CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- East Carolina doesn't have the do-or-die situation it had last season when it played Marshall in the regular-season finale, but the Pirates have some pretty high stakes.
Mathematically, at least.
When ECU (7-4, 6-1) welcomes the Thundering Herd (5-6, 4-3) to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at 2 p.m. Friday, it still has a chance to win Conference USA's East Division. The ultimate odds are long, even with a Pirate victory, as 6-1 Central Florida hosts 2-5 Alabama-Birmingham at noon Saturday.
The Knights own the tiebreaker on the strength of a 40-20 win over the Pirates on Oct. 4. The East winner will face Tulsa for the league championship on Dec. 1, almost certainly at Tulsa.
Regardless, the Pirates are heading to a bowl game, something they were denied last year in a 34-27 double-overtime loss to the Herd in Huntington. Coach Ruffin McNeil downplays that aspect.
"I wouldn't say that. We just need to play well this week," McNeil said Monday at his weekly press conference on the Greenville, N.C., campus. "That is all the motivation that we will need. 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."
The Pirates are coming off a 28-23 win over Tulane, a testing game that wasn't as close as the score indicates. The Green Wave scored a touchdown with 1:22 left, but ECU recovered the onside kick and ran the clock out.
It was a big day for the Pirates' defense, which gave up just two touchdowns and held Tulane to 9 yards rushing. Five sacks for minus-38 yards figured into that number, as the Pirates forced Tulane quarterback Ryan Griffin to throw 57 times, completing 36 for 293 yards. The 302 total yards was ECU's second-least allowed, and was the fifth sub-400-yard effort.
Not Alabama-like, certainly, but it has been good enough for the Pirates' success. McNeil, a former defensive coordinator at Nevada-Las Vegas, Fresno State and Texas Tech, was pleased.
"I thought all four sides of the football team contributed in the win," McNeil said. "I feel that our sideline was as active and into the game as they could be. We knew the importance of generating our own excitement in a large [and empty] NFL stadium like the Superdome."
The Pirates don't have to manufacture their excitement at home, as they average a league-leading 47,152, just short of the 50,000 capacity. Senior day, with 14 listed on the roster, will generate some more emotion.