CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Unlike Marshall's easy win over Florida International, East Carolina had more than a tune-up before the East Division-deciding collision this week.
The Pirates, already having achieved its 6-1 Conference USA record, went to North Carolina State and whipped the Wolfpack 42-28. It was the first time in school history that the Pirates beat North Carolina and N.C. State in the same season, and they won both impressively.
The game Saturday was not as close as the score indicated, as the Wolfpack scored twice in the final minute. ECU fans certainly want to beat Marshall and win C-USA's East Division, but they're savoring the twin whippings.
"Coming into this game in the middle of a conference race, it's tough to be able to keep focus in as big a game as this," said ECU coach Ruffin McNeill. "It's an in-state rivalry, in-state competition. For our kids to be able to do that, I am very proud of them."
The Pirates (9-2, 6-1), heading to the American Athletic Conference after this year, travel to Joan C. Edwards Stadium to take on the Thundering Herd (8-3, 6-1) in a winner-take-all game for the East title. Kickoff is noon Friday, with CBS Sports Network airing the contest.
Both teams are headed for bowls, but the winner Friday will play for the C-USA championship, Dec. 7 against the West Division winner. The team with the best division record, or the best BCS rating in case of an "unbreakable" tie, will host the game.
Right now, Rice holds a one-game lead in the West over Tulane, Texas-San Antonio and North Texas. Rice and Tulane play each other Saturday.
Shane Carden accounted for five touchdowns against N.C. State, three passing and two receiving. He went 23 of 30 for 255 yards, and was complemented by Vintavious Cooper's 148 rushing yards.
Justin Hardy had eight catches for 83 yards, giving him a school-record 1,130 yards this season.
ECU's offensive prowess was just starting to boil over late last year, punctuated by the Pirates' 65-59 double-overtime win against Marshall. The teams are 1-2 in the C-USA stat rankings in several offensive categories - scoring offense (MU 43.3, ECU 41.5), total offense (MU 510.9, ECU 461.6), passing yardage (ECU 335.2 average, MU 295.3) and pass efficiency rating (ECU 159.0, MU 151.2).
Carden has vaulted over MU's Rakeem Cato in passing yardage (325.0 to 276.5), in part because the Herd offense has diversified this season. Cooper is the league's fourth-leading rusher, and needs 98 yards to hit the 1,000-yard mark.
One difference in this ECU team is very similar to that of Marshall - the defense. The teams are 2-3 in total defense (ECU 347.3 yards, MU 349.5) and ECU is leading in rushing defense (103.9). The Pirates are 13th of 14 teams in yielding passing yards (243.4) but have seen 442 attempts, a league-high by far.
Before thumping North Carolina, the Pirates lost just 15-10 to Virginia Tech. Their lone conference blemish came at Tulane, a 36-33 triple-overtime setback, set up by Warren Harvey's missed field goals at the end of regulation and in the third overtime.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsm...@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.