Cato's rise began with ECU win last year
GREENVILLE, N.C. — For Marshall, the positive effects of its double-overtime victory over East Carolina last year went beyond the bowl bid it earned.
Rakeem Cato, the Thundering Herd quarterback approaching the 4,000-yard mark in passing this year, can testify to that.
Still running a relatively conventional offense, Cato threw for 341 yards on 23-of-29 passing, with no interceptions. He hit Aaron Dobson twice for touchdowns, on a first-play 77-yard bomb and late in the first half on that nationally acclaimed backhanded catch in the end zone.
Cato, who was the Herd's only healthy scholarship quarterback at the time, carried that shot of confidence into the bowl game and beyond.
"It was very fun but very tough," Cato said. "I had just gotten the starting job [back] and I was gaining confidence. That was one of the best games I've played."
Scanning the Pirates' defensive depth chart, two sizes jump out at you — 6-foot-1, 327-pound nose guard Terry Williams and 6-2, 261-pound outside linebacker Derrell Johnson. Williams has prototypical size for a 3-4 nose, but Johnson is larger than all MU linebackers and substantially larger than all Herd defensive ends, save for Jeremiah Taylor.
Upon closer examination, Johnson's size permits him to be the versatile outside defender needed in ECU's fluid 3-4 alignment. MU offensive coordinator Bill Legg explained how the Pirates can use Johnson, No. 56.
"The one outside linebacker's kind of a hybrid, more of a defensive end," Legg said. "So it's kind of a 4-3 personnel playing 3-4 concepts. And then they'll go a little lighter and a little lighter and a little lighter and the next thing you know, they've got that 56, who's playing that rush outside linebacker-slash-defensive end, all of a sudden he's a true defensive end, and they play a true three-down, and they've got three true defensive ends and they've got nickels and dimes, the whole nine yards."
In whatever formation, it will pay for Cato and his line to identify No. 56. Johnson leads the Pirates by a fair margin in sacks (41/2) and tackles for loss (nine).
On other note about the ECU defense: It is ranked higher in C-USA in all pertinent statistical categories in the seven conference games than overall: second in rush defense at 91.9 yards per game (vs. third, 139.5); third in scoring defense at 23.6 (vs. fourth, 28.1); total defense, fourth at 345.0 (vs. fifth, 397.7); and pass efficiency defense, third, 123.1 rating (vs. 131.9).
Combatting that ECU front could be Marshall's seventh different starting offensive line combination.
Beginning the last two weeks has been starting lineup No. 6, from left tackle across: Jordan Jeffries, Alex Schooler, Cam Dees, Chris Jasperse and Garrett Scott. No. 7 would be formed if Josh Lovell starts at left guard (very possible) and/or Gage Niemeyer starts for Scott at right tackle (possible).
Jeffries has been the only constant, starting all 11 games at left tackle.
By contrast, ECU's line has had four 11-game starters at the same positions, with the only change happening at center.
Here's a name from the past: Todd Christensen, who will serve as analyst today for the CBS Sports Network broadcast. The former NBC and ESPN commentator joined CBS Sports after the Mtn. network closed at the end of the 2011-12 scholastic season.
It is not readily known how many times the former Oakland Raiders tight end crossed paths with the Herd and ECU, but one occasion is most memorable — the 2001 GMAC Bowl on ESPN2. He was paired with Steve Levy, who remains in the ESPN empire, for the Herd's 64-61 double-overtime victory over the Pirates.
At the time, some Herd followers accused Christensen of holding out as long as he could on giving credit to one of the great rallies of college football history. Then again, that supposed gaffe was vastly overshadowed by studio host Terry Bowden's halftime comment that MU should bench its seniors and play for next year.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.