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And then, there was Marshall: It all comes down to high-noon on Friday

Defense will determine this one - either our's or their's
Defense will determine this one – either our’s or their’s

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).

ECU's big-time players need their biggest time this Friday.
ECU’s big-time players need their biggest time this Friday.

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.

22 comments on “And then, there was Marshall: It all comes down to high-noon on Friday

  1. “twin sons of different mothers”

  2. I have to admit I was positively impressed on Saturday. The Pirates played so well on all 3 sides of the ball, I could not be more proud. Our boys are peaking at the absolute best time and I am so excited for Friday. Glad to hear Williams is back for Friday’s game, and that we didn’t lose anyone to injury on Saturday. State’s coach was bragging about how they turned things around at the end with 2 quick touchdowns but simply ran out of time. He failed to mention though that it was against our reserves. Our starting rotation was awesome and Coach Ruff will have them ready to play. Marshall may very well win, but they better bring their A game.. anything short of that will turn it into a very long day for them… keep them coming Ron… can you update us more on the injury situation beyond Williams?

    • Welcome as always Chris!

      I was also very surprised and happy with Saturday’s results. Mostly, I was impressed by the ease and control and comfort the team displayed. It seemed effortless and forgone. Moreover, we are healthy coming out of the game and did not appear to be emotionally spent.

      I just hope both teams bring A games and let the chips fall where they may on Friday.

      So excited for this game.


      • Ron, heard on the news tonight about coach reinstating Williams, but they did say it was unclear when he would return to the field. Are you speculating he will be back for Marshall, or have confirmation he’s on for Friday?

      • Hi Chris…

        I don’t have any firm confirmation he will see a down on Friday. However, if you reinstate a guy, it only makes sense that you are going to use him…so I expect he will be back on the field. Maybe not full tilt, but some at least. Just speculation on my part.

        My hope is that he is angry, fresh, and ready to make amends to his team in the only way he can…on the field, where it counts.

        If I get anything firm, I will definitely share it Chris.

        Best to you.

    • Hey Chris…shoot me your email via mine @

  3. No Quarter

    Defense must come ready to play. If we hold them to 4 or less TDs we win. Marshal’s D has given up a bunch of points to the better teams they have played so I feel confident we can score. I just hope we can slow Cato and Co. down. Weather could be a factor also if its cold.

    • Cheers NQ…always like to hear your thoughts on the matters…

      I am right there with you…D will rule the day. Need to have our best from our boys. This needs to be the game where we find a way to minimize 3rd down conversions!

      Let’s get this one in the ledger Pirates!

  4. Jim Donatelli

    Ron, nice article once again. IMHO this has been a rather weird season.that on paper was going to be the best of The Ruff Era. I”m sure if you asked any of the faithful would they be happy with 9-2 and nearly all would say yes.

    That being said I can’t remember ever playing a schedule this bad where so many programs were having down years. I know we can only control what we can and IMHO have done a good job in dealing with injuries as well as suspensions. I’m having a tough time figuring out what we have here as we have not been tested since we played against Tulane. How often does a Pirate team go 6 weeks without being in a competitive contest?

    The funny thing about Marshall is they have played a worse schedule than ours so its tough to say what they have. I saw them give the game away to Virginia Tech, then allowed MTSU to go down the field with the game on the line and beat them.

    A win against the Herd will help to define how good our team is. A loss and a date perhaps here at the Military Bowl against a team like Buffalo or Toledo. Makes you really want those losses back against Virginia Tech and Tulane.

    In the past I had complained about not being able to throw the ball over the middle on mid to deep routes and the lack of a consistent running game. I’m pleased to say these areas have shown nice improvement.

    I think its pretty clear how you beat this Pirate team first get to Carden. In the 2 games we lost he was sacked 13 times while only being sacked 14 times in the other 9 contests. The other key is the time of possession battle. VT held the ball for 13 minuets more than we did, and FIU had it for 20 minuets more. These are pretty glaring numbers and just shows that you cant do much damage if you don’t have the football.

    The keys to victory for us will be first deal with the weather, the crowd, and the officials as we are departing this league.. Second we need to get turnovers. While our D is much better we had a real tough time on 4th down against State getting off the field. Lastly their FG kicker is also having a tough year in a game that should be close cashing in every chance will be important as will field position.

