The 10-2 Marshall Thundering Herd, runners up in the Mid-American Conference, will square off against the Conference USA representative in the 6-5 Pirates of East Carolina. Just by looking at the records, this game doesnt look so interesting. But when we look at the key statistical factors that will play a large role in this game's outcome makes it much more intriguing.
Both of these teams go into this game coming off gut-wrenching losses to conference opponents. The Herd was dethroned by Toledo 41-36 in their fifth-consecutive MAC title game appearance, while ECU took one on the chin at the hands of Southern Mississippi, 28-21. After that game SMU was considered a front-runner for the bid against the Herd, although ECU was considered a favorite among the bowl leadership. Alabama did the job the Pirates were unable to do in beating the Golden Eagles a week later, which gave ECU a new life and an invitation to Mobile.
Let's take a look into the matchups as we'll see them on the field, and see just who has what it takes to wear the GMAC Bowl crown:
Marshall Offense versus East Carolina Defense:
"This team may be the death of me," said ECU coach Steve Logan last week. "Nine of our 11 games literally came down to the last play of the game. We`ve won some and lost some. We are awfully exciting to watch."
Marshall has one of the most explosive offenses in the nation that piled up over 300 yards against top-ranked Florida back in early September, and has done nothing but improved by leaps and bounds ever since. On average Marshall rolls up 505 yards of offense, led by MAC Offensive/Overall Player of the Year Byron Leftwich (4,132 yards passing, 38 TD, 4,224 yards of total offense) and his outstanding compliment of weaponry.
MAC Offensive Player of the Year,Marshall QB Byron Leftwich
"I`m a quarterback guy, that`s how I make my living, and I`m going to have a good time watching both these guys (MU's Leftwich and ECU's Garrard) play," Logan added. It's not hard to see that the most important weapon in this game, however, will be the offensive line. McPeek, Scuillo, Peretta, Content, and Edwards/Stepp will have to keep ECU's ferocious defense away from the junior quarterback and allow him to connect with his receivers, led by Darius Watts (1,417 yards receiving, 18 TD).
Marshall's o-line will have to contend with ECU's super linebacker -and leading tackler- Pernell Griffin (152 tkl, 72 solo, 1 sack, 6 pass breakups), who can simply do it all. If you can imagine Max Yates about one step quicker, that is Griffin in a nutshell.
"Hopefully one of the defenses will be able to stop the other one-- and hopefully it`s ours," said ECU quarterback David Garrard of the defensive matchup in the GMAC Bowl. Not to be outdone is Griffin's main partner in the linebacker corps: Greg Lefever (98 tkl, 1 INT).
Watts and company should be able to operate well against a secondary that allows 261 yards of passing per game, but should be cautious of Jerome Steward (53 tkl, 7 pass breakups) and 6-2 Travis Heath (58 tkl, 1 INT) who matches up well with Marshall's tall receivers.
Look for Marshall to try and establish the run early, although their success will depend on how ECU prepares for the Herd. ECU averages only 142 yards rushing defense, compared to Marshall's 154 yards average rushing offense. It will be key for Marshall to establish the run and make the ECU linebackers take an extra step towards the line. It will also give the Herd defense some time to rest, which has been an issue the past few games. ECU allows 409 yards of offense a game, and Marshall should be able to match whatever ECU can put on the board.
East Carolina Offense versus Marshall Defense:
East Carolina features a very talented and overall more versatile backfield than Marshall and features Doak Walker Award candidate Leonard Henry (1,432 yards rushing, 16 TD, 7.8 yards per carry). Henry is the cornerstone of the offensive scheme, which resembles Marshall's spread attack, although their focus on the run makes them look more like Toledo. "This is one of the most competitive football teams we`ve had here," added ECU coach Steve Logan. "We did not make or create enough breaks for ourselves and we been beaten by two, been beaten by three, been beaten by five."
ECU's offensive line blows open nice holes for Henry to run through, but is not as proficient at pass blocking as Marshall's front five. Also, ECU's offense does not present a threat at the tight end position like Marshall's Greg Kellett. Historically, teams who had a tight end with size and hands gave the Herd defense fits, but the Pirate ends have only accounted for a handful of catches and serve to protect the QB more than anything.
MAC Defensive Player of the Year Max Yates
Speaking of the Pirates' field general, David Garrard (56.6 completion %, 2,247 yards, 13 TD 9 INT) is a highly-regarded quarterback who likely has a future in the NFL. Although his numbers aren't striking, he is enough of a complement to Leonard Henry to make the ECU offense the complete package. "It should be a great game between two offenses that can put some points on the board," ECU quarterback David Garrard said last week of the GMAC Bowl matchup.
Marshall's defense has been ineffective against the run and will need a big effort to change that pattern. Allowing 217 yards per game against a running back who averages 130 per game is a formula for trouble. Marshall's defensive line will benefit from big Josh Cordell (54 tkl, 1.5 sacks) in the lineup as the Herd's most-effective run stopper this year, along with support from wrecking ball Alonzo Jones (58 tkl, 1 INT) and MAC defensive player of the year Max Yates (159 tkl, 5.5 sacks). Marshall DBs Yancey Satterwhite, Chris Crocker, and Terence Tarpley should have no trouble covering ECU's receivers, who are led by Richard Alston (443 yards, 3TD).
Expect East Carolina to come out and try to take advantage of Marshall's perceived weakness and try to give the ball to Henry several times early. While the Pirates will likely be stopped up early in the run game, if they remain patient they might be able to enjoy the late-game success that Toledo had in breaking the arm tackles of a worn down Herd defense.
Winner: East Carolina
- East Carolina is last in C-USA in time of possession, averaging 25:35 a game while Marshall is 7th in the MAC with 29:32. Advantage: Marshall
- Marshall converts 49.7% of its third downs, while ECU converts 35%. Advantage: Marshall
- Both teams lead their respective conferences in Red-Zone Offense.
Thundering Herd Keys to Winning:
1. Points from turnovers
- Obviously a key factor in any game, it takes on a special importance here. In their five losses, ECU generally turned the ball over at least three or four times. Obviously it also means disallowing ECU to take the ball away, or at least keep the Pirates from getting any points from them. This stat is also the difference between Marshall's 10-2 and ECU's 6-5 record. Marshall is minus one in turnovers while ECU is negative 10.
2. Run defense/time of posession
- Marshall must stop the run and make Garrard's arm be the deciding factor in ECU's offensive success. Also, the Herd running game must be effective and chew up the clock, keeping Henry and Garrard on the sidelines. The team that wins the clock wins the game.
3. Have a hot hand in the fourth quarter.
- Both Marshall and ECU have allowed teams to catch up to them late, although Marshall had the luxury of bigger leads and played against overall weaker offenses than ECU faced this year. Whoever is firing on all cylinders at the end of the game will likely win a shootout of O.K. Corral proportions.
Consolidated KB Ratings:
- Marshall: 55.45
- ECU: 45.54
The Prediction: Redemption. Marshall 52, ECU 42