A different feel at the Joan
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - You didn't have to know how long it's been since Marshall has been a football contender.
You could see it.
The flags in the Joan C. Edwards Stadium concourse honor Carl Lee, Mike Bartrum and Mike Barber. There was the fan on Friday wearing the old No. 10 Chad Pennington jersey.
Maybe soon, maybe now, after Marshall's 59-28 rout of East Carolina to clinch the Conference USA East division, those flags and jerseys will be updated. Maybe now the Thundering Herd fans will feel like defensive end Gary Thompson did Friday evening.
"I feel excited," Thompson said. "I feel great. We won. There's a lot of jumping around in the locker room."
The crowd was only an announced 25,117, but there was reason for excitement. The game set up as a noon showdown of top guns Rakeem Cato of Marshall and Shane Carden of East Carolina. The pair was tied with Heisman Trophy candidates Jameis Winston of Florida State and Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M among FBS quarterbacks with 32 touchdown passes.
Something, though, happened Friday at the makeshift O.K. Corral. Doc Holliday (yes, a different one was at the original shootout) watched his defenders corral Carden and the Pirate offense.
The last time the two teams met, Marshall scored 59 points - and lost. This time, the Herd defense knocked 37 points off the ECU output. That's why Marshall is headed to its first C-USA title game in nine seasons. That's why the Herd is headed to its first conference title game since winning the Mid-American in 2002.
That's why Holliday received a Gatorade bath. ("I wish they hadn't done that," Holliday said. "That should be reserved for championships." Countered running back Steward Butler: "Doc's going to have to have two Gatorade baths.")
MU defensive coordinator Chuck Heater utilized a 3-3-5 odd stack or "joker" package to confuse Carden and ECU. The result: no touchdown passes for Carden in a game for only the second time in his college career. (The other was against North Carolina last season.)
The Herd held ECU to a 7-of-18 showing on third-down attempts. That's an impressive 39 percent. MU also forced two fumbles and intercepted three passes. It held ECU to two field goals on a couple of important trips inside the 10.
And the day's defensive shining star was Thompson, the redshirt freshman.
In the first quarter, with MU up 10-0, Carden attempted to pass on a first-and-10 situation. Thompson, though, tipped a low pass in the air - to himself. It led to a five-play Marshall touchdown drive.
Thompson later sealed the victory on a pass rush. On second-and-10 from ECU's 10, Carden tried a screen pass to tailback Vintavious Cooper. What the QB found, though, was Thompson, who caught it cleanly and breezed in from 5 yards out. That put the hosts up 38-13 and the East title in Marshall's back pocket.
"Gary is a guy who has been coming on," Heater said. "He can be a real good pass rusher. He made two interceptions, which is exceptional."
"I was just trying to level rush," Thompson said. "I was just trying to level the quarterback. The ball was right there."
Thompson is not only a symbol of MU's win, he's also a symbol of the team's improvement.
"Gary is a tremendous athlete," Holliday said. "You can tell by the couple plays he made. And he's just going to get better and better."
Heater later pointed to Thompson's 10.6-second speed in the 100-meter dash.
"Everybody knows my speed," Thompson said. "Everybody's like, 'Gary, you've got to get to [Carden].' He throws it in like two seconds."
Thompson and Marshall certainly got to Carden, and much credit has to be dished to Heater. Instead of simply using the "joker" package on obvious passing downs, he called for it half the time - rather than the usual 10 to 15 percent - against the Pirates. It proved very effective.
"It's usually a third-down package," Heater said. "We decided to change it up on them. We had some run calls built in there. It got them a little uncomfortable. It kind of set the tempo for the day."
Holliday pointed to the game's start. MU won the toss and deferred to the second half. Then the Herd's defense held East Carolina to a three-and-out set.
"We've got good players," Heater said. "We've got linebackers who can run, we've got defensive backs who can cover. We've got some guys who can pressure."
It's led to a change around the Shewey Building, which houses the Herd. There was the jumping around. There was the division title.
"It was validation for all the effort they've put forth," Heater said. "You could see after all the frustration they've felt to get over the top. The offense has been tremendous. We just had to get a defense that was good enough to win.
"Doc did that with recruiting. He got the offense squared away two years ago with recruiting. He got the defense squared away this year with recruiting."
"That's why I came here. I knew Doc would have players. I know him. I trusted him. Sure enough, there are guys here that can play."
And, now, win.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.