    In the end here I think there are more questions than answers. Rolling over both State and UNC on the road in the same season has never been done and a great accomplishment for the program. Not getting to the championship game in a weak conference would leave mixed feelings for what could be a 10 plus win season.

    • Jim…you have hit a lot of big points here and I couldn’t agree more with the highlights of your post. This season’s success or failure…that is, the who of this team will be answered on Friday.

      Go Pirates, Go!

  5. Blackbeard's Ghost

    Here, here RC!
    This is for the whole enchilada as they say. Win and your in, lose and your out.
    But I still think there is a little more to this game then the championship birthright on the line. It’s a parting shot so to speak.
    As you eluded to, these 2 programs are joined together not just because of football, but because of a single tragic event.
    I for one will miss playing Marshall on a regular basis because these 2 have really had some of the most entertaining games I have ever seen. Going back to the GMAC bowl game, to the last game at their place 2 years ago where they knocked us out of bowl eligibility, to where we repayed them that favor last year in DFS.
    But our Pirates will move on to “slightly” greener pastures as we must do when called upon.
    We need , as a program, to win this game to prove to ourselves that not only are we ready to leave CUSA feeling as a Champion, but go into the AAC with that same mentality.
    Always tough to win at Joan C Edwards but I believe this team is on a mission.
    And that mission is to win CUSA this year and send a message to the AAC.

    “We are coming for you AAC and we mean business.”

    GO PIRATES!!!!!

    • Ahoy BBG…

      As Jim D. pointed out, this Pirate team has gone several weeks without a real challenge…bad league, bad schedule aside, our team is executing at a high level and it shows.

      Perhaps this is a defining moment for our program…a chance to to put a huge exclamation point on our exit from CUSA to the AAC.

      Want this game so bad!

      Cheers and Go Pirates, Go!

    • to add to Blackbeard’s Ghost’s history above, I was in Huntington in 2007 when a 1-8 Marshall team knocked us out of contention for our first east title (a year after Rice did the same thing), beating us 26-7 in a game that we were heavily favored in.. Chris Johnson rushed for 72 yards…it was cold and damp… I’ve never been so miserable at any sporting event in my life!!!

      oh, and RC, further to what was reported on the news tonight, the entire team voted unanimously to reinstate Williams, not just the coach’s, so I think you are right, he will be a TERROR to Marshall on Friday.. I can’t wait to see him get his hands on Cato!

      • Thanks for that update on TW Chris…limited action or not…hope he is a beast out there.

      • RC, I found this injury update today… FYI…

        Senior right tackle Adhem Elsawi did not start against the Wolfpack but did play after missing three games with an eye injury. McNeill said Elsawi will continue to see his playing time increase, though redshirt freshman Tre Robertson remains the starter for now.

        Senior tight end/fullback Zico Pasut is listed as doubtful with a foot injury for Friday’s clash at Marshall, but was back in uniform and on the sideline at N.C. State.

        “Hopefully we can get Zico more work as the week goes on, but it was good to see him out there and his leadership was something we needed versus N.C. State,” McNeill said of Pasut, who figures to miss his seventh straight game on Friday.

        Also, junior LB Maurice Falls is questionable as he recovers from a leg injury.

      • You gotta think that having Zico dressed and on the sideline is a big plus. Feel for that kid as he has done everything this staff has asked of him. Given the total sum of what JJ actually did out there and knowing now how it turned out for him, seems we would have been as good or better had Zico been the man from the start.

        Elsawi is such a class kid and has a huge future ahead of him…very bright and driven. Love that he can play out his last few games. Blessing in disguise though as now we have 3 sophomores starting on the OL and will need that carryover experience as we look for two guards going into AAC and tougher competition. Can’t afford to have the OL tank next season when we have arguably a Heisman watch-list QB and an all-America caliber WR returning to the fold.

        Falls has time and needs to be healthy so I think there is no need to rush him back at all.

  6. Unlike my feelings about NCSU, I really like Marshall. They do seem like kindred institutions…both under appreciated at home and beyond with rabid fan bases and a mutual admiration for each other. I’ll miss seeing this matchup.

