Countdown to kickoff: Marshall

Shane Carden (Photo by Kat Jessick)

East Carolina travels for a Black Friday showdown with Marshall with the East Division title and a bid in the Conference-USA Championship on line.

East Carolina (9-2, 6-1) wraps up the football season with arguably its most important game of the season. The Pirates play Marshall (8-3, 6-1) on the road with a spot in the Conference-USA Championship on the line.

This showdown will feature two remarkably similar teams. ECU, led by Shane Carden, and Marshall, led by Rakeem Cato, both have quarterbacks capable of making plays in the air and on the ground.

ECU and Marshall both boast offenses that are especially potent in the air. ECU ranks 10th in passing yards per game while Marshall ranks 22nd.

The key difference is balancing offense by incorporating the run game. Marshall averages 295.3 yards per game in the air, but also adds another 215.6 rushing yards per game. On the other hand, ECU averages only 126.5 rushing yards per game.

"They rotate a plethora of running backs," said head coach Ruffin McNeill. "Essray Taliaferro is very fast, quick, has surge and is shifty with 800 yards and nine touchdowns. They also throw the ball to Essray out of the backfield. He shares time with Steward Butler and Kevin Grooms, and both of those guys are really good backs."

However, the Pirates have balanced their offense as of late. Just like Marshall, ECU is able to rotate running backs in order to keep their runners fresh. In their last two outings, running backs Vintavious Cooper and Breon Allen have stepped up and led the rushing game. Cooper rushed for well over 100 yards against both UAB and N.C. State.

"It was good," said offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley of the running game versus N.C. State. "That was certainly part of the game plan to get that established and we were able to do that early and that helped open up some other things. [Vintavious] Cooper got going early and ran really well."

Riley took advantage of UAB's rush defense by using a two-back set that gave Cooper and Allen the opportunity to run. Allen closed in on the 100-yard mark in that game and also tallied a rushing down against N.C. State.

The Pirates and Thundering Herd have had some thrillers in recent years. Carden and Cato can trade touchdown passes all afternoon, but whoever is able to have a stronger presence on the ground will have a definite edge.

Marshall could run into trouble establishing the run game against ECU, though. In his first year back, defensive coordinator Rick Smith has taken ECU's rush defense and made it among the best in the nation.

ECU's defense will need to be on point if the Pirates hope to leave Huntington with a trip to the C-USA Championship. Marshall's already-potent offense is poised to take control of the game early on if ECU isn't careful. In just the last three games, Marshall has outscored the opposition 70-10.

Moreover, ECU will face the challenge of playing its first cold game of the season. The team will be challenged with making sure the weather doesn't affect them in terms of turnovers, which they can't quite afford.

"We're ready for it and look forward to it," said McNeill. "We practice in cold weather and we'll practice tonight when it's 20 or 30 degrees. Ball security is always an issue. The coaches are colder than the players."

Kickoff is set for noon on Black Friday in John C. Edwards Stadium. The game can be seen on CBS Sports Network.

Prediction: ECU: 48, Marshall 45

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