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View from the 'ville
Thursday, November 6, 2008

By Al Myatt

Contenders vie for high stakes

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

East Carolina faces some obstacles as well as some significant potential rewards Saturday when it plays its homecoming game against Marshall.

First of all, it's a short week for ECU, which has the momentum of a 13-10 overtime win at Central Florida on Sunday. The Pirates overcame a 10-0 Golden Knights lead with under two minutes remaining in regulation to maintain their role as a major player in the Conference USA East Division race.

In contrast, the Thundering Herd has had plenty of time to prepare for the contest in Greenville since a 37-23 win on Oct. 28 over Houston, a team that rolled past the Pirates 41-24 on Sept. 27.

"They're playing really well with an awful lot of confidence right now as a football team," said ECU coach Skip Holtz. "That win from the Houston game gives them an 11-day break coming in to play us and it's almost like an open date. I'm sure they'll be well-rested and excited to come in here and play."

ECU and Marshall are are tied atop the division.

"This is a really big game when you talk about conference implications and the division lead, as both of us are 3-1 at this point," Holtz said. "The winner of this game is going to come out the clear-cut favorite, so there are many conference implications within this game."

The main implication is that the Pirates-Herd winner could afford to lose one if its three remaining league games and still be guaranteed a berth in the C-USA championship game on Dec. 6 by virtue of its win in the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Marshall would appear to have the tougher schedule to close out the season as the Herd will host Central Florida on Nov. 15, travel to high-scoring Rice the following Saturday and finish up at home on Nov. 29 against Tulsa, which sustained its first loss of the season on Saturday at Arkansas.

The Pirates have road games at Southern Miss and UAB before concluding the regular season at home against Texas-El Paso.

That potential tiebreaking edge is a significant factor for ECU which has stumbled at Rice in 2006 and at Marshall in 2007 en route to a possible C-USA East Division title. The Herd was 1-8 overall and 1-4 in the league when it handed the Pirates a stunning 26-7 loss in Huntington.

"I want them to remember it," Holtz said. "After the opening kickoff and the first plays on offense and defense, I don't think last year's game is going to be much of a factor. Do I want them to remember last year's game so we can go out and put the preparation in? Yes, I do.

"We went up there and had an opportunity to hold first-place in the division and we couldn't do it. Now we're sitting in the same situation this year, only the game is a little bit earlier in the season. But we're sitting in the same situation where we're both coming in with a 3-1 record and the winner is going to walk out of here in first place in the East Division.

"I don't want to use that as the sole motivation, for revenge. But at the same time, I want them to understand the importance of what's on the line and the preparation that it's going to take to get ready for this football game."

ECU's struggling passing attack and unsettled quarterback situation will encounter a Marshall defense that is directed by an old foe. Former Cincinnati coach Rick Minter is now the defensive coordinator for the Herd. Holtz is familiar with Minter.

"Rick Minter, their defensive coordinator, and I have coached together on two different occasions, at Notre Dame and South Carolina," said the Pirates coach. "I know what Rick does and how he thinks. He's got a great football mind and I know he's very aggressive as a defensive coordinator. He's going to give you a lot of different looks that you have to line-up and play with."

Marshall is allowing 26.2 points per game, second in C-USA to ECU, which is yielding an average of 21.9. The Pirates' win at UCF marked the first time since a 14-9 victory at Southern Miss on Nov. 24, 2000, that ECU has won a game when scoring less than 20 points, a span of 92 games.

ECU quarterbacks Rob Kass and Patrick Pinkney combined to go 13 for 33 for 149 yards with no touchdowns and one interception at UCF. The Knights recorded six sacks. Pinkney ultimately directed the Pirates more effectively in the second half as the Pirates became the first C-USA team to win at Bright House Networks Stadium.

The silver lining offensively was that Norman Whitley stepped up to run for 135 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries.

"As disappointed as I was with the way we pass protected, I was that excited about our run blocking," Holtz said. "That was the number one rushing defense in our league and to see Norman Whitley go through some of those holes and get to the free safety untouched spoke volumes to the job the offensive line did. I thought they did an excellent job. Our problems on Sunday were not running the ball."

Whitley played for former ECU coach Ed Emory at Richmond County High School.

"When you look at what Norman Whitley did, he's kind of small and hides behind that line," Holtz said. "He split through the line, went north and south, ran hard, ran physical and protected the ball. I was starting to gain more and more confidence in him as the game went on."

Playing meaningful games in November is a characteristic of successful programs. The Pirates have to contend with a resurgent Herd program that is getting 189.4 yards per game passing from Mark Cann and 77.2 yards a game rushing from Darius Marshall.

Visiting coach Mark Snyder likes the situation his team is in as it comes to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff.

"Obviously East Carolina and us control our own destiny," Snyder said. "As you look at us statistically, its frightening. We're very similar teams and we try to build the programs in very similar fashions.

"I don't think ECU had as far to go as we did, but we're there now and it should be very exciting. That's what it's all about. November is for contenders. September is for pretenders."

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11/10/2008 12:37:12 AM


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