Marshall clinches C-USA East
HUNTINGTON -- Call it "Green Friday."
There was nothing black about the day after Thanksgiving for Marshall University's football team.
Marshall excelled in all three phases of football Friday afternoon against East Carolina en route to a resounding 59-28 win in front of 25,117 fans at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Marshall (9-3 overall, 7-1 Conference USA) is the conference East Division champion and will play Saturday, Dec. 7, in the Conference USA Championship at noon. The site will be determined Sunday.
"That was the biggest game that has been played in the Joan for 11 years," Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said. "To dominate that team the way we did was huge, but we have a bigger game next week. We hope it's on the same field that this game was."
For the second consecutive year, Marshall's offense put up 59 points on East Carolina's defense.
Unlike last season when the Herd fell in double-overtime to the Pirates, a staunch defensive effort that forced three turnovers led to an easy victory on this day.
"I thought our defense played extremely well," Holliday said. "The one thing when you play East Carolina or any offense like that, you can't give them easy-access throws."
Heading into the contest, the matchup was billed as a battle between Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato and East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden, but the matchup took a backseat to the unsung heroes who stepped up for the Herd.
Sophomore H-Back Devon Johnson scored three touchdowns -- two on a pair of 2-yard runs out of the "Cheese" formation and another on a 52-yard reception from Cato to make it a 45-20 game late in the third quarter and start the celebration of the East Division title.
The "Cheese" formation involved the Herd bringing in an extra tight end and tackle while also bringing reserve offensive lineman Blake Brooks as a fullback while Johnson, the 240-pound tailback, took the ball with a full head of steam.
It was one of several wrinkles the Herd coaching staff dialed up in the gameplan.
"We deserved that win and the coaches deserved it because they had a great gameplan," Marshall wide receiver Tommy Shuler said. "It was Thanksgiving and they wanted to be with family, but they set up a great gameplan and we went out and executed it."
The rushing attack for Marshall was the key with the Herd rushing for 267 yards on 53 carries.
Senior running back Essray Taliaferro rushed for a career-high 161 yards on 26 carries with 118 yards coming before halftime as the Herd set the tone early. Steward Butler added 90 yards and a score on the ground.
"We knew if we bust big plays, it's definitely going to create opportunities for Shu, (tight end) Gator (Hoskins) and (wide receiver) Craig (Wilkins)," Taliaferro said. "That was me and Stew's goal was to make big plays."
After East Carolina gained momentum with a late surge in the second quarter, Marshall closed the door in the third, scoring 21 points to take the four-score lead into the final period.
In addition to Johnson's two touchdowns in the third quarter, another unsung hero -- Marshall freshman defensive end Gary Thompson -- provided the game's pivotal play when he intercepted a Carden screen pass and returned it five yards for a touchdown.
The pressure of Thompson and the defensive front disrupted Carden, who finished without a touchdown pass for just the second time in his career -- the other being a 27-6 loss to North Carolina last season.
Carden, who was neck-and-neck with Cato in the race for C-USA Player of the Year honors, finished 29 of 52 passing for 291 yards with three interceptions -- two by Thompson. He had just three interceptions in seven conference games prior to Friday.
"It was more just getting to him and getting hits on him and making him feel uncomfortable in the pocket," Thompson said. "We realized that he likes to stand in the pocket and just throw the ball. If we let him do that, he was going to pick us apart one-by-one."
The strength of the rushing attack in the first half opened things up for Cato, who finished the game 17-for-28 for 272 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He added two rushing touchdowns -- a 4-yard run in the first quarter and a 12-yard run in the fourth quarter that capped the Herd's scoring.
Marshall, who moved to 6-0 at home on the season, continued its formula for success at Joan C. Edwards Stadium by jumping out to a 24-0 lead early in the second quarter when Cato hit Hoskins for a 3-yard touchdown.
However, a penalty negated a touchdown on a punt return by Devon Smith and Taliaferro fumbled inside the ECU 20-yard line, giving the Pirates a bit of life.
East Carolina turned the momentum swing into a mini-run, scoring a touchdown on Vintavious Cooper's 2-yard run then getting a 27-yard field goal by Warren Harvey to get back within 24-10 at halftime.
However, Marshall came out in the second half and set the tone as DeAndre Reaves' kickoff return put the offense near midfield and Johnson capped a 53-yard drive with a 2-yard plunge to push the lead to three scores.
"They had a little momentum going into halftime, but we came back out in the second half and played well," Holliday said. "We had a great kickoff return to open the second half, setting us up around the 50-yard line and we took it the rest of the way down the field and scored."
Shuler finished the game with nine catches for a season-high 147 yards, which put him past 1,000 yards receiving for the second straight year.
Taliaferro's 161-yard effort also put him over the 1,000-yard plateau. He's the first Marshall back with more than 1,000 yards since Darius Marshall in 2009.
Marshall now awaits the result of Saturday's battle between Tulane and Rice at Rice Stadium. If Tulane wins, Marshall will host the Conference USA Championship game next Saturday. If Rice wins, the site will not be determined until Sunday's BCS rankings are released.
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