Nov. 27, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – There are 16 major college football games on Black Friday. Guess which one might be the marquee contest.
Well, the Conference USA East Division title showdown between East Carolina (9-2, 6-1) and Marshall (8-3, 6-1) not only features two of the top 10 quarterbacks in the nation in Pirates’ junior Shane Carden and Herd junior Rakeem Cato.
Of the 16 games, the noon kickoff at Joan C. Edwards Stadium also features the most combined wins (17) in a Thanksgiving Friday matchup (one more than Bowling Green at Buffalo) … not that you’d learn that by watching the BCS conference-enraptured TV talking heads on those college football-centric networks.
“This is why you do what you do in the offseason and early in the season, so this last game is meaningful,” Marshall redshirt junior center Chris Jasperse said. “And now it is just that … It’s going to be a lot of excitement and everybody’s going to be out there ready to go and fired up.”
This is the last C-USA meeting between ECU and Marshall, since the Pirates are headed for the American Athletic Conference after this school year. If the division title-decider is anything like the last two meetings – a 1-1 split, home teams winning, in overtime – it will be quite a sendoff.
“The last two years of this series have provided excellent games that have come down to overtime,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “Anytime you have two teams that are so evenly matched, great games will happen. If you go down the C-USA stat sheet, Marshall and ECU are 1-and-2 in just about everything.
“ECU is a very well-coached team. They have tremendous athletes and it’s going to be a fun game. I’ve said all along that I came here to have the opportunity to win championships. That’s what this fan base, the school and the city wants. Here we are. We’re here in late November and we have the opportunity. I’m excited about it. I know our team is. We’re looking forward to it.”
The Herd is seeking its first C-USA title game appearance in nine seasons in the conference. East Carolina won its last title – a second straight – in 2009.
“Doc has been on the same track that we have here,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said at his weekly news conference. “He has a lot of special feelings for Marshall like I have special feelings for East Carolina, and we both want to do it the right way. It has been a game that, every year, it comes down to something on the line.
“That’s why you’re in coaching – for the competition. When you’ve been around as long as we have and been through a lot of these contests before, it’s a very intense time, but it’s fun. The strategy and preparation part -- like watching film today -- is the fun part.”
Listening to the coaches, it sounds like the 15th ECU-Marshall meeting will revolve around those two QBS, each who has 32 touchdown passes and seven interceptions.
“I think both of them are outstanding quarterbacks,” said Holliday, whose four Herd teams own a 14-4 late-season (after Oct. 28) record. “Carden gets the ball out of his hands extremely quick. They do a great job with him and he can beat you with his feet if nothing opens up downfield. He can break containment, break out of the pocket and people are missing sacks on him.
“He’s a little bit like Cato. When he gets out on the perimeter his head doesn’t go down, his eyes go up. He makes plays when kids shouldn’t make plays. When plays break down into a scramble situation is when Carden is at his best.
“Both of these quarterbacks are the heart and soul for the offense. He’s completing about 73 percent of his passes. He’s a great player and well-coached. He does exactly what they ask him to do.”
McNeill was hired at ECU five weeks after Holliday was named at Marshall on Dec. 17, 2009. McNeill wasn’t any less effusive than Holliday about the Herd’s third-year starter – Cato has 17 touchdowns and only one interception in the Herd’s four-game win streak -- and his own second-year man, who was responsible for six touchdowns in ECU’s double-OT win over the Herd last Thanksgiving Friday.
“They’re both the generals of their teams, not just their offense,” the fourth-year Pirates’ coach said. “They have great decision-making skills, distribute the ball extremely well, have the ability to extend plays and they’re both two of the top quarterbacks, not just in the conference, but also in the country.
“They would be good quarterbacks in any league and on any team. I told Rakeem that last year after the game and I have nothing but positive things to say about him. I watch the team and how they react to kids. You can tell how he’s perceived in that laboratory over there, so the kids on the team think a lot of him.”
Holliday said the challenge of facing Carden is being “able to get push and prevent him from being able to step up and get out of the pocket. The ends have to get their quarterback depth so they don’t overrun it and give him lanes in there to escape.
“There’s no doubt that he creates issues when he gets out of the pocket. When you have the opportunity to get him on the ground and sack him you better do it. If you don’t then you will have problems.”
The coaches agree it shapes up as a great matchup. Marshall -- with eight wins for the first time in a decade, six C-USA wins for the first time in MU’s nine league seasons and a four-game win streak for the first time since 2004 -- wants to reach where ECU has been recently.
The Pirates are headed for their seventh bowl in eight seasons.
“It’s been 11 years since we’ve had the opportunity to play a game of this magnitude (the 2002 Mid-American Conference title victory over Toledo) here at ‘The Joan,’” Holliday said. “Our team loves to play here. They love looking up in those stands and seeing a lot of kelly green.
“The message to any football fan out there is that if you want to see two really good teams go at each other, then Friday would be a great opportunity for you. We need our fan base to show up and our kids feed off of it. I can’t tell you how excited they are to play on Friday and they’re looking forward to the crowd that we will have.”
The Herd and Rice are the only C-USA teams unbeaten at home in 2013.
“Ultimately, at the beginning of the year, this is where we said we wanted to be and probably had a pretty good idea that it would be against ECU,” Holliday said. “This is the position that you want to be in at this point. Our kids know that we now have ourselves in this position and now we have to go and prepare like crazy for it.
“We need to go play our best football. We have to go out there and get better as a team, like we strive to do every week. Hopefully, Friday we will play our best game to date. It’s going to take that to beat this (ECU) football team.”
It sounds like a holiday feast … less than 24 hours after many will have one stuffed with tradition. .
# # #
As it is developing, the Conference USA champion might not be headed for a last trip to the Liberty Bowl. The annual Egg Bowl – the Ole Miss-Mississippi State rivalry, played Thanksgiving night – might decide that.
If Mississippi State (5-6) doesn’t pull the upset Thursday night and become bowl-eligible, the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., is left without a Southeastern Conference team as half of its pairing. The BBVA is in a shared agreement with the Liberty, which has long been the home of the C-USA champ.
However, if the Bulldogs lose and the Liberty gets the last SEC team available – perhaps taking Vanderbilt – then the Birmingham game loses its AAC team on the other side of the matchup.
The AAC – the old Big East – is still a BCS conference this season. The Liberty can then select an AAC team over the C-USA champ, by contractual agreement, putting a C-USA team – not necessarily the champion – into the game at Legion Field.
At that point, the C-USA champ, decided in the Dec. 7 title game, could likely pick its own destination.
As for Marshall, the Dec. 27 Military Bowl is said to want the Herd to fill its C-USA spot against an ACC team. The bowl’s preferred matchup, according to sources, is Marshall-Maryland.
If the ACC’s weekend of games plays out as expected, the Terrapins will be playing in their home state. If there are upsets, that could change things, since the ACC has its “one-win rule” where no team can be selected higher than a fellow league team that has a more than one-victory differential.
The Herd, whether it wins the C-USA East, the league title, or falls to ECU on Friday, could choose the Military even as a champion if the Liberty goes to an AAC team over the C-USA champ.
The Military prefers the Herd over the Pirates, because ECU will be available to the game over the following six years, with the bowl’s 2014-19 contracts setting up an ACC-AAC matchup. This is the Military’s last chance at Marshall, with the C-USA deal ending.
Confusing? It will be a lot less so after this weekend.
Military Bowl President Steve Beck plans to attend the ECU-Marshall game, if he can get through the Thanksgiving week bad weather to Huntington.