High stakes at high noon
HUNTINGTON - At some point, fate will have Marshall and East Carolina crossing paths again. Where and how long from today, who knows?
Forty-three years ago, they met on a routine Saturday afternoon in November, one that ended so tragically. Thirty-one years later, a spirited, yet respectful rivalry was born.
That's when the teams were paired in Mobile, Ala., for one of the craziest bowl games in history, one that had Pirate fans muttering, "We scored 61 and lost!"
Four years after that 2001 meeting, Marshall joined ECU in Conference USA, and the teams became division rivals. Eight games have been played and seven have been memorable - the last one that had Herd fans muttering, "We scored 59 and lost!"
There have been upsets, highlight-reel plays and dragged-out drama. Four games have gone to overtime, including one between 5-6 teams that had the feel of a championship slugfest.
Today's noon game at Joan C. Edwards Stadium is the last chapter for the foreseeable future, as the Pirates are shipping out for the league formerly known as the Big East. In their ninth conference game, airing on CBS Sports Network, the stakes are the highest.
Today's winner moves on to the ninth Conference USA championship game, a game success-satiated Marshall fans envisioned playing years ago. Essentially, the Pirates (9-2, 6-1) and Thundering Herd (8-3, 6-1) are playing a semifinal game today, but some observers may see this as the main event.
It may not be, but the combatants expect to play it as such.
"It's going to be a fun game," said MU coach Doc Holliday. "Like we talked about all along, I came here and took this job to have the opportunity to play for championships. That's what this fan base wants, that's what the town, the city, the school and everybody wants, and here we are.
"Late November, we've got that opportunity and it's fun."
On top of that, it's MU's Senior Day, with a larger group than in 2012 accepting their ovations in a pregame ceremony. No matter how many fans show today, the applause should be louder than usual, for some of these seniors are having championship-type seasons.
Such as tight end Gator Hoskins, he of the 25 career touchdown catches.
"Growing up [in the program], watching the older guys, their last year they played great football," Hoskins said. "Vinny Curry [was] one of those guys, end of his career he was playing great football in his senior year. So I want to be one of those guys playing great football in my last year."
The subplots could go on forever. Marshall's Rakeem Cato and ECU's Shane Carden are the league's top two quarterbacks by any measure, and their offenses are 1-2 in many categories. The defenses have grown from abysmal to aggressive, ranking among the league's best.
The Herd's four-game winning streak, the first since 2004, has lifted Holliday's overall record in four seasons to 25-23. Another big part of that record is the Herd's 7-0 home record in November.
As they say, you remember November, right?
A few Marshall players missed last November's 65-59, double-overtime loss, such as Hoskins and defensive tackle James Rouse. They didn't feel the pain in quite the same way, but they could sense it all around them during offseason conditioning.
"I felt the pain, because I watched the game and everything but I'm sure they have a little more chip on their shoulder, because I haven't played [ECU] since my freshman year," said the oft-injured Rouse. "Everybody was really upset how it ended last year, and were focused on this year, starting a new phase, new approach."
Rouse and his fellow linemen face the challenge of pushing a Pirate offensive line that totals 132 career starts. Those linemen have largely done their job, allowing Vintavious Cooper to average nearly 5 yards per carry - thus keeping defenses from overemphasizing pass defense.
With an offensive line that has played the same five people much of this month, Marshall wants to do that with its trio of running backs. The Herd also wants to get off to a quick start, something it has done three of the last four games.
At other times, such as last week's game against Florida International, the start has been shaky. Last year's game at ECU was especially shaky as the Pirates took a 28-7 lead.
Cato and the Herd almost wiped out that lead at halftime, and eventually took the lead twice, the last with 1:55 left in the game. But Carden drove the Pirates downfield for the tying score, flirting with a fourth down in the process.
Whether the score is 65-59 or a more pedestrian 34-27 (the 2011 score), those quarterbacks will remain the focus.
"Both are really self-motivated kids," said ECU coach Ruffin McNeill. "They take a lot of pride in getting better each day and don't rely on what happened last week, or even within a game.
"My opinion, two of the best quarterbacks not just in the conference, but in the country will be on the field at 12 o'clock."
And their teams are two of the best in the conference, if not the best. Both will play in a bowl game, but the winner gets a chance at a C-USA championship next week.
Will it be Marshall for the first time, or ECU for the final time?
"It's always going to come down to who's got the most heart," said defensive end Alex Bazzie. "Most of the times ECU and Marshall play, that's what it comes down to."
Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.