This year only East Carolina saw fit to name the Herd as its Homecoming opponent but this Saturday's contest between Marshall and the ECU Pirates has much more on the line than parades, queens and dances after the game. East Carolina got off to a great start, with back-to-back upsets of ranked Virginia Tech and West Virginia and winning its opening C-USA game at Tulane. Then reality, and injuries, set in as the Bucs lost three straight to N.C. State, Houston (24-41 on September 27) and Virginia before righting the ship with back-to-back wins over Memphis (30-10 on October 18) and then Sunday night over UCF in overtime, 13-10 in a defensive struggle.
Marshall had a similar start, with wins over Illinois State, Memphis (17-16 on September 13) and at Southern Miss with a loss at Wisconsin mixed in. Then the Herd went on a three-game losing streak, dropping a road game at rival WVU, losing to Cincinnati at home then falling flat on its face at UAB, just 2-7 on the year. After ten days to get ready, Marshall shocked everyone but themselves with an emotional 37-23 win over Houston on October 28, leading 30-9 heading into the fourth quarter and dominating the high-scoring Cougars throughout in a "Greenout" that included the Herd wearing green helmets for the first time since 1985.
Now, ECU and MU find themselves tied for first in the East Division at 3-1, but the odd statistic is Marshall is 2-0 at home and the Pirates are 2-0 on the road, just the opposite of this weekend. In 2006, Marshall had turnovers and a punt blocked in a lackluster 20-33 loss at ECU.
But last year, the Herd picked up its first win over the Pirates since joining C-USA in 2005, and the first since the never to be forgotten GMAC Bowl between the two programs in 2001 when the Herd was still in the Mid-American Conference. ECU led 38-8 at the half, only to lose to Marshall in overtime, 64-61, in two overtimes. The 1970 game's aftermath, when MU lost almost its entire team, five coaches and many support persons and fans when the Southern Airways plane MU used to get to ECU crashed and killed 75 persons after that 14-17 loss to ECU when it was about to land at Tri-State Airport.
Sonny Randle coached the Pirates to back-to-back Southern Conference titles in 1971-72, then started the Herd's turnaround from 1979-83. Frank Ellwood coached his last game at Marshall after being fired the week of the ECU game in 1978, a 44-0 Pirate blowout. The GMAC Bowl loss eventually cost East Carolina head coach Steve Logan his head coaching position at ECU when the team struggled in 2002. Mark Snyder nearly went to work for Lou Holtz', Skip's father, when they were at South Carolina and beat the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Outback Bowl following the 2002 season. At the 2006 MU at ECU game, the Pirates unveiled a plaque by the visitors dressing room in rememberance of the MU players lost in 1970.
Cody Slate's nine-yard TD pass from Mark Cann got things rolling for The Herd, as Marshall jumped out to a big lead over Houston last week. Slate caught six passes against ECU last year in the MU win, 26-7. photo by Greg Perry/HI staff
The Herd knocked off the Pirates, 26-7, in Huntington last year behind one of Bernard Morris' best games of '07, throwing for two touchdowns and running for a 75-yard score with 346 yards of total offense. Cody Slate caught six passes against the Bucs in the game.
That loss cost East Carolina a shot at a C-USA Championship berth against Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane lost to UCF, who went to the GMAC Bowl and Auto Zone Liberty Bowl, respectively. ECU, however, got a great consolation prize by playing in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl and upsetting No. 24 Boise State to boot. Marshall's media was well received in the media room at Greenville, N.C. last winter during the ECU-MU basketball game for the trip to the islands.
The Pirate team, however, is vowing revenge against the Herd in the Homecoming game with a chance to jump into first and have a leg up on winning the same. To start the season, ECU head coach Skip Holtz reportedly showed the team every touchdown Marshall scored in the 2007 game, every bad play by the Pirates and then ceremonially burned that copy of the game at the start of the season. Snyder knows the Herd may be headed into a hornets nest and playing in front of one of the best supported schools in Conference USA.
"If you look at the statistics, we are very similar teams," said Snyder in his Tuesday press conference. "We are going to try and build on what we just did. The kids have been very business-like. We got back our confidence, and have been very business-like after a very good win." Snyder threw out an old coaching saw, very much in the same vein of the saying MU women's coach Royce Chadwick has used in his eight years at Marshall about Novembers not being remembered and March being the time for championships in hoops.
"November is for contenders, September is for pretenders. That's been the mantra of a lot of places I've been," said Snyder of the push that awaits Marshall with ECU and Rice on the road, and UCF and Tulsa at home this month. "We just got to rise to the challenge. (East Carolina) is good, big, sudden, quick. We've got to play over our heads this game. We've got an undersized center, but he's a senior. Inside, that's the key to the game. Our guards and center versus their inside guys is the key to winning the game.
Maurice Kitchens ran this fumble recovery back 80 yards against Houston, and was named the C-USA Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts. photo by Greg Perry/HI staff
NOTES: The Marshall Big Green Scholarship Foundation and MU Alumni Association will have a combined tailgate at Dowdy-Ficklin Stadium in Greenville on Saturday, beginning at 1 p.m. until 3 p.m., about a half-hour before kickoff. Fans can park at the visitor's area, at the corner of Charles Boulevard and Greenville Blvd., about a five minute walk to the area, for $20 per car. The tailgate area is at Gate 4 at the stadium and is $20 per person, including food and beverage. Call 866-443-7310 for information or to make a reservation (not required)...Senior linebacker Maurice Kitchens was named the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week for his play in the win over Houston. Kitchens picked up an interception for the second game in a row, and returned a fumble 80-yards to set up a second Herd score. The native of Roanoke, Va. also had eight tackles, a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss in the win. Kitchen and the Herd defense held the nation's third-ranked offense to just nine points in three quarters in the 37-23 win...Saturday's game will be shown on CBS College Sports, Comcast channel 174 in the Huntington area. Aaron Taylor and Carter Blackburn will make the call. The games are always heard on the Thundering Herd/ISP Sports Network, with Steve Cotton, Greg Cyrus and Rocky Smith, locally in Huntington on ESPN 930 AM, WRVC, and The Dawg, 93.7 FM, as well as Charleston's WKAZ 107.3 FM.