July 27, 2012
The following is the final installment of a 12-part series, previewing Marshall's opponents for the upcoming football season.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -
Marshall concludes the regular season with a game at East Carolina on Nov. 24.
The game in Greenville, N.C. takes place during the same week as last season's matchup when the Pirates and Thundering Herd met with five wins each and a chance for the winner to become bowl eligible. Marshall won the wildly exciting overtime game (34-27), improved to 4-9 all-time against ECU and went on to play in the Beef `O' Brady's Bowl. Meanwhile, ECU went without postseason play for the first time since 2005 with a 5-7 record.
Third-year head coach Ruffin McNeill begins his third season in Greenville with 15 starters returning which is why experts have touted the Pirates as one of the nation's most improved teams. ECU will return roughly 70 percent of its production in four major defensive categories from last season - tackles (70.2), tackles for loss (70.9), sacks (67.4) and turnover production (76.2 percent of combined interceptions and fumble recoveries).
McNeill will have to break in a new quarterback as Dominique Davis graduated last season after a record-breaking two-year career at ECU. Junior Rio Johnson is expected to take the starting reins and will have plenty of weapons at his disposal.
The Pirates return five of their top six receivers from last season and add Arkansas transfer Lance Ray. The offensive line returns seven of its top 10, a welcome site from last season when they had to brake in four new starters and by the end of 2011, had multiple injuries.
The defense returns experience, but not overwhelming talent. Last season's leading tackler Jeremy Grove returns as an inside linebacker. He recorded 122 tackles while being named a freshman All-American and Conference USA Freshman of the Year. Five of the top eight defensive backs return, but just one starter and will rely on junior college transfers Adonis Armstrong and Godfrey Thompson to be productive.
Offensive Player to Watch
Running back Reggie Bullock, who ran for 428 yards last season in a backup roll and injury plagued season, will be the featured rusher in 2011. The senior made the most of his four starts in 2011, averaging a team-best 4.5 yards per attempt. Bullock was the NJCAA leading rusher as a sophomore at Arizona Western Community College in 2010 and will be a major weapon for the Pirates if he can stay healthy.
Defensive Player to Watch
Derrell Johnson appeared in 24 of 25 games over the past two seasons as a defensive end. With ECU coaches wanting to take advantage of the junior's athleticism, Johnson will move to outside linebacker this fall. He recorded 39 tackles last season, 5.5 for loss. Johnson also ranked second on the team in sacks with 3.5.
Will the punting game improve? ECU finished a distant last in C-USA with just 29.6 yards in net punting. Trent Tignor is expected to take over the punt game after serving as the team's holder the past two seasons.
Can ECU get more out of its rushing attack? Last season, the Pirates ranked 11th in C-USA with 109.1 yards per game.
Can the Pirates stay healthy? Injuries played a key part in ECU losing three of its final four games and finish just shy of bowl eligibility.
Quote to Note
"We went into the game thinking execution on all three sides of the ball. We had officials and fans in the stands which contributed to a game-like atmosphere. We were able to come out of it healthy. I like the progress of the team."
--Ruffin McNeill, ECU head coach after the Pirates' Spring Game
Sept. 1 Appalachian State
Sept. 8 at South Carolina
Sept. 15 at Southern Miss*
Sept. 22 at North Carolina
Sept. 29 UTEP*
Oct. 4 at UCF*
Oct. 13 Memphis*
Oct. 20 at UAB*
Oct. 27 Navy
Nov. 3 Houston*
Nov. 17 at Tulane*
Nov. 24 Marshall*
* Conference USA games