I, for one, am glad that this Friday is the game of the year for our Pirates. I know a lot of folks would prefer this one was a walkover en route to the C-USA Championship game. I guess there is something in that desire, but I cannot remember looking forward to a game with as much real meaning as this one in a long time for the Pirates. Certainly not a non-bowl game.
This one has all the hallmarks of a true classic. ECU and Marshall are near doppelgängers this season…twin sons of different mothers if you will. It is almost unbelievable how similar these two teams are statistically and in terms of how the season flowed for each team. And, there is so much drama saturating this game.
For one, obviously, the Conference USA title game hangs in the balance. But more than that, there is ECU’s pending departure from C-USA…the split of kindred spirits. ECU moving on to join the sort-of-haves and leaving behind – not by our choice – of the program that will take on the role of perennial C-USA East powerhouse. There is the connection to the 1970 Marshall tragedy in a season when this Thundering Herd team is brandishing a visual symbol (the #75 for the lost souls that night) of this emotional and solemn moment in sports that has forever connected our two programs. There is the emotional charge that Marshall will most assuredly get from being in the comfy confines of the Joan versus the burgeoning chip the Pirates will carry into this game being considered the underdogs in the contest despite having the better record and seemingly more impressive wins (see the spread for this game).
And, almost to the position, there are questions and more questions that point to virtually 11 battles going on at all times on every snap for the duration of this contest. Who is the better QB, or should I say, the BEST QB, Shane Carden of Rakeem Cato? Is a 50-50 split run-to-pass like Marshall’s better than the more lopsided pass, pass, pass…gut punch with a dose of the Coop? Whose defense has come farthest fastest? Will our traveling 12th man be able to drown out their’s – ala Carter-Finley? Will the short week hurt or help the Pirates? Are the Pirates emotionally spent after completing the N.C. sweep? There is the debate over whether Shane Carden or Rakeem Cato is the better quarterback. Whose defense has come farthest fastest?
Yes, this one has all the earmarks a game of this importance should have and hopefully that is what all of us get to see. A slobber-knocking, big-play, high-paced, slug-fest between to extremely comparable teams.
Here is where I am focused right now in terms of setting my own expectations for this game.
ECU’s top-10 rushing defense versus Marshall’s four-headed running attack.
Let me start by saying that ECU’s front seven has shown that they are legit…shutting down any and all comers on the season, decisively. The most comparable opponent to the 22nd-ranked rushing team (Marshall) is Middle Tennessee State who we held to under 90 yards rushing. However, I don’t think we have seen anything yet like what our front 7 will see on Friday in terms of rushing offense to date. Not only does Marshall have three legit running backs plus a very mobile and smart QB in Cato, they also can pass as well as any team in the country, so the variables are different. We cannot sell out to shut down the run without the major risk of exposing our secondary to an attack that is hard enough to stop if that was the primary objective. Marshall’s running backs all run hard and well so they can cycle through Essray Taliaferro, Steward Butler, and Kevin Grooms without any drop off between reps. And then there is Cato making you hurt when you have everything covered and shut down. Having to spy him may be a little fly in our defensive ointment and that worries me. We couldn’t have asked for a better time to get Terry Williams back to bolster that front four. Hopefully he is back ready to prove some things. This game more than any, our pass rush – particularly from Derrell Johnson and Montese Overton will have to be a difference maker…Cato needs to be hit on every play (within legal limits of course).
Marshall’s athletic and tenacious defense versus ECU’s fast-paced, pass heavy attack.
In many ways, ECU’s offense presents itself as Marshall’s from a year ago – lightening fast…an air show. Though, we all know that is not exactly what it is, but we do throw the football a lot more than we run it (even if we have struck a better balance in this recent run of high-scoring games). Marshall’s defense is no slouch and have been on a reclamation trajectory very similar to ECU’s. Like the Herd’s offense, their defense appears equally good against pass and the run, which means that they have athletes across their position groups. On the one hand, this makes things easier for ECU…game plan: do what we have been doing. Is this Virginia Tech’s defense…not by a long shot, but they may have enough their to press up on our wide receivers and put a real test to Shane’s ability to make the quick, correct decision. If he can make the right decisions, even in press coverage, I believe that our receivers are talented such that we can make them pay for it. But, there is little margin for error and this game may go to the team that turns the ball over least. The running game has been coming on of late which will force Marshall to play us straight up and that is what we want to be successful in what will be a very hostile environment. ECU’s stars are going to have to play “star-like” meaning Carden and Justin Hardy have to be that big-time connection and Vintavious Cooper needs to be special on Friday.
Will Power and Want Power:
There will be nothing like the intensity that will both teams will carry into this game. For Marshall, not only is the C-USA title within grasp, but also, there is the desire to make a statement to ECU as it departs the league that save for a few additional relationships, the Thundering Herd would be leaving instead of us. Moreover, the home field is huge. Marshall takes their game to a new level at home. ECU, likewise, has a chip and seems to be a team on a mission. The desire to leave as CUSA champions is a big motivator. To be seen as underdogs to Marshall (albeit slightly) plays well into ECU’s psyche. It is hard to find a weakness in either team that creates a decisive advantage for the other team. It really will come down to how each player on the field performs in their personal battle – mano-a-mano and that means that this game will be decided – IMO – by former coach Ed Emory’s key measurable – “want power.”
Really, on an individual basis, it will come down to if more of our guys want it more than more of their guys in the individual battles. Like breaching an enemy defense…the team that finds the guy on the other team with lesser want power and then attacks that breach with everything they got, will win the war.
I plan to dive deeper into these battles throughout this week but would love to hear your thoughts – any and all – on this one.
This game is what college football fans thrive for…it is a shame it is not on ESPN or FS1…it is the type of stage that deserves a spotlight. I think the game is going to be one for the ages.
Go Pirates, Go! Beat Marshall.