Both head coach Mark Snyder of Marshall and head coach Skip Holtz of East Carolina expect a hard-fought game in front of what may be a sellout crowd in Greenville, N.C. on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. ECU won 34-29 in Huntington last season, scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter. It will just be Marshall's second trip to Greenville since the Herd's Southern Airways plance crashed returning from a 17-14 loss at East Carolina on November 14, 1970, killing 75 persons on-board including 36 players and five coaches. Marshall also lost at ECU in November of 1978 by 45-0.
The teams would not meet again until the 2001 GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Alabama in which the Pirates rolled to a 38-8 lead at half. Marshall rallied to tie the game and win in double overtime, 64-61, behind former MU quarterback Byron Leftwich throwing for 576 yards. It was the highest-scoring bowl in NCAA history. Marshall, a member of the Mid-American Conference from 1997-2004, would join ECU in Conference USA in 2005 and the Herd (along with Western Carolina and Ut-Chattanooga) replaced ECU (along with William & Mary and Richmond) in the Southern Conference in 1976.
Holtz, who has seen his team win over SMU, at Southern Miss in overtime and at home last week versus Central Florida (UCF), expects a great challenge from Marshall this week. "They started slow with games with West Virginia, Kansas State and Tennessee on the road," said the second-year head coach at East Carolina, "but they have put the wheels back on the cart. Marshall is playing with energy, enthusiasm and heart. Their offense is making things happen, but their defense is playing very well. I expect a physical game and we were lucky to win at their place (in 2005)."
Marshall's defense has been a big part of the three-game win streak at UAB and at home over Memphis and Tulane. The Herd was minus-nine in turnovers in the first six games with just six takeaways in six games. Over the three game winning streak, Marshall has had seven interceptions, with two returned for a touchdown against the Tigers and the Green Wave each, and recovered four fumbles in the last three games to post a plus-three margin. Snyder knows this past Saturday's win over Tulane was the best his team has played, but still there is room for improvement.
"Saturday was the closest (to a complete game)this year, but no, we haven't played a complete game yet," said Snyder, now 8-12 in two years at Marshall. "We have got to eliminate silly mistakes. The turnovers now coming. We talked about and worked on turnovers the last two weeks and you usually get what you work on . Now our emphasis is on playing a complete game." When asked if his team had done any scoreboard watching regarding the wide open race for the East Division, Snyder went straight to the poing. "No, we were 1-5. We are getting ready to play ECU. We are not talking about anything else."
On the injury front, starting quarterback Bernard Morris threw on Sunday night, following his ankle injury against Tulane at the end of the third quarter. "We'll do like last week and let him throw some on Tuesday and then get him back in Wednesday and Thursday," said Snyder. The Herd coach also said they should be back at full strength on the defensive line, as he sat Juan Underwood and Bilal El-Amin against Tulane hoping to have them healthy for East Carolina. Ryland Wilson moved down from end and played a three-technique on Saturday, but Wilson weighs only about 250 pounds, verses El-Amin at 265 or 270 and Underwood at 330-plus. MU also got another tipped pass returned for a touchdown out of sophomore end Albert McClellan and Snyder is pleased with his progresss. "He's a really good player, getting more confidence and playing to his strengths. This week on the defensive line, we will have everybody back. First time we have been this healthy (in a while)and we were pretty thin. I kept them out last two games, but everybody was available.
If Morris returns, he will start. Jimmy Skinner, however, has done an amazing job off the bench the last three weeks, as Morris battled "turf toe." Saturday night, Skinner hit on 9-of-11 for 113 yards and three touchdowns, while Morris was 16-of-22 for 227 yards and one touchdown passing and one rushing. "We have two good quarterbacks," said offensive tackle Seth Cook. "We are lucky they both are playing well." Skinner said it is a help to be on the headset, hearing what the coaches say in the headset, hearing what Morris says about what he sees and discussing what they both see on the sidelines. "I prepare like I'll be the starter each week," said Skinner, who is now 31-for-43 on the season, 72 percent completions, for 406 yards and six touchdowns versus just two interceptions. "But Bernard was having a great game when he went down, and I think he would have driven us to those fourth quarter scores as well." Two of three drives for touchdowns for Skinner were from 25 and 26 yards in the fourth quarter, thanks to defensive turnovers, while Morris drove the Herd nearly 80 yards on both first quarter to take the 21-0 lead.
Matt Couch was named the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week for his career high 17 tackles, three of which were solo, two tackles for loss and two passes broken up. Sophomore safety Jon Moravec was the C-USA Special Teams Player of the Week for his blocked punt that set up one short touchdown drive, then his hit on the resulting kickoff that forced a fumble that led to another short field score for the Herd in the fourth. Quinton Smith,a running back from Rice, was the C-USA Offensive Player of the Week. Smith ran for 171 yards on a career-high 31 carries and scored two rushing touchdowns, caught four passes for 72 yards and another TD to total 243 all purpose yards as the Owls won their third straight conference game. Smith carried the ball seven times for 32 yards on the Owls' 19-play, 76-yard drive that ate up the final 7:30 of the game after UTEP had closed to 37-31.