Junior inside reciever Justin Hardy
Nov. 29, 2013
By Bill Woodward
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - East Carolina's hopes for a Conference USA football championship were dashed Friday by a nightmarish start and a relentless Marshall offense.
In a winner-take-all match with the Thundering Herd for the East Division title, the Pirates fell behind 24-0 in the first half and Marshall never let ECU up for air - the Herd rolling to a 59-28 victory.
"It was tough," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. "We knew they had a good team. We have a good team too. We fell behind early.
"There were some plays we would like to have back. You can't make mistakes in a game such as this. We just didn't finish enough plays. (Marshall) did a good job."
The Pirates (9-3, 6-2 C-USA) will be headed to a bowl game and will have a chance to become only the second team in program history to win 10 games (the 1991 team went 11-1).
Bowl options include the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl in New Orleans, La. (Dec. 21) against a Sun Belt Conference member, the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Dec. 23) against an American Athletic Conference team, the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl in Honolulu, Hawai'i (Dec. 24) against a Mountain West Conference member or the Military Bowl (Dec. 27) in Annapolis, Md. against an Atlantic Coast Conference team.
Marshall (9-3, 7-1) will host the Conference USA Championship game next Saturday against the West Division winner.
"We fell short today, but that is a group that has a lot of pride and they have a lot (of reasons) to be proud of themselves," McNeill said. "I am proud of that group. I've been coaching 33 years. It's rare when you have a chance to win nine games but we have a chance to win 10."
"We have done a lot of things that nobody thought we could do. We will go a bowl game somewhere. We have a great fan base. We'll travel."
East Carolina could not get out of the blocks against Marshall, and the Herd took advantage to deliver an early knockout blow.
Up 3-0, Marshall drove 97 yards in seven plays to take a 10-0 lead - the big play a 49-yard pass from Rakeem Cato to Tommy Shuler to give the Herd a first-and-goal at the ECU 2-yard line.
Later in the first quarter, a Shane Carden pass was deflected at the line of scrimmage and grabbed by Marshall's Gary Thompson. The interception - one of three thrown by Carden - gave Marshall a first down at the ECU 18. Marshall scored in five plays and it was 17-0 with 1:05 left in the first quarter.
Marshall went up 24-0 with an 80-yard drive to start the second quarter.
The Pirates mounted a comeback at that point, recovering a fumble and intercepting a pass in the second quarter and putting 10 points on the scoreboard to trail 24-10 at halftime. But that was as close as the Pirates would get.
Any realistic chance of an ECU victory disappeared in the third quarter when the Herd outscored the Pirates 21-10 in the period to push the lead to 45-20.
Carden finished 29-for-52 passing for 291 yards, and the junior quarterback rushed for a score. Cooper had 93 yards rushing on 20 carries and scored two touchdowns.
The Marshall combination of Cato and a bruising ground game was simply too much for the Pirates. Marshall finished with 267 rushing yards and 539 total yards.
Cato completed 17 of 28 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for two scores. Essray Taliaferro rushed for 161 yards and Steward Butler had 90 yards and a touchdown.
In the end, Marshall was celebrating a division title and will be the favorite in the C-USA title game. East Carolina will have time to get over the loss as it prepares for a bowl game.
"I'm proud of the way we have been resilient all year long," McNeill said. "This team has faced a lot of adversity and they just kept bouncing back. This team has done some special things."
Indeed. The Pirates won at North Carolina for the first time since 1975 and defeated the Tar Heels and NC State in the same season for the first time in program history. A bowl win and a 10th victory would only add to the luster.