Before Friday, the series between Marshall and East Carolina had provided plenty of drama. Three of the last five games went to overtime, and Marshall’s bowl eligibility hinged on each of the last two.
Even more was at stake Friday — the Conference USA East Division championship went to the winner, as well as the accompanying spot in the league title game.
This time, Marshall took the drama away early.
The Thundering Herd dominated a game that was expected to be close, in the process guaranteeing itself a 14-game season. The 59-28 win in front of 25,117 fans gave Marshall its first championship in 11 years, when it beat Toledo for the 2002 Mid-American Conference championhip.
Next stop: The C-USA championship game Saturday, Dec. 7, at a site to be determined this weekend.
If Rice wins today, it will be the West champion. Marshall and Rice would both be 7-1 in conference play, meaning the right to host the title game would be determined by the highest BCS ranking. Rice, which hosts Tulane at 3 p.m. today, was ahead of Marshall going into the weekend.
The new rankings will be released Sunday night.
If Rice loses, Marshall would host the game, and the West winner would come down to a tiebreaker.
The 7-1 league record is Marshall’s best ever in C-USA.
Win or lose, Marshall, 9-3 overall, will also play in a bowl game. The Liberty Bowl normally is the destination for the C-USA champion, but there has been speculation that game could bypass the winner and opt for a more favorable matchup.
The Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md., is a rumored landing spot for the Herd, with Maryland as its opponent.
Marshall coach Doc Holliday isn’t looking that far ahead. Nor is he content with Friday’s win, even if jubilant players doused him with not one but two Gatorade baths on a sunny but cold 40-degree day.
“I wish they hadn’t done that, because that should be reserved for the championship game,” Holliday said. “But I guess it’s been so damn long since they we’ve won one around here that they had to practice.”
He would like to see it return to commonplace over the next month.
They got off to an encouraging start Friday, handling ECU like no team has this season. Marshall ran for 267 yards against the Pirates, who had been holding opponents to a league-best 126.5 yards on the ground.
Marshall’s 539 yards and 59 points were also season-highs against the Pirates.
Senior running back Essray Taliaferro carried 26 times for 161 yards, the first back to go over 100 against ECU. Taliaferro now has 1,006 yards on the season, making him the first Herd back to do so since Darius Marshall in 2009.
“The running game definitely opened the pass game up,” Taliaferro said. “We knew if we busted big plays, it was going to created opportunities for Shu (Tommy Shuler), Gator (Hoskins), Craig (Wilkins), all the boys to get open. That was mine and Stew’s (Butler) goal, to make big plays.”
Some of the biggest plays came from sophomore tight end/H-back Devon Johnson. The Richlands, Va., native touched the ball four times and scored on three of them.
He scored twice on 2-yard runs out of a recently-installed jumbo package, and also took a Rakeem Cato pass and rumbled 52 yards for a touchdown that put the Herd ahead 45-20 late in the third quarter.
“We’ve had it for a couple of weeks,” Holliday said of the “cheese package,” a reference to the nickname of 302-pound Blake Brooks, who was lined up as a fullback. “They were on me about running at FIU. I said, ‘No, let’s save that for East Carolina.’”
Marshall jumped to a 24-0 lead thanks to a defense that was undaunted by the task of stopping ECU’s junior tandem of quarterback Shane Carden and receiver Justin Hardy.
Carden, the league’s top passer, was 29 of 52 for 291 yards. But he was intercepted three times — twice by freshman redshirt freshman defensive end Gary Thompson — and did not throw a touchdown pass for just the second game of his career. The first came last year against North Carolina.
Hardy had 10 catches for 88 yards.
“They’re a good defense, and I’m not taking anything away from them,” Carden said, “but we’re a much better offense than that.”
After taking its 24-point lead, Marshall turned the ball over on consecutive drives, which came after Devon Smith’s 59-yard punt return for a touchdown was called back because of a holding penalty. Taliaferro fumbled and Cato threw an interception, and the Pirates cashed in on both — a 2-yard touchdown run by Tay Cooper and a 27-yard field goal by Warren Harvey.
But the Herd scored on the first drive of the second half — Johnson’s second TD run to cap a drive that started at the Herd 47-yard line after a 42-yard Deandre Reaves kickoff return — and, after a 28-yard Harvey field goal, Thompson got his second pick at the ECU 5 and took it in for a 38-13 Marshall lead halfway through the third.
“It was very good for us to come out strong (in the second half),” said Cato, who was 17 of 28 for 272 yards and two touchdowns. “It was just a team effort.”
Except for the two turnovers, Holliday liked what he saw.
“Overall, that’s the best games we’ve played to date,” he said. “We have to make sure we do it again next week.”
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East Carolina....0 10 10 8 — 28
Marshall...........17 7 21 14 — 59
Mar—FG Haig 42, 11:21.
Mar—D.Johnson 2 run (Haig kick), 4:48.
Mar—Cato 4 run (Haig kick), 1:05.
Mar—Hoskins 3 pass from Cato (Haig kick), 9:33.
ECU—Cooper 2 run (Harvey kick), 4:45.
ECU—FG Harvey 27, :56.
Mar—D.Johnson 2 run (Haig kick), 11:34.
ECU—FG Harvey 26, 9:22.
Mar—G.Thompson 5 interception return (Haig kick), 7:58.
ECU—Carden 7 run (Harvey kick), 5:11.
Mar—D.Johnson 52 pass from Cato (Haig kick), 4:05.
Mar—Butler 14 run (Haig kick), 14:25.
Mar—Cato 12 run (Haig kick), 2:53.
ECU—Cooper 2 run (Bry.Williams pass from Carden), 1:32.
First downs 22 28
Rushes-yards 29-149 53-267
Passing 291 272
Comp-Att-Int 29-52-3 17-28-1
Return Yards 10 18
Punts-Avg. 6-42.7 2-50.0
Fumbles-Lost 2-0 1-1
Penalties-Yards 4-33 3-20
Time of Possession 26:02 33:58
RUSHING—East Carolina, Cooper 20-93, B.Allen 6-42, Carden 3-14. Marshall, Taliaferro 26-161, Butler 17-90, D.Johnson 3-12, Cato 5-6, Team 2-(minus 2).
PASSING—East Carolina, Carden 29-52-3-291. Marshall, Cato 17-28-1-272.
RECEIVING—East Carolina, Hardy 10-88, I.Jones 9-123, Cooper 5-31, B.Allen 2-4, Worthy 1-30, Bry.Williams 1-10, Ray 1-5. Marshall, Shuler 9-147, Hoskins 4-26, D.Smith 2-28, D.Johnson 1-52, Wilkins 1-19.