ECU faces Marshall in finalePublished 1:36pm Thursday, November 22, 2012
GREENVILLE — The Pirates insist they are not looking for payback, but they have to admit it would be a nice side dish to accompany a Thanksgiving victory.
Last year at this time East Carolina and Marshall headed into their regular season finale both seeking a bowl-eligibility-clinching sixth win when they met in West Virginia. Despite a three-touchdown effort from Justin Jones, the Thundering Herd was able to leg out a 34-27 victory to assure a trip to the postseason and snap ECU’s streak of consecutive bowl appearances at five.
This time around East Carolina (7-4, 6-1 C-USA) has already locked up a bowl berth, but faces must-win situation today when it hosts Marshall at 2 p.m. if it wants to keep its slim hopes of a Conference USA East Division title alive.
In order to play for the league crown, the Pirates need to first top the Herd (5-6, 4-3 C-USA), then hope that a 3-8 (2-5) UAB team can muster up a holiday miracle when it plays division leaders Central Florida (8-3, 6-1) in Orlando on Saturday at noon (FSN).
On Monday, East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill denied using payback as a motivator this week and said that the only thing his team is focused on is it self.
“We just need to play well this week. That is all the motivation that we will need,” McNeill said. “Sure our team knows how the game ended last year, but I don’t plan on using last year’s outcome as incentive or motivation this week. Our motivation is to just make sure that we are getting better each week and that is what we have told the team all season long.”
If payback doesn’t motivate the Pirates, there’s a good bet Rakeem Cato does. The Thundering Herd’s sophomore quarterback is in the midst of a stellar season as he has completed 68 percent of his passes and leads the FBS in passing yards (3,883) and is fifth in touchdown’s with 32.
The 6-0, 182-pound Miami native orchestrates an offense that ranks 15th in the country with 39.3 points per game, an aside from having a rocket arm, Cato’s ability to extend plays with his feet makes him one of the most dangerous QB’s ECU has faced all season.
“He’s definitely the most athletic,” Pirates defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said. “Is he the best pure passer (the team has played)? I wouldn’t say that, but he’s accurate enough. He throws on the run and he’s got a strong arm.”
Sophomore WR Tommy Shuler has been Cato’s top target and heads into today’s game with an FBS-third best 96 receptions for 997 yards and four TDs.
Another Cato favorite is senior Aaron Dobson, who Pirates’ fans will remember for making a tremendous one-handed touchdown catch during last year’ game. Dobson, who has caught 53 passes for 618 yards, has missed the past two games with a knee injury, but was listed atop of the team’s depth chart for today’s game.
When the Herd gets near the end zone, look for Cato to throw to TE Gator Haskins, who leads the team with 10 TD receptions.
Despite the gaudy passing statistics, Marshall has been far from one-dimensional as freshman Kevin Grooms leads an effective running back corps with a 6.2 yards per carry average and 732 rushing yards.
East Carolina will counter with a pass defense that ranks 10th in C-USA allowing 258.3 yards per game and a run defense that stands third in the league yielding 139.5 yards per contest.
The best way to slow down the Herd offense might be to keep it on the sideline. The Pirates rank 25th in the country in time of possession (31:32) and that could be a big weapon come kickoff time.
Helping milk the clock has been the effective rushing of Vintavious Cooper. The explosive junior RB has rushed for 978 yards this year and is poised to be the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2009.
Marshall has been dreadful against the run this season and has giving up a C-USA second-worst 211 yards per game.
Today’s contest will be the final game inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for the Pirates’ 17 seniors, who may not be inspired by thoughts of revenge as much as they are by the thought of going as winners.
“Our senior group has stayed the course and left their imprint on this program,” McNeill said. “It isn’t time yet for the eyeball’s to sweat too much, but they may sweat a little bit on Friday. It will be great and special day for those guys.”