HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - It's not exactly a mirror image East Carolina football Coach Ruffin McNeill sees when he watches film of Marshall, his opponent this Friday in a high-stakes Conference USA matchup. But it's pretty darned close.As he analyzes the Thundering Herd entering their noon contest on CBS Sports Network - one that will decide the C-USA East Division champion and representative in the next week's conference championship game - he observes a program that has taken a path much like his."Both teams are similar in all three categories," McNeill said. "Both teams are explosive in offense and defense and both defenses have done a great job. I think it's a compliment to both teams. And our offenses are both similar. They both spread you and have quarterbacks who are generals and lead our teams. Both groups do great jobs of executing."In many offensive categories, if the Pirates aren't in first place in Conference USA, they're second behind the Thundering Herd. ECU leads C-USA in passing offense (335.2 yards) and pass efficiency (159.0 rating) and is second to the Herd in total offense (461.6 yards per game) and scoring offense (41.5 points per game).Senior quarterback Shane Carden guides the Pirates offense and is putting up passing numbers this season - 3,575 yards and 32 touchdowns on 329-of-452 passing - that are closing in on the numbers that Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato put up last year in his conference MVP season. And much like Marshall's offense, Carden has a surplus of weapons at his disposal. It's not just record setting receiver Justin Hardy that's dangerous - he's already set the ECU single-season record with 1,130 receiving yards - but fellow wideouts Isaiah Jones, Lance Ray and Reese Wiggins are dangerous as well.And running back Vintavious Cooper is less than 100 yards away from recording his second straight 1,000-yard season.He only needs 98 to break that barrier, and is the team's third-leading receiver on top of that."It's awesome," Carden said. "It makes my job a lot easier. There's just kind of a different style of receiver at each position. Everyone knows Hardy and the ability he has. We have great speed outside and we have some shifty guys we can get the ball to in space."And everyone talks about us being this great passing offense, and we have a running back that about to be a 1,000-yard running back," he added. "I think that speaks greatly of our offensive line and the things they've done this year."
Defensively, the Pirates rebounded with the help of a new coordinator. Neither team had a defensive performance to crow about in their showdown last season, a 65-59 double-overtime win for ECU. So, as Marshall replaced former Defensive Coordinator Chris Rippon with Chuck Heater, East Carolina replaced former coordinator Brian Mitchell with Rick Smith.The Pirates responded by improving from last season in points allowed (from 31.6 per game to 22.1), rushing yards allowed (from 155.0 per game to 103.9) and passing yards allowed (from 275.7 per game to 243.4). ECU is second in Conference USA in yards allowed per game (347.3)."They play a 3-4 style, a true 3-4 style, I believe," Marshall center Chris Jasperse said."They pride themselves in stopping the run and that's something they really want to do is stop the rushing attack. They've got a different defensive coordinator, but it all goes back to Coach McNeill, who's a defensive guy."With all that put together, the Pirates own the conference's best record at 9-2, which includes wins over North Carolina and N.C. State, a pair of Atlantic Coast Conference teams. While Conference USA hasn't been able to gain a strong footing overall in the college football landscape, ECU has been one of its bright spots.But McNeill doesn't really think of the Pirates as C-USA's pace-setter. He knows the Herd is close behind in several categories and that Friday's game will prove who is the real leader of the East and perhaps the entire conference.
"I wouldn't say 'bell cow' or any of that, to be honest with you," McNeill said. "With the improvement of our program, we just try to get better.""I think both programs are having really good seasons," McNeill said, "because we've got kids that have been around us as coaches. They both understand the lumps and they both understand how to work hard."Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org
or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.