of the most prolific units in the nation a year ago, as long as the defense was improved even slightly, running the league table shouldn’t have been much of a problem.
Both teams blinked — Marshall lost 51-49 on a last-second play at Middle Tennessee, and the Pirates dropped a 36-33 triple overtime game at Tulane — but they survived.
Today, just as expected, the rivals will meet for the East Division championship. Kickoff from Huntington’s Joan C. Edwards Stadium will be noon, with CBS Sports Network broadcasting.
“Ultimately, at the beginning of the year this is where we said we wanted to be and probably had a pretty good idea that it would be against ECU,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “This is the position that you want to be in at this point. We need to go play our best football. We have to go out there and get better as a team, like we strive to do every week. Hopefully, Friday we will play our best game to date. It’s going to take that to beat this football team.”
Oh, yeah. It’s Senior Day, too. Seventeen seniors will be honored before the game, their last scheduled game at Edwards Stadium.
Of course, that could possibly change with a win today. That not only would give the Herd the division championship, but could set up a C-USA title game in Huntington, depending on how the West shapes up.
Winning will be a challenge for both teams. Marshall (8-3, 6-1 C-USA) and ECU (9-2, 6-1) are at or near the top of just about every statistical category in the conference.
ECU quarterback Shane Carden could be the favorite to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award, unseating Marshall’s Rakeem Cato. Carden has completed 329 of 452 passes (72.7 percent) for 3,575 yards and 32 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.
Receiver Justin Hardy has given Carden one of the top options in the nation. The junior has 1,130 yards and eight touchdowns on 95 carries. In last Saturday’s 42-28 win at N.C. State, Hardy set the school single-season receiving yardage record.
Senior running back Vintabvious Cooper is sixth in the conference at 82.0 yards per game. He has run for 902 yards and is tied with Carden for the team lead with nine rushing touchdowns.
Defensively, ECU is fourth in scoring defense (22.1 points per game), second in total defense (347.3 yards per game) and first in run defense (103.9 yards). The Pirates have allowed just seven rushing touchdowns.
Marshall, meanwhile, is second in scoring defense (21.1 points), third in total defense (349.5 yards), fourth in run defense (150.7) and second in pass defense (198.7). ECU is allowing 243.4 yards through the air, next-to-last in the league.
“I think both of us have pretty good defenses,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. “We follow each other in both categories, including special teams. 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. We have to make sure we make a lot of routine plays.”
Today will the biggest day at Edwards Stadium since 2002, and efforts have been made to push fans to fill the seats since after Marshall beat Florida International last Saturday.
“It's been 11 years since we’ve had the opportunity to play a game of this magnitude here at Joan C. Edwards Stadium,” said Holliday, in his fourth season at Marshall. “Our team loves to play here. They love looking up in those stands and seeing a lot of Kelly green.
“The message to any football fan out there is that if you want to see two really good teams go at each other, then Friday would be a great opportunity for you. We need our fan base to show up and our kids feed off of it. I can’t tell you how excited they are to play on Friday and they’re looking forward to the crowd that we will have.”
— E-mail: gfauber