It was a picture-perfect end to the season for the Marshall Thundering Herd when they beat ECU 59-28 on senior day Saturday.
With the win, Marshall is now the outright winner of the Conference USA East Division and has a shot at hosting the C-USA Championship next week. ECU finished the regular season 9-3 overall (6-2 in C-USA) and will await its bowl destination. The Pirates lost their last game as a Conference USA member.
Marshall executed better than ECU in every aspect of the game and went after the Pirates from the opening whistle. It was utter domination and ECU couldn’t match the senior day energy of the Herd.
None of the Pirates’ playmakers showed up ready to play. ECU was outgained 529 to 440 and let Marshall convert on 10 out of its 14 third downs compared to its 7-of-18.
The Pirates found themselves in a 24-0 hole midway through the second quarter and showed no signs of being able to stop the Herd. If Marshall hadn’t had a punt return touchdown taken away by a holding call it could have been 31-0 early.
Last season this game was a battle between quarterbacks Shane Carden and Rakeem Cato with Carden prevailing. This year it was all Cato, he finished with four total touchdowns (two pass, two rush), while Carden managed to run one in for a score but finished with no passing touchdowns and three interceptions.
Defensive coordinator Rick Smith mentioned during the week of preparation that Cato is only a threat outside of the pocket, he was right. The Marshall signal-caller picked up big play after big play scrambling.
The Pirate offense was never able to establish anything against Marshall’s physical defense. The Thundering Herd played press coverage throughout the game throwing off the receiving corps and the rhythm of the unit.
Star wide receiver Justin Hardy finished with 10 catches for 88 yards and broke the single-season record for catches with 102.
With that being said, Hardy had a key drop in the first quarter on what would have been a beautiful touchdown grab. Marshall’s number one receiver Tommy Shuler finished with 9 grabs for 147 yards – I repeat, the playmakers for ECU didn’t show up well enough.
On its first five possessions of the game ECU had four punts and one interception, Marshall was a polar opposite. Even on special-teams the Thundering Herd dominated. ECU returner Lance Ray was bottled up all game and had multiple returns inside the 20-yard line.
The Pirates did have a sign of life toward the end of the first half when a punt return touchdown was called back for Marshall and two-straight turnovers allowed the lead to be cut to 24-10, but that wouldn’t last.
Coming out in the second half ECU would have a chance to make a stop, but a big return and a touchdown drive ended those hopes as well. That extended the lead to 31-10 Marshall four minutes into the second half.
Carden then tried to answer with a drive that resulted only in a field goal and the next possession he threw a pick-six. After the interception return for the touchdown by defensive end Gary Thompson (his second interception of the game) the Marshall lead was 38-13.
The Pirates would score again to keep the hopes of a comeback alive.
Hardy helped Carden score his only touchdown of the day by sealing the edge with a block on the next possession with 5:11 to play in the third quarter to make it 38-20.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, that would be their last score until 1:32 to go. From then on out it was Marshall pouring it on and ECU failing to make plays.
After not playing for six games, tight end Zico Pasut was on the field for ECU. Pasut had a pass go off his facemask on his only target of the game result in an impressive interception by a Marshall defensive back – this was the type of day it was for ECU.
The running game for Marshall completely dominated the Pirates all day picking up chunks of yards each play. It wasn’t difficult for the Herd to run out the clock and squash the hopes of a comeback. Marshall finished the day with 267 yards rushing to ECU’s 149.
Senior running back Essray Taliaferro had 161 of the Herd’s yards on 22 carries, while ECU’s Vintavious Cooper was unable to break 100.
The last points for ECU came at 1:32 to play when Cooper got his second score of the day. After a successful 2-point conversion to Bryce Williams, ECU brought the score to 59-28 Marshall and that’s how it would end.
Senior safety Damon Magazu led ECU with 11 tackles to go along with an 8-yard interception and senior linebacker Derrell Johnson also had an impressive last regular season game finishing with 10 tackles and two sacks.
Aside from their performances, it’s hard to find a positive in today’s loss. The Pirates missed out on a chance to get to their final conference championship as a member of Conference USA and added another blemish to what has been another impressive season.