Up next for Herd: C-USA title game
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall's first "Game of the Year" in 11 years may have been its best game in a decade. East Carolina, the East Division favorite in Conference USA, didn't have a prayer.
The Thundering Herd didn't just win its first division title in nine years of C-USA membership, it pillaged, plundered and pilloried the visiting Pirates Friday by a most unexpected margin of 59-28. An enthusiastic crowd of 25,117 watched at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Marshall (9-3 overall, 7-1 C-USA) will play for its first Conference USA championship at noon next Saturday at the home field of the team with the best league record and will be televised by ESPN2. Should Tulane beat Rice today, the game will be played in Huntington against a team to be determined; if the Owls win, they win the West at 7-1 and their BCS ranking will break the tie.
Undefeated in six home games this fall, the Herd jumped to a 17-0 lead and pretty much stayed on the Pirates' throats throughout. ECU avoided a 31-0 first-half deficit twice and trailed 24-10 at halftime, but the Herd scored the first touchdown in the second half and romped from there.
The domination was complete and unexpected in several ways.
For starters, Herd running backs Essray Taliaferro and Steward Butler shredded the league's top-rated run defense, gaining most of MU's 267 rushing yards - 163 above ECU's season average coming in and 79 above the Pirates' season-high.
Taliaferro, who enjoyed a breakout 130-yard game last year at ECU, ran for a career-record 161 yards on 26 carries, with Butler adding 90 on 17 carries. Butler scored once, quarterback Rakeem Cato scored on two runs and Devon Johnson scored three touchdowns - two rushing and one receiving.
Cato, who has thrown TDs in 30 consecutive games, hit Gator Hoskins for his 13th scoring catch of the season. Cato went 10 of 13 in the second half, finishing 17 of 28 for 272 yards, with Tommy Shuler catching nine for a season-high 147 yards.
As it turned out, ECU tried to cheat on the pass, following the lead of a few other teams.
"They kind of dropped eight, trying to stop me from throwing the ball," Cato said. "But our running backs and O-linemen did a hell of a job, getting positive yards and scoring touchdowns."
The Herd defense, riddled for 555 total yards and 65 points in its season-wrecking loss to the Pirates at Greenville, N.C., 52 weeks ago, did its job and then some. Forget that ECU had 440 total yards and Shane Carden was sacked just once, for those are meaningless numbers.
These are meaningful: The Herd not only intercepted Carden three times, one resulting in a touchdown, but it kept Carden from throwing a TD pass - the first time that has happened this year and just the second time in 24 career games in which he threw a pass.
"I've felt that this football team has gotten better every week," said MU coach Doc Holliday. "That is what good teams do, and there's no doubt that we went out there and played our best football today on offense, defense and special teams.
"I'm excited about where we are. We have one more week left on the ultimate goal. The goal wasn't to win the East Division of C-USA. It was to win the C-USA championship."
The game started with MU's defense throwing a three-and-out, followed by the Herd offense driving for a 42-yard Justin Haig field goal. Getting the ball back at its 3-yard line, the Herd covered the 97 yards in just three minutes, thanks to Cato-to-Shuler passes of 27 and 49 yards and a third-and-18 shot to Craig Wilkins.
Johnson went the final 2 yards as the Herd unveiled its "Cheese formation," with Blake "Big Cheese" Brooks as lead blocker.
Later in the period, defensive end Gary Thompson had the first of his two interceptions, catching his own batted ball at the ECU 18. Cato scored from 4 yards out, stretching out to hit the goal-line pylon with the ball.
"That was kind of a good play by me, just keeping my feet inbounds and knowing where that pylon was," Cato said. "Can't slide there."
The Herd drove 80 yards in the second quarter, with Butler rushing for 34 and Hoskins catching a 3-yard touchdown - his 26th career receiving score, putting him tied for third with Mike Barber on the Herd's all-time list.
That made it 24-0 and the Herd missed two chances to pile it on a little thicker. First, Devon Smith's apparent 59-yard punt-return score was reduced to 11 by a holding penalty, and then Taliaferro fumbled at the ECU 13.
That gave the Pirates some life, and Carden drove them 87 yards for a 2-yard Vintavious Cooper TD. After Damon Magazu intercepted Cato, the Pirates drove to the MU 7, only to settle for a 27-yard Warren Harvey field goal and a 24-10 halftime deficit.
When Deandre Reaves returned the second-half kickoff 42 yards, the Herd was rolling again. Cato was 4 of 5 for 38 yards, and Johnson had another 2-yard TD run in the "Cheese formation." After ECU was again held to a field goal inside the Marshall 10, the Herd led 31-13.
Thompson made it 38-13 with 7:58 left in the third quarter, plucking a screen pass and easily returning it 5 yards for a 38-13 lead. After Carden ran 7 yards, the Herd delivered a three-TD knockout - Johnson on a 52-yard catch and run, Butler on a 14-yard run and Cato on a 12-yard run, the latter to cap a 9-minute, 46-second drive.
ECU's late touchdown, a Cooper 2-yard run, was merely cosmetic. Marshall had long since made its point.
"They came to our house and this is how we played today," said linebacker Evan McKelvey. "We showed up."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.