HUNTINGTON - Marshall cornerback Monterius Lovett knows he's going to have to get on his horse and ride Friday afternoon.And ride and ride and ride. Early, often and at top speed.Lovett knows what's coming when East Carolina rolls into Huntington for a noon kickoff at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. The game essentially serves a semifinal for the Conference USA championship, as the winner takes the East Division.The senior, serving as a team captain this week, doesn't need to hear the numbers from Shane Carden in last year's 65-59 scorefest: 38 of 47, 439 yards, three touchdowns. Compounding that are Carden's three TD runs, including the game-winner in overtime No. 2.
"Yes, yes, I was [extremely tired]," Lovett said. "That was a tough loss. We can't make it close this time."Chances are, it will be close, as long as Carden continues his 73 percent completion rate. It will be close, at best, if ECU continues to average 6 yards on first down, and it will be close if ECU is held to its average of five plays of 20 or more yards.It might even be close if Justin Hardy repeats his 16 catches for 171 yards of the 2012 game. Don't be surprised - Hardy has 95 receptions this season, more than double anybody else on the team, for 1,130 yards and eight touchdowns.If you're thinking along the lines of Rakeem Cato-to-Tommy Shuler you're not far off. The only difference is that Carden (Houston) and Hardy (Vanceboro, N.C.) didn't grow up together."We practice a lot," Hardy said. "Me and Shane came in together, we know each other like the back of our hands. He knows to throw it in an area and let me go catch it."Hardy's 14th catch in last year's game defined Marshall's season, and not in a good way. Down 52-45 with the clock running with less than 2 minutes left, the Pirates faced fourth-and-10 on their 24-yard line. If the Herd can stop that play, it takes two kneel-downs and goes to a bowl game.Instead, Carden hit Hardy for 19 yards, giving the Pirates a first down on its 43. Seven plays later, the Pirates tied the score with 4 seconds left in regulation."He's really good. Makes tough catches," MU defensive coordinator Chuck Heater said of Hardy. "[Carden] throws the ball before the guy even comes open. He has confidence the guy's going to make the play. There's a great chemistry between those two and in crunch time, [Hardy] is going to be the guy [Carden is] probably going to try to get the ball to."Vintavious Cooper is the other big name in the ECU offense. He has rushed for 902 yards and nine touchdowns and is the third-leading receiver with 36 catches for 359 yards and a score.Seven other receivers have caught 16 or more passes, as the Pirates use a four-wide set. Isaiah Jones leads the large group with 45 catches for 433 yards and five TDs.Carden's running ability also keeps defenses honest. He has netted just 49 yards, but with nine TDs.
Much like last year, MU's defense never quite knows where the ball is going, or in whose hands. On top of that, they are capable of running 90-plus plays."Putting it like that, it sounds pretty tough," Heater said. "We've dealt with a lot of spread; in some ways, we're built better for that than 'hammer ball.' But we've got 'backers who can run, which helps you in space."In some ways, we're better built for that, but this is an exceptional grouping."Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.