    I worry about our secondary vs Cato. I’m also concerned about containing him in the pocket. If we do lock him in, I really like our chances.

    I think we’ll score 30+ but, to get much more than that, the running game will be critical…if Coop gets going, we’ll be hard to stop.

    Most of all, I very much want to make the trip to Greenville for the Championship Game so…Go Pirates!

    • Welcome Ed…

      I share your sentiments exactly. Love Marshall and hate to see that matchup go.

      I, too, worry about containing Cato. We need to get to him early and try to rattle them.

      Our team has started fast all season…need that on Friday. Get to work from the coin toss and I think we will be OK. Just can’t have the offense check out at any point. The good thing is that over the past several weeks, our team has been like a machine offensively…need it to be that way on Friday.

      This is a real chance for our Defense to make a big statement.

      Told the wife already…Friday, I am hording the leftovers and parking it on the couch.


  7. Ron, you are my most favorite read. I always look forward to receiving your email announcing yet another excellent piece of your work. I beg that you’ll forgive me if I do not share your feelings toward Marshall.

    The programs that Doc Holiday and Ruffin McNeil have built could not have been constructed on more opposite premises. In about four short years, Coach Holiday has taken a program with far more shortcomings and fewer amenities and stockpiled it with superb athletes. He did this by taken as many shortcuts as possible. According to recruiting sources, Marshall has taken an unparalleled numbers of Non-Qualifiers. He also sprinkled in JUCO players that are not accepted into the UNC system. It’s been written that he conducts second recruiting seasons each spring in a national sweep of last minute non-qualifiers from the signing lists of major BCS programs like the SEC and others. Though allowed by CUSA, other schools in the conference have chosen to at least limit to a respectable number of NQs. Coach McNeil, either by choice or mandate, has built his program the right way with student athletes while maintaining the academic integrity of the University. With the departure of a recent player, ECU does not have a single NQ on its depth chart. To my knowledge there are only 3 underclassmen football NQs enrolled at ECU and only one is actually on the team this year. I hate to think of how these Marshall kids are staying qualified and how many may actually graduate with an employable degree. Ruffin and staff took the high but most grueling road. They spent hours and hours of hard work mining and combing over North Carolina High school programs. This is dirty work that most BCS programs aren’t willing and don’t have to do.

    Win lose the game Friday, we win the battle. By restricting NQs, we have found favor with a better conference, the AAC. We can schedule regional rivalries like NCSU and the two Carolina’s. Ever wonder why WVU doesn’t want to play Marshall? This is a genuine concern for them. When you compare leaders like Terry Holland and Jeff Compher to Marshall AD Mike Hamrick, well… let’s say you probably won’t be writing a time machine piece about Hamrick any time soon.

    I believe there will be two different teams out there on the field and I personally will be proud of mine and not at all fond of the other.

    • See Coby…you go and write this and make me give thought to the matter.

      Thanks for dropping in…I try very hard to forget who the AD is there. I was never a fan when trying to get him to tell me anything straight when I was covering the Pirates professionally years ago.

      Your post drew me back to years ago during the whole post-Logan hiring activities and I remember that there was a huge crowd in the Doc Holliday camp and now I am remembering some of that debate. I recall the crowd that wanted him because of his recruiting prowess and the crowd that did not want him because of his recruiting tactics.

      I agree that I do not want what you are describing anywhere near ECU…

      I like the thought of Marshall…the rebuild after the tragedy. The fact that they are the second-class citizen in their state and that they are a football school.

      However, I am realizing that I have somehow mentally discharged the fact that MH is there.

      I am so glad we are AAC bound.

      Thanks for the post Coby…I learn a lot when you drop in.

      And, by the way, you are very much right: you will never see a PTM on MH…not by my hand…that is for sure.

    • wow, that is an interesting viewpoint! I didn’t know any of this, and it has changed my view on Marshall at least a bit. When administrators go down this path, it’s like they’ve resigned themselves that it’s impossible to do it the right way and they need to win at any cost… well sir, your integrity is a very high cost.. I mean, is everyone at Marshall in on this at the highest levels you think? And all the upper tier boosters? If so, shame on them…

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