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November 22, 2012
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Marshall football fans might be experiencing a case of deja vu.
Just like 2011, the Herd plays East Carolina in its regular-season finale, entering with a 5-6 record. Just as a year ago, a win over the Pirates would put the Herd into a bowl game.
"It's the same as last year, just in a different place," Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said. "Last year, they came to Huntington, and this year, we're going down there.
"We are going to prepare the same as always. We have an opportunity as a football team to do something, and that really helps us. The kids understand that if we go win, then something good is going to happen for them. I think that helps our preparation."
Marshall and East Carolina (7-4) will renew a competitive rivalry at Dowdy-Ficklin Stadium on Friday afternoon, but the teams take on a lot different appearances than a year ago.
This year, it is Marshall that will bring in the high-scoring offense and defense that hasn't stopped too many teams. Meanwhile, ECU will bring in a fairly balanced, pedestrian offense and defense.
Marshall has thrown for nearly 4,000 yards on the season. ECU has thrown for a bit more than 2,800 as a team.
Remember, it was Ruffin McNeill who brought in the Air Raid to Greenville three years ago, when ECU could score but couldn't stop anybody.
Now the tide has turned. Marshall's turbo-paced offense has run 199 more plays from scrimmage than ECU, which is astronomical over 11 games.
Those are the numbers, but as has been the case, the flow of the game has resulted in the numbers, not vice versa, for the Herd this season.
What that means is Marshall has had some games where it played sluggish on offense and still scored more than 40 points. This coming after the Herd struggled to get into the 30s on a good day the past two years.
However, the Marshall defense has given up more points per game than it has scored. It has led to a season of frustration for Herd players, coaches and fans alike.
McNeill has made a concerted effort to balance the Pirates' attack this season, which has led to better ball-control numbers. Running back Vintavious Cooper is nearing 1,000 yards on the season.
Here is where numbers lie, however.
Marshall has run for more yardage on more carries and more yards per attempt as a team than the Pirates.
ECU quarterback Shane Carden steadily has improved in his first year as signal caller. Although his numbers have been overshadowed by the Herd's Rakeem Cato, Carden has played better of late, not so ironically at the same time Cooper and the run game have come to life.
"They are doing things a little bit different because their personnel is different; they are able to run it better," Holliday said. "They have a back that has almost 1,000 yards. There is no doubt they are more balanced then they have been with Carden.
"They might not be putting up the kind of numbers they did with Dominique Davis (last year's quarterback), but they're more efficient in what they do because they take care of the ball and Carden manages the game really well."
Marshall needs a win and needs to stop ECU from controlling the clock. While the Herd possesses the ability to zip up and down the field, the offense always works much better when the pressure to score is not there. Marshall is better when dictating pace.
"Starting fast is even more important than it normally would be against a team like Marshall that scores early in games," McNeill said. "We need to match Marshall's strong early starts with a strong start of our own. Taking momentum back if we lose it, keep it if we have it and finish strong are always big keys.
"This is a game where you need to play each play -- no matter the outcome -- forget about it and quickly move on to the next play. They are going to move the ball and make some plays, and it is imperative that we move on quickly to the next play."
The game will feature some impressive wide receivers. Tommy Shuler will attempt to become the first underclassman in Conference USA history to catch 100 passes in the regular season. He is three yards shy of 1,000 receiving yards for the year. Meanwhile, ECU's Justin Hardy has caught 875 yards worth of passes and 10 scores.
Aaron Dobson's status for his final regular-season game is unclear.
Keys to the game:
-- Control the clock. The Pirates average plus-3:00 in minutes of possession per game. Marshall averages minus-3:00 in minutes of possession. This means ECU can control the pace of the game, which is important in this contest.
-- Take away the run. As has been the case throughout the year, when Marshall can run, the Herd wins. When Marshall can't run, the Herd loses. ECU needs to make the Herd one-dimensional.
-- No special teams mistakes. The way the Herd has covered kicks lately, if ECU doesn't turn it over, it can have big-play potential.
-- Throw early. This might fly in the face of the importance of running, but Marshall has proven throughout the year it passes to set up the run better than it runs to set up the pass. Throwing early can lead to bigger running lanes later and help Marshall control tempo.
-- No defensive busts. Marshall can't allow a single cheap touchdown.
-- Win special teams. Marshall has blocked some kicks but has allowed returns for touchdowns. If Marshall can get a defensive or special teams touchdown, the Herd could sneak out with a win. Marshall actually matches up pretty well with ECU across the board.
Ryan Epling is an analyst with Herd Nation. Comments and questions are welcomed and encouraged on the Old Fairfield forum.